A security crisis looms in Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts: Need for coordinated regional action

It is critical to formulate a comprehensive strategy that involves both Bangladesh and India to counteract the potential threats posed by external actors in the CHT. This strategy should take into account the historical grievances and aspirations of the ethnic communities


The recent spurt in militant activities of the Kuki-Chin ethnic groups in Bangladesh has once more drawn attention to the longstanding conflict in its Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). This region has been a hotbed of insurgency and terrorist activities since the nation's inception. The late 1970s and 1980s saw terrorist activities orchestrated by groups like the Pahari Chatra Jono Somoti Sangha (PCJSS), followed by destabilization efforts by the United People's Democratic Front (UPDF) after the 1997 peace accord. More recently, the emergence of the Kuki-Chin group has added another layer of complexity to the conflict landscape in the CHT. 

The Bangladesh Army has historically demonstrated its commitment and professionalism in countering threats posed by groups like PCJSS and UPDF. However, the current global context presents a starkly different scenario. The Kuki-Chin community, spanning Myanmar and India's Mizoram state in the Northeast, has engaged in attacks against their respective governments. The CHT, located in the southeastern part of Bangladesh, is a region known for its ethnic diversity and complex history of conflict. The indigenous communities of the region, including the Chakma, Marma, Tripura and Kuki peoples, have long-standing grievances related to land rights, political representation, and cultural autonomy. These grievances have fueled separatist movements, led by groups like PCJSS, UPDF and the Kuki National Front (KNF). 

Recent attacks on government installations in Bangladesh, including joint check posts of the army and police in Bandarban's Thanchi-Alikadam border, have intensified concerns regarding the KNF's activities. As tensions escalate and armed confrontations intensify, it is essential to analyze the historical context, aspirations, and geopolitical dynamics surrounding the Kuki-Chin population to understand the complex challenges posed by the current security crisis.

Historical context of problem

In the context of the evolving dynamics in the region, understanding the historical context and inherent aspirations of ethnic groups like the Kuki-Chin populace is paramount. Their quest for autonomy and recognition of their unique cultural identity dates back to historical treaties and agreements. For example, the Chin Hills Regulation of 1896 in Burma attempted to define the Chin people, including various ethnic subgroups like the Kukis, laying the foundation for their distinct recognition within the region. However, challenges to their autonomy persisted, leading to the emergence of insurgent movements advocating for Kuki-Chin self-governance. Despite efforts such as the Panglong Conference Agreement of 1947 in Burma and agreements like the Mizoram Peace Accord of 1986 in India, substantive autonomy for the Kuki-Chin community remained largely unmet. The ZO Reunification Organization (ZORO), advocating for the reunification of Chin, Kuki, and Mizo tribes, highlights the challenges faced by displaced Kuki-Chin individuals residing in India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. 

Beyond the CHT, significant segments of the Kuki-Chin ethnicity reside in India and Myanmar, where the KNF draws support and weaponry, contributing to unrest and clashes. Founded by members of the Bawm ethnic community and allegedly led by Nathan Bawm, the KNF claims representation of six ethnic groups. It is purported to have undergone combat training in Myanmar's Kachin province and demands autonomy for a substantial portion (nine upazila or sub-district) of Rangamati and Bandarban in Bangladesh.

Suspicions linger regarding the alleged backing of the KNF leader Nathan Bawm by certain factions within the government. Nathan's frequent interactions with senior military officials and reports of the Kuki National Development Organization's inauguration by a high-ranking officer have fueled speculations. Furthermore, rumors abound concerning the involvement of local ruling party leaders in Bandarban in planting the KNA to gain leverage over political rivals during elections. Allegedly, in exchange for support, the KNA received licenses to levy tolls in designated areas and extorted funds from local timber businessmen, echoing the tactics of other terrorist organizations in the region. According to a survey, this extremist group reportedly accumulates approximately 200 crore taka from hill districts, leading to ongoing clashes between the JSS and UPDF. However, tensions escalated further when a clash erupted between government forces and the KNF. In 2023, a series of attacks on law enforcement agencies drew significant government attention, prompting peace talks with the KNF and a peace committee. Despite initial efforts, the progress of peace talks between the Kuki-Chin community and the government has stalled due to recent incidents, highlighting the enduring challenges in addressing their grievances.

However, on the night of April 2, 2024, the Kuki-Chin National Army (KNA) launched a series of coordinated attacks in Bandarban's Ruma upazila, targeting both the upazila administration building and a Sonali Bank branch. These assaults involved the direct assault of officials and security guards. Surprisingly, on April 3, 2024, the armed group launched attacks on two additional bank branches in Ruma and Thanchi upazilas. In Ruma, over 100 KNF members were reportedly involved, while a smaller group of 20-25 assailants struck in Thanchi. The following night, on April 5, the assailants targeted a police and army joint checkpoint in Alikadam upazila, engaging in a brief exchange of fire before retreating. 

The uncommon character of these attacks, which occurred in broad daylight on consecutive days, suggests a move away from the conventional hit-and-run tactics of guerrilla warfare. It suggests a concerted attempt to demonstrate their power and authority over the administration. Moreover, such coordinated and rehearsed actions indicate thorough preparation over an extended period. Such precision and coordination typically require well-trained soldiers. Additionally, the sourcing of arms from a specific neighboring country implies external support, reinforcing the perception that the KNF has been bolstered by fighters trained in Myanmar, whose numbers have swelled from 300 to 800.

Regional ramifications   

The prospect of confronting a well-prepared force of this magnitude presents a significant challenge to a purely military response. It necessitates a multifaceted approach that considers diplomatic channels and backdoor negotiations alongside military action. This approach aims to minimize casualties among both troops and civilians. Given the KNF's status as an ethnic minority group, safeguarding their rights and well-being falls within the nation's responsibility. The Bangladesh Army, renowned for its peacekeeping efforts under the UN umbrella, possesses the expertise required to navigate such complex scenarios effectively. Therefore, a comprehensive strategy encompassing both military and diplomatic avenues is imperative to address the escalating situation in Bandarban.

In neighbouring India, ethnic clashes erupted in Manipur in May 2023, resulting in over 120 deaths. Meitei organizations largely attribute the violence to Kuki-Zomi extremist groups. Concerns about external involvement have been expressed by both the chief minister of Manipur and a former chief of the Indian Army, with some instances suggesting China's role in the violence. 

Due to persistent conflicts in the CHT, a significant number of individuals sought refuge in Mizoram in the past.  However, concerns have arisen regarding the potential infiltration of KNF militants disguised as refugees into northeastern India. Two alarming incidents have prompted red alerts from both the Assam Rifles and the Border Security Force (BSF), which are responsible for safeguarding India's borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh. Reports from The Times of India indicate that KNF militants posing as refugees were apprehended in Mizoram.

In Myanmar, the situation has deteriorated significantly, with the Chin National Front resuming armed resistance and making notable gains against the military junta. As the Myanmar military faces setbacks and lawlessness increases, the availability of weapons raises concerns about their transfer to neighboring areas like Mizoram and Bandarban. The long-standing demand for an independent state among ethnic groups underscores the deep-seated grievances and aspirations fueling the conflict, posing challenges to regional stability and security.

The surge in violence and armed conflict in the CHT spearheaded by the KNF poses a grave threat to regional stability. Their aggressive tactics and infiltration into refugee populations raise concerns of violence spillover into neighboring territories like Mizoram. The worsening situation in Myanmar adds to instability, with the potential for weapons transfer to nearby regions, fueling further conflict. With shared ethnicity and religious ties among the fighting forces in Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar, the demand for greater Kukiland could escalate with support from external actors.

The increasing security crisis in the CHT emphasizes the critical need for a comprehensive strategy to handle the complex problems posed by ethnic insurgency in Bangladesh. As the KNF's activities escalate and armed confrontations intensify, it is imperative to recognize the pivotal role of the Bangladesh Army in safeguarding national security and promoting stability in the region. Leveraging its expertise in counterinsurgency operations and peacekeeping efforts, the Bangladesh Army must adopt a multifaceted approach that combines military action with diplomatic engagement and community outreach. By addressing the underlying grievances of ethnic minority groups and fostering inclusive dialogue, the Bangladesh Army can mitigate tensions and pave the way for sustainable peace and development in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. As it may destabilize the security of the region, India should closely monitor the situation and remain alert to its spilling over into other parts of the region, especially in northeastern India. 

It is critical to formulate a comprehensive strategy that involves both Bangladesh and India to counteract the potential threats posed by external actors in the CHT. This strategy should take into account the historical grievances and aspirations of the ethnic communities, while also considering the broader geopolitical dynamics. Addressing these issues is essential for effectively tackling the security crisis unfolding in Bangladesh and its neighboring region,

(The author is a Bangladesh Army veteran. Views are personal. He can be contacted at paul.bijoy5991@gmail.com)

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