GROUNDEDNSCN leader T. Muivah’s imprisonment

(From The Week Magazine published in India; March 5, 2000)

By Bertil Lintner/ Bangkok

Stepping out of a Thai International flight at Bangkok airport on
January 19, Hwan Soo Chung confidently produced his South Korean
passport. The immigration officer was not impressed: Hwan did not look
South Korean.

Security had been tightened at all Thai airports in view of the 10th
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and Hwan was pulled
aside. The officer wondered why on earth any Korean would travel between
Karachi and Bangkok.

A casual check proved Hwan’s passport to be a fake. In no time it was
established that Hwan was Thuingaleng Muivah, general secretary of the
National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), which has been fighting
India for a separate Naga nation. Muivah, 66, claimed he was on his way
to attend an NGO conference in the Netherlands, but that did not make
any difference.

He was arrested on false passport charges and kept in a lock-up for
illegal immigrants for about a week until his nephew, who lives in
Bangkok, raised 200,000 bath (Rs. 2,30,000) for bail. Muivah was
released and ordered to appear in court on February 1. Then, he made
another, far more serious mistake: on January 30, he jumped bail and
tried to escape to Malaysia via the small Hat Yai airport in southern
Thailand, using a false Singaporean passport.

The police caught him again, and a Hat Yai court sentenced to a year in
prison for attempting to leave the country on a false passport. He now
has to appear in a Bangkok court for jumping bail, which could get him
another year in jail. Muivah is lodged in Songkhla prison in Hat Yai.

The arrest of Muivah, who had been jet-setting for the last 20 years,
raises some disturbing questions: what was he doing in Pakistan, and why
did he have to go via Thailand to attend a conference in the
Netherlands? The NSCN, officially, has a cease-fire agreement with
India, and several rounds of talks have already been held in Bangkok and
Europe. But Muivah’s recent travels show that the NSCN may have been
using the peace talks to buy time to acquire more munitions for its

When Muivah broke away from the old Naga National Council in January
1980 to set up the NSCN, his main base was in northern Sagaing division
across the border in Burma. Through an arrangement with the leader of
the Burmese Nagas, S.S. Khaplang, he was able to use the remote
mountains in northwestern Burma ? which have never been under any
government’s control ? as a staging point for cross-border raids into
India. Thus he was able to ambush Indian army patrols, assassinate
opponents to his cause, and organize bank robberies in Nagaland and

All that stopped in 1989 when Khaplang and his followers drove their
Indian cousins out of their sanctuaries in northwestern Burma. Many NSCN
leaders were killed, but Muivah and the official figurehead of the NSCN,
Isak Chishi Swu, managed to escape. Deprived of their bases in Burma,
and nowhere to stay on the Indian side of the border, Isak and Muivah
left on fake Bangladeshi passport for Thailand.

Thailand has been tolerant of any ethnic and political movement that did
not directly affect its own security. Isak and Muivah obtained new
passports and forged links with other fundamentalist Christians in the
Philippines and South Korea.

Muivah also established links with some Thailand-based private arms
dealers. Several arms shipments were arranged from the Cambodian border
via the southern Thai port of Ranong to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and
on to the Naga Hills. In 1995, in a cross-border operation code-named
“Golden Bird”, the armed forces of India and Burma seized a major
consignment of weapons going along that route.

Three years later, in February 1998, the Indian Navy attacked a group of
Burmese arms smugglers near Coco Islands in the Andamans and seized
another consignment of arms. Intelligence sources in Bangkok claim the
shipment was for the Nagas.

Muivah’s and NSCN’s official presence in Thailand is confined to an NGO
called the Asian Indigenous Peoples’ Pact, headed by Lui Thui, a
Thangkul Naga like Muivah. Officially, the organization is engaged in
“promoting the struggle of indigenous peoples” in the region, but in
reality it is operating as a front for the NSCN. This explains Muivah’s
attempts to enter Thailand before, possibly, proceeding to the
Netherlands, the home of a little-known entity called the “Unrepresented
Nations People’s Organization”, or the UNPO.

The UNPO groups together separatist movements from all over the world.
The NSCN was able to establish several foreign contacts through it, and
attend conferences in the Netherlands and Estonia (a UNPO member which
later became free).

The UNPO may be a rather innocent organization run by west European
activists, but there were obviously far more sinister motives behind
Muivah’s journey to Pakistan. It would never have been known, unless
‘Hwan Soo Chung’ had been arrested. Intelligence sources in Bangkok
claim that Muivah was in the process of working out a major arms deal in
Pakistan. Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence has for decades been
active in India’s northeast, and its Bangkok station has been in touch
with the NSCN’s local contacts.

But, why would Pakistan be interested in supporting a fundamentalist
Christian Naga movement? In an interview with this correspondent in
March 1992, Paresh Baruah, commander-in-chief of the United Liberation
Front of Assam, admitted that the ISI was fuelling the activities of his
group. The reason, he said, was that if more trouble erupted in Assam
and the northeast, Indian army units would have to be pulled out of
Kashmir, which would suit Pakistan’s designs there.

It is too early to say whether Pakistan’s efforts have been derailed
because of Muivah’s arrest and imprisonment. But the incident exposed
Pakistan’s activities in the northeast. The NSCN, meanwhile, is left
leaderless and there are already reports of friction between hard-liners
and moderates in the organization. Without Muivah the NSCN may
disintegrate or at least split into several factions.

(The writer co-authored the book Land of Jade: Journey Through Insurgent


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