In 1986, Zoramthanga walked back from ‘Kapital Chhimtalang’ , then central headquarters of the outlawed Mizo National Front (MNF) deep inside Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts , with hundreds of MNF fighters to bid farewell to arms. Then second-in-command to MNF supremo Laldenga, life has come full circle for this rebel leader in the last three decades.
He served as the Chief Minister of Mizoram from December 1998 to December 2008, for two consecutive terms after being Finance and Education Minister in Laldenga’s ministry in 1987. Having led the MNF back to power in 2018, Zoramthanga, now 75, is chief minister again.
In a frank interview with Easternlink’s Editorial Director and former BBC Correspondent Subir Bhaumik , Zoramthanga said he has turned peacemaker , now helping Delhi negotiate settlements with the many underground groups in India’s troubled Northeast. Excerpts :
Q: From a rebel leader who fought India, you have turned peacemaker. Tell us about this amazing transformation?
A: It was during the BJP’s first term in power when I was chief minister of Mizoram. PM Atal Behari Vajpayee had sent his emissary Swaraj Kaushal (husband of Sushma Swaraj) to meet the NSCN leaders in Bangkok to carry forward the negotiations. He came back and reported that the Naga problem was complex and not easy to resolve. At that point, Atalji asked me to speak to Muivah and Issac Swu of NSCN. I went to Bangkok and convinced them to come to Delhi for negotiations. That was a breakthrough in itself because until then Muivah was insistent on talking to Indian negotiators only outside India.
Q: Vajpayee was very fond of you, isn’t it?
A: You see negotiating with a rebel group is like wooing a lady. When I said this, Atalji burst into laughter. I said you have to praise and understand the rebels and win their confidence. Just asking them about their demand won’t help. They must be given to feel the government is keen to fulfil their aspirations. The Naga talks have gone forward in the right direction, despite the many complexities. Since the 2015 Framework agreement, there is fresh momentum to reach a final settlement to resolve the Naga problem. I am very hopeful that will happen soon and peace will return. Maybe the current Corona crisis has taken the government’s attention to tackling it, but I expect the final phase of negotiations to pick up sooner than later.
Q: But you are involved in peace-making with many other groups in Northeast , isn’t it ?
A : Yes, yes, there are so many underground groups representing different ethnic communities in the Northeast. Look at Manipur, our neighbouring state. There are Kuki rebel groups, Paite, Hmar and of course there are strong Meitei rebel groups. It has been my persistent effort to bring as many of them to the table as possible. Modiji, like Atalji, has sought my help and I am eager to help his government achieve peace in the Northeast. When I went to Delhi recently, PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah told me they were giving me some task because I was the only leader in Northeast who they could trust in carrying forward the peace process effectively. I was asked to set up as many rebel groups for talks as possible. I have been meeting many of these groups from across Northeast and now I will try to get them to start negotiations with Delhi. I will do my best to help out the government because it is serious about bringing peace to the Northeast, without which our region cannot develop…
We Mizos once fought for independence. When we realised our future lies in India, my leader Laldenga and those like us who were close to him decided to give up fighting and returned to normal life. When we fought, we fought hard, you are a very experienced journalist, you have seen us in our fighting days . But when we make peace in Mizoram, we want to get the best out of it for our people. We want to make the most of our peace dividend for our development. Now it is my life’s mission to bring peace to the Northeast. Without peace, this region including Mizoram cannot develop. One state at peace is not enough, trouble in some will impact on other states and the entire region. See as you walked into my office, you saw some people leaving. They were members of a Kuki rebel group who had come to me. I will try getting them and other groups from Manipur to the table.
Q: Some say there can be no durable peace in Northeast if the neighbouring highlands of Myanmar remain disturbed. There is a peace process in progress there and some say you have a role in that as well? Is that true!
A: Yes, in 2009, several leaders of Myanmar rebel groups came to meet me in Aizawl to seek my advice on how to open dialogue with the Myanmar government. They told me previous efforts to start a dialogue with the Myanmar government through Chinese and Japanese and even UN mediation had failed. I told them the Congress government in Delhi will not permit me to get involved in the Myanmar peace process. So, as soon as the present NDA government came to power, they came back to me again and I went to Myanmar. The Myanmar government welcomed me wholeheartedly and promised me all support including financial help to bring the underground groups to the table. With backing from the Myanmar Peace Center headed by Aung Min, I went to Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand and met the leaders of the Myanmar underground groups many times. Then I gave a report to the Myanmar government. The Myanmar undergroups groups were keen to come to Delhi and learn from the Indian peace processes. Aung Min also felt the exposure would be useful. The ground for understanding was set.
Q : Were you doing this on behalf of the Indian government ?
A : Initially I was doing this in my personal capacity. NSA Ajit Doval, my old friend, encouraged me to set up the stage for a formal Indian role in the Myanmar peace process but he refused to go there until a formal invitation was sent. He said you set it up and we will go when we are invited. I told Aung Min and he promptly sent a letter to Doval. Then Doval and I flew to Bangkok first to meet leaders of the Myanmar underground groups. Finally, we went to Myanmar capital Naypyidaw in a Home Ministry plane, me and Doval , present Nagaland interlocutor R N Ravi was with Doval, to witness the formal signing of the nationwide ceasefire agreement between the Myanmar government and several ethnic rebel armies. He picked me up at Calcutta and we flew in.
Q: That was during the previous government of General Thein Sein? What happened after Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD came to power!
A: The Myanmar peace process have been through many ups and downs. But I understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is also very keen to carry forward the peace process – get more groups to sign the ceasefire and then more fruitful negotiations. But Myanmar goes to elections this year and we have to wait until the outcome of the polls there.
Q: I am told you have negotiated the release of a ruling NLD MP recently from rebel captivity?
A : Yes this NLD MP was kidnapped by rebels of the Arakan Army. The Myanmar government were not sure he was alive when they approached me. I got in touch with my friends in the Arakan Army and requested for his release. The MP was finally let off after 79 days. The Myanmar government expressed profound gratitude.
Q: But the Arakan Army is disturbing India-financed Kaladan Multimodal Transport project which seeks to connect Mizoram to rest of India by sea through the port of Sittwe? They are kidnapping those working on the project.
A: The problem is with the present Indian contractor. He is at loggerheads with the Arakan Army. The project is stuck and cannot go forward in this way. So during my recent visit to Delhi, I had asked Foreign Minister (Jaishanker) to change the contractor . I had meetings with the foreign secretary also . Once that is done and a new contractor is finalized , I will manage the Arakan Army and there will be no disturbance. Everything will happen smoothly. We in Mizoram have big stake in this project.
Q: So Mizoram is trying to play into the emerging geo-politics of the region !
A: As a state located between Bangladesh and Myanmar, we are keen on connectivity with our neighbours – and through them, the Indian mainland. Bangladesh is developing fast and Myanmar will also develop. They may benefit from the relocation of many industries who are looking to move out of China. That means a lot for us. If Mizoram becomes part of a new growth zone from eastern India to Bangladesh to Myanmar , we will prosper. Delhi and Mumbai is far away. Our future lies in how we handle our neighbours and we have a stake in peace in both these countries. Now as insurgents, we spent a lot of time in both Myanmar and Bangladesh which was then East Pakistan. I know Bangladesh better than most other leader in Northeast and I am impressed by the way it is developing. Myanmar will also grow but it has to solve the conflicts with the ethnic minority armed groups. I am ready to help Madam Suu Kyi in whichever I can , much as I am trying to help Modiji sort out the problems in Northeast.
Q: Are you looking at industries in Mizoram ?
A : Yes, those based on local agro-forest produce . We seek to attain food security and we want large scale bamboo plantations for manufacturing products like glazed tiles. Bamboo can change the life of our rural folks. So many products can be made out of bamboo if the quality is right. It would be boon for our farmers and our young entrepreneurs . I don’t want huge polluting industries in my state. I want to protect its pristine environment and develop tourism in a big way. You have spent Christmas in Mizoram, don’t you think it would be a unique experience for any Indian couple to spend Christmas with their children in Mizoram or even honeymoon here. We need better infrastructure but we also need to protect the natural environment which people from elsewhere in India will truly enjoy. And once our border trade develops with Myanmar and Bangladesh, tourists and locals can access good products from these countries. Myanmar has so many Japanese, Chinese SEZs coming up. That is why this Kaladan project is so important for us. That will provide us the access to the sea through which we can export our products both to the Indian mainland and to elsewhere in the world. Look, we produce quality ginger, someone can produce ginger ale, a health drink, our tea plantations producing unique green tea are picking up, quality organic high-value agriculture is our priority.
Q: You are 75, but you look so young!
A: So much walking when in the underground has been good for my health. I also lead a disciplined life, I pray, I eat carefully, I don’t take unnecessary pressures, life is what God has ordained for us, follow the path he shows.
(Here the formal interview ends , but the chat continues to the tea table in Zoramthanga’s well-done up office with his Press Information Office Emily Sailo joining us)
Bhaumik : I remember the time you walked back with your boys from ‘Kapital Chhimtalang’ in 1986. That’s a long distance. Sir, I still have a video of your boys washing their boots and then filling it up with water from the springs to drink and quench their thirst during that long march out of Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts. It seems they did not have proper water bottles. Jeremy Zipple, producer with National Geographic, loved that footage and used that video when they made a documentary on the Rat Famine in the last decade and needed MNF underground days footage.
Zoramthanga : Oh yes, you know us well from our days in the underground. It is always a pleasure speaking to you.
Bhaumik: Same this side ,Sir. Very rarely one comes across such a pragmatic politician . Nobody understands neighborhood connectivity better than a former insurgent leader like you who has used that to survive. I hope your profound experience and understanding is used by Delhi. Anyway, thanks a ton, Sir, lovely catching up with you after a long time.