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Why India is wary of Myanmar-NSCN-K agreement

May 24, 2012 13:27 IST

The ceasefire agreement between a Naga rebel faction and Myanmar was signed without India being informed.

It is likely to have long-term implications for India's northeast and Myanmar, says Rahul Mishra.

The first in a series on India-Myanamar relations, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits that country on May 27, the first visit by an Indian leader in many years.

Taking another step forward to pacify decades-old ethnic unrest and bring back the marginalised ethnic communities to mainstream politics, the Thein Sein-led Myanmar government signed a ceasefire agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang in Myanmar.

Signed on April 9, the agreement paves the way for autonomy to the NSCN-K in three districts: Lahe, Leshi and Nanyun, which fall in Sagaing -- a northwestern administrative region of Myanmar.

The agreement also provides NSCN-K members with the freedom to move 'unarmed' across the country. Moreover, as per the ceasefire agreement, the group is allowed to open a sub-office in Hkamti district.

It has also been reported that NSCN-K is trying to acquire more rights in the Naga areas of Kachin and Sagaing region.

Interestingly, Myanmar's 2008 constitution provides for the grouping together of Lahe, Leshi and Nanyun in a Naga self-administrative zone, which proves beyond doubt that the autonomy deal is part of a comprehensive plan of Nay Pyi Taw rather than an ad-hoc move.

The most promising aspect of the deal is that it might put an end to ethnic hostilities in coming days and give peace a chance in dispute resolution.

The agreement is widely projected as an achievement by both the parties involved. While the Thein Sein government is taking it as another feather in its cap, the NSCN-K projects the agreement as a stepping stone to become a trans-nationally recognised ethnic group.

From the statements of NSCN-K leaders, it is evident that they look at the Kurdish group Peshmerga -- which has signed peace deals with Iran, Iraq, and Turkey -- as a role model for themselves. The NSCN-K considers it as one of their cherished objectives. Clearly, with the inking of the deal, the group has inched closer to its long-term objective.

The decision, which has invoked mixed responses from both within and outside, is likely to have long-term implications not only on the ethnic politics of the Naga-inhabited regions, but also for India's northeast and Myanmar.

Incidentally, the other two significant players in the Naga politics -- THE NSCN-IM (Isak Muivah) and NSCN-Khole-Kitovi have expressed their displeasure, although citing different reasons. For the record, all three factions have different visions for Nagaland.

While the NSCN-IM wants the incorporation of neighbouring Naga-inhabited areas with existing boundaries of Nagaland and the NSCN-K aims to incorporate Myanmarese Naga with Nagaland, NSCN-Khole-Kitovi, to a great extent, holds a status quo-ist position on the boundary demarcation of Nagaland.

By virtue of being an immediate neighbour infested by the insurgent groups, India is likely to get affected by the new twist in the situation.

Considering that India was not informed beforehand of the NSCN-K or the Myanmar agreement, it did not go well within the Indian establishment.

To be sure, India renewed the ceasefire agreement with the NSCN-K in early May, only after seeking numerous clarifications regarding the NSCN-K-Myanmar agreement.

In order to pre-empt any unpleasant situation along the borders, the Indian authorities have clearly stated that India does not want the NSCN-K to overtly or covertly support insurgents operating from outside the country.

India has imposed conditions on the NSCN-K, as part of the ceasefire agreement to ensure that insurgent groups like the Paresh Barua-led United Liberation Front of Asom and the Manipur-based Peoples Liberation Army do not use the NSCN-K controlled region of Myanmar for anti-India activities.

The conditions include: First, strictly adhere to ceasefire ground rules; secondly, do not extend any help to anti-India insurgent groups; thirdly, make all possible efforts to stop factional killings and refrain from violence; and finally, 45 of the group's top functionaries will have to carry hologram-bearing identity cards, so that their whereabouts are kept track of during the ceasefire.

New Delhi's apprehensions seem justified as it has been reported lately that at least 14 rebel groups from the region had congregated at the NSCN-K's base in Myanmar to forge a united front to fight Indian forces.

To cap the NSCN-K's capabilities and influence in inflicting damage in the future, India is mulling over the initiation of a dialogue with the NSCN-Khole-Kitovi, which is seemingly the only faction intending to solve the problem within the present boundaries of Nagaland. The dialogue process is likely to commence in June.

Analysts have also indicated towards an emerging policy trend in India -- to use the NSCN-Khole-Kitovi and NSCN-IM as forces to counter an ambitious NSCN-K. One may argue that noting their relatively weaker position in Nagaland, the NSCN-K agreed to all the conditions imposed by India.

Evidently, the NSCN-K stronghold is Myanmar, whereas the NSCN-Khole-Kitovi and NSCN-IM are more powerful in India. Ongoing feuds among these groups have limited their capabilities in dealing with India.

Furthermore, India has also sought details from Myanmar about the deal during a regional border meeting of the two countries held recently.

India is likely to take up the matter again with the Thein Sein government during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Myanmar from May 27 to 29.

Considering the current situation, the NSCN-K-Myanmar peace deal is likely to remain confined within the borders of Myanmar. Nonetheless, it is highly likely that the NSCN-K might try to use the agreement with Myanmar as a bargaining chip in dealing with India.

However, it would be naive to think that India would yield to such pressure tactics. This is evident from the fact that India not only inquired about the NSCN-K's deal with the Myanmar government and firmly imposed conditions on the NSCN-K, but also categorically said that it would not tolerate any cross-border insurgency that involves the NSCN-K.

One may say that the time is ripe for India and Myanmar to endeavour to beef up the joint mechanism to deal with insurgency issues. Both India and Myanmar will have to make sure that the objectives of gaining short-term peace do not hamper their long-term national security interests.

While one cannot deny the possibility of the agreement leading to a greater understanding for more mature talks, ethnic reconciliation, and long-lasting peace in Myanmar -- there are several concerns which cannot be overlooked.

It goes without saying that India has to put its act together and tread a cautious path in dealing with northeast insurgent groups.

A long-lasting and peaceful resolution will have to be arrived at sooner than later.

Rahul Mishra is a researcher specialising on Southeast Asian affairs at the Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi.

Rahul Mishra