Fear, uncertainty grip Bangladesh's insurgency-plagued hills

A joint security operation against Kuki-Chin National Front insurgents has placed many people under lockdown since Easter

Emran Hossain

Updated: April 10, 2024 05:53 AM GMT

Tribal Catholics follow a priest carrying a cross during a Lenten program in Bandarban district of southeast Bangladesh in this file photo. Tribal communities in Bandarban have been living in fear amid an ongoing insurgency and consequent security operation. (Photo supplied) 

Jira Bawm moved to Bandarban, a district town in southeast Bangladesh recently for treatment of his illness with his family, but he is worried over the safety of relatives and fellow villagers in Ruma, about 40 kilometers away.

The 58-year-old ethnic tribal Bawm and Protestant Christian is the chairman of Remakri Pransa Union Council, a local government body in Ruma, that covers about 5,100 people, with the majority from the predominantly Christian Bawm community.

Local people in Remakri have been stuck in their village homes since Easter Sunday when security forces launched an anti-insurgency operation in Bandarnban, Bawm said.

People in the area remained confined to their houses after restrictions were imposed on their movements for the security operation, Bawm, told UCA News.

He said Ruma, a popular tourist destination, was hit hard when the government banned tourism activities from October 2022 to July last year due to the emergence of a Kuki-Chin insurgent group, the Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF).

Despite the lifting of the ban businesses have yet to recover, Bawm said.

The area has become a no-go zone again due to renewed KNF insurgent activity, including three bank robberies, the abduction of a bank official, and confrontations with police between April 2-4.

People are really in a deplorable condition. Bawm people have been facing severe food shortages, Bawm said.

An eerie silence coupled with anxiety now prevails in Ruma, Thanchi and Rowangchhari — three subdistricts of Bandarban, where the joint military, police and border guard operation restricts all kinds of people and vehicular movement.

Even motorcycles are banned on the road while military helicopters fly intermittently to and from Bandarban.

Security forces claim 54 suspected KNF members have been captured so far.

Local people dispute the claim, saying most of the detainees are innocent people mistook for insurgents. 

Three hill, forested districts — Bandarban, Khagrachhari and Rangmati — make up the Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT), the country's only mountainous region bordered by India and Myanmar.

Peace talks collapse

The KNF was formed about two years ago and is believed to have links with the Kuki-Chin National Army (KNA), an insurgent group active in India and Myanmar, media reports say.

The group says it seeks to protect the rights of Zo people — a collective of smaller tribes including Bawm, Lusai, Pangkho, Khyang, Khumi, and Mru, who are neglected by both the government and larger ethnic tribes amid ongoing surveillance by security forces.

The group's founder and leader, Nathniel Bawm, is reportedly a graduate of Dhaka University, the country's top public university.

A strong opponent of the military presence in the hills and an advocate for the rights of smaller tribes, Nathniel Bawm was born into an impoverished family, media reports say. After graduating he was unsuccessful in getting a decent private job, starting a non-government organization and even in contesting in the 2018 parliamentary election.

Lelung Khumi, 41, an ethnic Khumi, Baptist Christian and head of a five-member family fears the worst is yet to come for impoverished tribal communities.

We don't know what awaits small ethnic communities whose lives and livelihoods have been upended, Khumi, a member of a government-backed peace committee in Bandarban, told UCA News.

The KNF agreed to peace talks last year following a series of clashes with the military and other armed rebel groups based in the CHT.

At least 16 people, including soldiers, have been killed in violence involving the KNF in the past two years.

As part of the peace deal, the KNF demanded all its leaders and members be released from jail.

Following the recent uptick in insurgent activity, the KNF said the peace talks had broken down as their demands had not been fulfilled.

No stranger to violence

Once a remote, tribal-dominant region, the CHT has been a hotbed of violence for decades.

About 50 percent of the more than 1.8 million people in the CHT hail from various ethnic tribal groups and the rest are Bengali people, mostly Muslims, according to the 2022 national census.

Most tribal groups are predominantly Buddhists while some like the Bawm and Tripura are largely Christian.

The tribals are known as the first inhabitants of the hills. Since Bangladesh's independence in 1971 a state-sponsored population transfer scheme, allegedly to tackle budding separatism, sparked an influx of Bengali Muslim settlers, triggering ethnic clashes, displacement, and deadly tribal insurgency.

The government deployed the military to assert control in the CHT. Tribal groups opposed the military presence and formed a militia to fight government forces.

A 1997 peace deal between the government and Parbatya Chattogram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), the main tribal political party, ended more than two decades of bloody conflict.

Despite the deal, peace remains elusive in the CHT as main clauses in the accord, including regional autonomy, land disputes and the withdrawal of military camps have not been implemented.

Additionally, a splinter group that opposed the deal as a sell-out from the beginning formed the United Peoples' Democratic Front (UPDF) to continue the fight.

The PCJSS and UPDF have reportedly split in recent years, triggering a series of turf wars and deaths in the hills.

The emergence of the KNF has intensified violence.

There is no reliable data on the strength of the KNF. A Facebook page allegedly run by the KNF claims it has 4,000 trained fighters.

More than half of the 33,800 Catholics in Chattogram Archdiocese hail from ethnic groups in the CHT, according to the 2023 Catholic Directory of Bangladesh.

It has been a long-standing tradition for Catholic priests to travel from Bandarban to Ruma during Easter. But this has not happened since 2022.

There is a risk to life in traveling there. A stranger is seen as a suspect to all feuding parties, said Sumon Costa, the assistant parish priest at Queen of Fatima Catholic Church in Bandarban.

The regular parish pastoral life has been hampered due to security threats, the priest said.

UCA News called several people in Bandarban, Ruma and Thanchi to discuss their current situation, but they declined to speak apparently due to fear.

'Arms for rights'

Leaders of minority communities in Bandarban scheduled a meeting for April 10 to find a way out of the crisis.

Tribal people make up 1.6 million of about 170 million people in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, according to official data. About half of them live in the CHT.

Bangladeshi security forces have accused the KNF of training Islamist extremists, prompting raids on alleged hideouts and training camps since October 2022.

During the peace talks, the KNF asked the government to meet six demands that had inspired the rebels to organize and take up arms.

They included the establishment of a Kuki-Chin territorial council covering some areas in Bandarban and Rangamati and the formation of a Kuki-Chin Armed Battalion.

The KNF says due to deprivation many tribal people have been forced to leave Bangladesh.

Lelung Khumi said the Bawm tribe has been hit hardest because the KNF leader belongs to the community.

The Bawm were the first to lose access to local markets and even to their agricultural fields. They are starving, he said.

I fear these people will face more serious consequences this time, he added.

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