SS Khaplang: The elusive militant I met after trekking through jungles for hours

SS Khaplang, a Hemi Naga from Myanmar, had no formal education but emerged as one of the most dreaded militant leaders in northeast India and Naga-inhabited areas of Myanmar.

india Updated: Jun 10, 2017 15:03 IST
Samir K Purkayastha
Samir K Purkayastha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
SS Khaplang,NSCN (K),NSCN
NSCN (K) leader SS Khaplang set up his headquarters in the jungles of Sagaing division of Myanmar.(HT File Photo)

“Any leader who distanced himself from his people ultimately failed to achieve his goal. But Mao Zedong, who stayed with his people through thick and thin, succeeded,” Shangnyu Shangwang Khaplang said when I met him at his hideout in the jungles of Myanmar in 2003.

I had to trek for two-and-a-half days through dense jungles and hills of upper Myanmar to interview the elusive rebel, who had given a rare access to a journalist after decades.

“I generally avoided meeting outsiders and venturing out of my base,” the chairman of the NSCN (K) said, welcoming me to what he had said was a lion’s lair.

Unlike fellow insurgent leaders, Khaplang never left his base to evade arrest or attack by the security forces of India and Myanmar against whom he waged an armed rebellion for about five decades.

In his headquarters in the jungles of Sagaing division of Myanmar, he gave shelter to cadres of other militant outfits from Assam and Manipur.

Khaplang was an undisputed chieftain, not only at his headquarters but in the entire Naga-inhabited areas of the region, where the Myanmar government virtually had no presence.

Referred to as Baba by cadres as well as villagers, Khaplang, who liked to wear a suit and often sported a baseball cap, was a source of livelihood for the people of the region.

The NSCN (K) and other insurgent outfits he gave shelter in his camp— a cluster of thatched houses located on the banks of two streams that flow along the foothills of the Patkai range - were the major procurers of the villagers’ farm produce.

These outfits also regularly employed villagers as porters and for odd jobs. In return, Khaplang got unflinching loyalty and support from the local populace. This helped him hoodwink the security forces during numerous raids as well as attacks on his base by the Myanmarese junta.

His detractors and intelligence officials say he also gave villagers money to cultivate opium for him, a charge Khaplang denied.

Though the NSCN (K) leader remained reclusive, confined to his back of the beyond base in Myanmar, he kept track of developments in the outside world, particularly in India and Myanmar on his Philips transistor radio. He was an avid listener of BBC and All India Radio.

The Hemi Naga from Myanmar had no formal education, but emerged as one of the most dreaded militant leaders in northeast India and Naga-inhabited areas of Myanmar.

He floated the Naga Defence Force in 1964, and assisted a Naga militant group headed by another insurgent leader Thuingaleng Muivah to go to China for armed training.

Later, with Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu, he formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), which almost ran a parallel government in Nagaland and in several districts of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh for years.

The group suffered a split in May 1988 with Khaplang forming his own faction of the NSCN. Since the split, hundreds of people have been killed in clashes between the two factions.

He blamed the rival faction led by Swu and Muivah for the bloodbath.

“The Southeast Asian Forum had arranged a meeting between me and Isak and Muivah in the presence of ULFA leaders Arabinda Rajkhowa and Anup Chetia and UNLF chief Sanayaima. That was at Geneva in 1997. Though I was willing to interact with them, both Isak and Muivah refused to even shake hands with me. They should understand that in politics, there is no permanent enemy or friend,” he had told me.

His rivals on their part said Khaplang was very unpredictable and hence could not be trusted.

Following a rumour that Swu and Muivah were unilaterally negotiating a peace deal with then Nagaland chief minister Hokishe Sema, Khaplang orchestrated an attack on loyalists of the two rebel leaders at the headquarters of the undivided NSCN, killing at least 60 people in April 1988. This led to the split in the outfit a month later.

To run his outfit, Khaplang even approached Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). He admitted to this writer meeting a senior official of the spy agency during a visit to Dhaka in 1996. However, he claimed he did not take any help from the Pakistani agency.

In 2001, Khaplang’s NSCN (K) entered into a ceasefire agreement with the government of India and with Myanmar in 2013.

But despite smoking the peace pipe with New Delhi, he continued to give refuge to other northeast insurgent groups at his Myanmar base. For the transgression, the Centre annulled the truce in 2015, a few days after Khaplang reportedly got admitted to a Yangon hospital following old-age related complications.

Since the ceasefire abrogation, his outfit spearheaded several attacks on security forces, the latest being the ambush on an army team in Nagaland’s Mon district on June 7, in which a major was killed.

“Neither we nor they (the NSCN-IM) can independently hammer out a solution to the Naga problem. After all, there cannot be two solutions to one problem. There has to be a consensus,” he had said in reference to the political dialogue between the Centre and the NSCN (I-M).

He had also urged leaders of all Naga insurgent groups to adopt the “spirit of forgive and forget” in the interest of peace.

But peace remained elusive in his lifetime.

(The author met Naga militant leader SS Khaplang at the NSCN-K Council Headquarters in upper Myanmar in 2003)

First Published: Jun 10, 2017 15:01 IST