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The Rediff Special/Sanjoy Hazarika

North-east, Nagas and future of Muivah

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One of the most significant developments to affect India's north-east this year took place, not in this distant and sensitive region, but in Thailand, hundreds of kilometres to its south-east.

On January, 19, 2000, a Thai immigration officer at Bangkok was checking travel documents of a stocky, middle-aged man who had just disembarked from a Thai Airways flight from Karachi. He was carrying a South Korean passport, but the officer was intrigued as he neither spoke nor understood Korean.

His suspicion aroused, the policeman asked him to step aside for a longer interview. It was discovered he was travelling on a false passport, and with an alert sounded for the upcoming UNCTAD conference, the first after the Seattle fiasco, it was decided to detain and charge him on various counts of illegal entry and travelling on false documents.

The detained man was Thieungelang Muivah, one of the best known figures of insurgency in north-east India, and a legend of the insurgent movements of Asia. Inadvertently, the Thai government's move left the organisation struggling and headless, and the Indian Government, in its third year of talks with the rebels to hammer out a solution to the Naga imbroglio, with no one to negotiate with.

Over five months, Muivah, 67, has been convicted on the charge of trying to leave Thailand illegally and jumping bail on January 29 and sentenced to a year's imprisonment. He is being tried in Bangkok for the initial offence and has pleaded guilty to using false documents, saying that he was compelled to do so to travel to Europe for negotiations with the representative of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

These secret discussions have been on for about three years, mostly at The Hague, in the Netherlands, to thrash out a settlement to the Naga problem. But apart from a ceasefire between the two sides that has endured all this time, there has been little political progress.

The first negotiator was Swaraj Kaushal, former Lt Governor of Mizoram, who served under H D Deve Gowda, Inder Kumar Gujral and Vajpayee. Last year, Kaushal was replaced by Padmanabhiah, former home secretary, but the talks have been stalled by Muivah's arrest.

Why is Muivah so important to the Naga situation and overall conditions in the northeast, a region with not less than five insurgencies in four states?

The Naga movement was the first to challenge the unity and validity of the Indian Union and Muivah has been a key player for 36 years. He played the China card in 1964 on instructions of the founder of the Naga insurgency, Angami Zapu Phizo, and trekked more than one thousand kilometres with a dedicated band of Naga soldiers to South West China to get training in arms and ideology.

The China connection was to sustain them until the mid-1970s when New Delhi and Beijing exchanged ambassadors for the first time since the 1962 border conflict. The first Indian ambassador at the time has since moved up the ladder of precedence: he's President K R Narayanan.

Even during the China days, the Nagas, through Muivah and Phizo, established contact with the Pakistani establishment, a link that has been maintained to this day. In the 1980s, Muivah and his colleague Issak Chisi Swu, built up extensive contacts with human rights groups and activist communities in Europe, South East Asia and the United States.

During this period, the Naga movement, which exploded into an insurgency in 1953 seeking independence from India (although various Naga representative groups had stressed their separateness from the rest of the subcontinent as far back as 1929), has ebbed, flowed and waned.

In the beginning, the Naga National Council was the only spokesman and organiser of the movement. Over the years, it split into various factions with each group accusing the other of betraying the cause of independence. The last group to emerge was the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, which split in 1988 with one faction led by Muivah and Swu, and the other by S S Khaplang.

Ethnic divisions among the Nagas surfaced, a nightmare that continues to divide and haunt them in the new century. They developed bases in northern Burma (now Myanmar) and contacts with various insurgent groups in that country, especially the Kachins with whom they shared camps, training and weapons.

But these were broken and scattered from time to time by the tough and unrelenting Burmese army. When not under Burmese pressure, the Nagas battled each other leading to the bitterest and most enduring of rivalries, between the Muivah and Khaplang factions.

Negotiations with successive groups appear to have been jinxed, from the 1964 ceasefire which led to the development of pro-India and anti-India factions, and then the 1975 Shillong Accord which brought out one major group which wanted peace. The last accord led to intense groupism among the Nagas, and Muivah, along with Swu and Khaplang, broke away from the NNC to launch the NSCN, before that too split in 1988.

The cost in terms of lives has been high - some estimates put it at more than 20,000. This includes innocent civilians, security troops as well as militants. Homes have been destroyed, villages put to the torch, women raped and children traumatised. There are few families in Nagaland and Manipur which are untouched by the violence of conflict, in one way or another - be it at the hands of security forces or insurgents, of one faction or the other.

The difficulty with the current ceasefire is that it is between the Indian Government and the NSCN (I-M). A ceasefire is also in place with other factions, at least on the ground, even if it is not formal. But the strange thing is that the factions, especially Muivah and Khaplang groups, regard each other as fair game - both in terms of targets as well as grabbing areas of control. Their leaders often behave petulantly, not like mature politicians; the Muivah faction refuses to sit at the same negotiating table with Khaplang although the only settlement that can last is one that involves all groups. The former says they cannot trust the latter because of the 1988 massacre of its cadres.

The list of those who died in three years includes 211 civilians and 165 militants (in inter-factional fighting). The number of extortions and the amounts extorted have shot up and Nagas, in all walks of life, are extremely fed up with the militants for continuing to levy taxes on them, as they have for decades to support the armed movement.

Many insurgents are enjoying a comfortable life in places such as Dimapur, the commercial hub of Nagaland located near Assam, and have bought palatial bungalows which have been done up at great expense and style.

The ceasefire ends on July 31. The Government of India is certainly interested in continuing it because it is the biggest beneficiary -- there is greater calm in the Naga Hills than has existed for many years, the army is not involved in fighting and people are breathing the air of a fragile peace.

Whatever they may say for public consumption, both factions of the NSCN benefit from the ceasefire. This is because the Nagas want peace to be maintained, however, flawed and fragile it may be.

Muivah's detention in Thailand is slowing the process down. But the longer he refuses to nominate a group to talk on his behalf with the Government of India, the greater will be the shakiness of the truce. People in Nagaland and other parts of the North East will continue to be confused about the I-M group's ultimate intentions. Surely, Muivah cannot believe that his chairman, Swu, and several aides cannot be trusted to represent Naga interests?

The National Socialist Council of Nagaland is the mother of insurgencies in the north-east. It has trained the United Liberation Front of Asom (Assam), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Assam), the National Liberation Front of Tripura and various groups in Manipur and Meghalaya. It has a strong, dedicated and well-armed cadre, capable of tying down conventional and counter-insurgency forces.

But it is also aware that the hopes, fears and futures of millions of Nagas and others in the neighbourhood rest on the wise and statesmanlike decisions that leaders like Muivah must make for the sake of the people, who have suffered for long. The Government of India should not hesitate in asking the Thai Government to help Muivah return to Europe soon to continue the peace talks.

But Muivah also needs to explain to his people and to a far greater audience in India one simple but genuine question: what was he doing in Pakistan for several days before coming back on that flight to Bangkok which led to his arrest? A clear and categorical answer will answer the doubts and ease widespread concerns, especially in the light of the fourth India-Pakistan conflict over Kargil last year and Pakistan's known interest and continuing involvement in the north-east.

It does not matter if John Nimrod, the former American Senator, attends Muivah's trial along with human rights activists from other parts of the world, especially Europe and South East Asia. What will count is how people in Nagaland, Manipur, the rest of the north-east and India view the peace process and how they work to strengthen it.

More Nagas are realising that they need to reach out to and speak with people in other parts of India and that a quiet dialogue at the non-official level can do more good than all the rhetoric of high political leaders. This trust must be built at the people to people level, for without trust and public support, no accord will endure.

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