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Bangladeshi ethnic armed group agrees to peace talk

The Kuki-Chin National Front rebel group is led by fighters from largely Christian Bawm ethnic group
Members of Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) personnel stand guard along a street at Bandarban on Sept. 19, 2022, during the armed conflict between the military and rebel forces in neighboring Myanmar.

Members of Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) personnel stand guard along a street at Bandarban on Sept. 19, 2022, during the armed conflict between the military and rebel forces in neighboring Myanmar. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 06, 2023 11:36 AM GMT
Updated: November 06, 2023 12:04 PM GMT

A newly emerged ethnic rebel group reportedly led by Christians in Bangladesh’s restive Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT) region has agreed on a ceasefire until Dec. 20 for a peace talk with the government.

The Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF) based in Bandarban, one of three hilly, forested districts in the southeast region bordered by India and Myanmar, reached a ceasefire agreement during a meeting on Nov. 5, said Kanchan Joy Tanchanga, a government-backed negotiator.

The agreement was reached during the first in-person meeting between the rebel group and a government-appointed committee at Munlai Para village of Bandarban.

“Both parties expressed their commitment to establishing peace, promising that they would not engage in violence until the next meeting scheduled for December 20," Tanchanga said.

“The negotiation for a peaceful solution to settle differences will continue,” he added.

Tanchanga is one of 19 members of the Peace Establishment Committee from 19 ethnic indigenous groups tasked to hold dialogue with rebel groups to end violence in the region.

Law enforcers and other government officers were also present at the meeting.

The CHT, Bangladesh’s only mountainous and most heavily militarized region, has witnessed sectarian conflicts between Bengali Muslims and largely Buddhist ethnic groups since the 1970s.

For decades until the 1997 Peace Accord, a deadly fighting between rebels and the military claimed hundreds of lives and displaced thousands.

Despite the peace deal, sectarian conflicts are still prevalent while armed rivalry and killings between ethnic rebel groups have intensified.

The KNF, formed mostly by members of the largely Christian Bawm tribal group, emerged last year. Since then, 16 people including three military soldiers have been killed in armed conflict among the KNF, other rebel groups, and the army, according to the peace committee.

The KNF says it seeks to fight for the rights of the Zo people — the ethnic minority Bawm, Lusai, Pangkho, Khyang, Khumi, and Mru tribes.

The armed group is believed to have connections with the Kuki-Chin National Army, an insurgent group active in Myanmar and India.

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

During the peace negotiation, the KNF asked the government to meet the six demands that in the first place inspired the rebels to organize and take up arms.

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

“The peace committee cannot give any assurance about meeting their main demands for they are matters of the state,” said Tanchanga.

But the negotiation discussed possibilities of releasing arrested KNF members, withdrawing cases against them, rehabilitating ethnic minorities evicted by the conflict, and helping KNF fighters to return to a normal life, he said.

The peace negotiation is the culmination of a regional concern that brought together about 800 civil society members of the hilly region last year to find a solution to the conflict.

Sanjeeb Drong, secretary of the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum welcomed the peace talk and urged all sides to keep their promises until peace is fully restored.

Drong, an ethnic Garo Catholic, said that besides peace efforts the government needs to look at the root causes of the conflict.

“Deprivation, neglect and ignorance instigated mainly Bawm youths to become rebels and form the KNF,” Drong told UCA News.

There are ethnic minorities in the CHT who were never a part of Bangladesh’s development process, he explained.

“They are so neglected that they need to become armed rebels to get the attention of the state,” he said, hoping the integration of these communities, with access to education, health and employment, will put an end to all violence in the CHT.

Once predominantly tribal, with most tribes following Buddhism and some Christianity, the region has seen an influx of Bengali Muslims after Bangladesh's independence.

The settler-tribal tension stemming from land disputes is considered a major cause of conflict besides armed rivalry between ethnic rebels.

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