In October, the Rapid Action Battalion of Bangladesh arrested seven alleged members of a new militant group Jama'atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya and three members of a separatist group during an operation in the Chattogram Hill Tracts in the remote areas bordering Bandarban and Rangamati. At least 38 people, who went into hiding from different parts of the country, have been trained with militant skills at several training camps of a separatist group in the Hill Tracts, said the RAB. The new armed organization, namely the Kuki-Chin National Front, demands autonomy in the mountainous region.
This ethnic armed organization is carrying out political and military activities to form an autonomous state in the Chittagong Hill Tracts covering most of the area of the Bandarban and Rangamati districts. The Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF) is essentially their political front, with an armed wing called the Kuki-Chin Army (KNA). Initially started as a voluntary development organization, it turned into a separatist organization since 2017.
The Kuki-Chin is a geographic cluster of several ethnic communities of the Tibeto-Burman language group, who are the majority population of the Chin state of Myanmar and Mizoram of India. They also live in the hilly areas of India's Assam, Manipur and Nagaland states along with the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. The Kuki-Chin National Front, locally known as the 'Bawm Party', is composed of 6 small ethnic community members, Bawm, Pangkhua, Lusai, Khumi, Mro and Khiang, belonging to the Kuki-Chin group.
The emergence of such armed groups in these remote mountainous regions is posing a severe threat to Bangladesh's internal security. The CHT, comprising the 3 districts- Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban, is a remote area and is used as a safe haven for various separatist and armed organizations. As a result, the Bangladesh Army has been working since the early 80s to establish peace and stability in the Hill tracts. Conflicts and armed violence between law enforcement agencies and various armed groups in hilly areas have a long history. Till December 2021, the armed groups killed at least 16 members of security forces since the signing of the Peace Accord in 1997.
The KNF turned into a new matter of concern, as they claimed responsibility for the 21 killings of CHT people in Jun this year. Although initially, the activities of the organization weren’t extensive by any means, now they have gathered enough strength and formed a well-equipped force. The KNF has linked and received training from armed groups in neighboring countries. In the beginning, about two hundred members received guerilla, infantry and commando training from Manipur, Karen and Kachin. The trained members then started training up the rest of the members. Currently, at least 3 to 4 thousands trained KNA members are staying in and outside of the country, according to local media.
In order to prevent regional armed violence,
neighboring countries have to play an active
role along with intensifying the activities
of the domestic law enforcement forces
and intelligence surveillance
The organization is quite vocal on social media and they promote its position by releasing videos of training and exercise. They have a Facebook page in its name since Dec, last year. In a Facebook post on september 28, they said that they have no dispute with the Bangladesh government and they are not separatists like other organizations active in CHT. But their activities are very much contradictory with their statement as they have already announced an autonomous ‘Kuki-Chin State’ which encompasses Rangamati's Baghaichhari, Barkal, Juraichhari, Bilaichhari, Roangchhari and Chimbuk Hills on the outskirts of Bandarban along with Ruma, Thanchi, Lama and Alikadam. They published a map and a flag of their proposed state and prepared for fighting.
The presence of such an armed group in remote areas along the border has also posed a threat not only to internal but also regional security. The organization is located in a complex and strategically important area, where the border of Bangladesh, Myanmar and Mizoram is located. Mizoram shared 303 km. of border with Bangladesh. There are also several separatist groups in the remote areas of Mizoram state. On the other hand, the presence of several rebel groups including the Arakan Army, Chin Defense Force and Chin National Army in the Chin state of Myanmar is a matter of serious concern. Conflicts between these groups and with the government are ongoing in the state. As a result, the link and cooperation of the Kuki-Chin army with these groups will deteriorate the regional instability.
Apart from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a large part of the Kuki-Chin ethnicity resides in India and Myanmar. Due to ethnic homogeneity, it's an easy task for the KNF to get support by influencing people across the border. Indian media reported that more than 270 members of the Kuki-Chin tribe crossed the border and took shelter in Mizoram, since the army started an operation in the Hill Tracts on November 11. Meanwhile, ZO Reunification Organization (ZORO), an umbrella body that works for the re-unification of Chin, Kuki and Mizo tribes of India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, who share the same ancestry and culture with the Mizos of Mizoram, made a statement that a joint operation by the RAB and the Arakan Army has forced the Kuki-Chin people to `leave' the country. But how Bangladeshi forcesand the Arakan Army can cooperate? The AA fighting in Myanmar's Rakhine and Chin states sought Bangladesh's recognition in September, but Bangladesh has yet to recognize them.
Also, several separatist organizations have been active in Chittagong Hill Tracts since the independence. These include the main two parties- Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS) and the United People's Democratic Forum (UPDF) along with the presence of the Arakan Liberal Party and Mog Party. Breakdown of these parties and creating new fractions is a regular event in the hills. While some fight for an independent Jumma land, others have distinct interests. However, as a result of the conflicts and rivalries, people infiltrate with fear in the hills. Along with regular killings, abductions and extortions, these groups have created a reign of arms and drug smuggling over the hills. As a result, the Chittagong Hill Tracts have become one of the main routes of dangerous drug smuggling including Marijuana, Yaba tablets, and ice from India and Myanmar into Bangladesh. There is a possibility of spreading Islamic terrorism within the country. The Link between an Islamic militant group and KNF has already been stated.
As a result, the insurgency of such armed groups inside the country will threaten the internal security of the country. Moreover, if such militant activities develop in this vulnerable and volatile trilateral border, it will disrupt regional security, peace and stability. Therefore, to prevent such regional armed violence, neighboring countries have to play an active role along with intensifying the activities of the domestic law enforcement forces and intelligence surveillance.
Abdullah Sadi is a Researcher on South Asian politics and regional security