KCNF: Violent surge in Bangladesh

Despite several virtual meetings and two rounds of direct dialogue held on November 5, 2023, and March 5, 2024, KCNF persisted in its armed activities, violating agreements made in two memoranda of understanding regarding abstention and other matters.

by Afsara Shaheen

On April 28, 2024, two cadres of the Kuki-Chin National Front (KCNF) were killed during a raid by Army personnel in the remote Baklai Para area in the Ruma Upazila (Sub-District) of the Bandarban District of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). Three firearms, ammunition, and a walkie-talkie used by the armed group were recovered.

On April 22, 2024, a KCNF operative was killed in a raid by an Army patrol in the remote Munlai Para area in Ruma. Some weapons and ammunition were recovered.

[ File Photo]

On January 28, 2023, a KCNF cadre was shot dead in a gunfight with the Army in Ruma. Police recovered his body on January 29. The gunfight took place when KCNF cadres attacked Army Personnel in the Artha Para and Bachlang Para areas of the Upazila on January 28. It was the first incident of killing of a KCNF cadre since the formation of the outfit in 2017.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, four KCNF cadres have been killed (mentioned above) thus far (data till May 3, 2024).

Security Forces (SFs) have also arrested 74 KCNF cadres during this period, including 70 in 2024. On April 7-8, 2024, 53 KCNF cadres, including 18 women, were arrested by the Bangladesh Army and the Police in the Bandarban District in two separate operations. Seven firearms, 20 bullets, and other equipment were recovered during the operations.

On the other hand, since 2017, KCNF-related violence has resulted in death of 17 persons, including one civilian, four SF personnel and terrorists each, and eight in the Not Specified (NS) category. Of the 17 fatalities, three (all KCNF cadres) were reported in 2024 and 14 (one civilian, one KCNF terrorist; four SF personnel and eight in NS category) were reported in 2023. 

Some of the prominent KCNF-linked incidents of killing included:

April 6, 2023: Eight persons were killed during a gunfight between the United People’s Democratic Front-Democratic (UPDF-D) and KCNF, in Khamtang Para of Rowangchhari Upazila in Bandarban District.

May 16, 2023: Two officers of the Bangladesh Army were killed and another two were injured when KCNF detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) and opened fire near Jarulchhari Para in Ruma.

KCNF operatives have also been found involved in a range of other criminal activities, including bank robberies and abduction.

On April 3-4, 2024, three branches of two banks (Sonali and Krishi) were attacked and looted by more than 100 male and female cadres of KCNF in Thanchi (Bandarban District) and Ruma areas. During the attacks, KCNF militants opened fire, targeted security officials and abducted a bank manager. They also looted 14 firearms from the SFs. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) later rescued the bank manager.

Meanwhile, on April 5, 2024, KCNF’s ‘media and intelligence wing chief, ‘colonel’ Solomon, stated, on the group’s Facebook page, that the group had launched the recent attacks as the Peace Establishment Committee had violated the terms of the agreement signed between KCNF and the Committee on November 5, 2023.

KCNF was formed in 2017 by former Dhaka University student Nathan Bom, and aims to establish separate governance in nine Upazilas in Bandarban and Rangamati Districts of the CHT: Baghaichari, Barkal, Belaichari and Jurachari Upazilas of Rangamati Hill District and Ruma, Thanchi, Lama, Alikadam and Rowangchhari Upazilas under Bandarban. They named this region the ‘Kuki-Chin Territorial Council (KTC)’. Bom was previously affiliated with the Pahari Chhatra Parishad (PCP), the student wing of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS).

KCNF claims that they represent six ethnic communities – Bawm, Pankhowa, Lusai, Khyang, Mro, and Khumi. The members belong to the Kuki – Chin, a conglomeration of various ethnic groups, primarily residing in the Sylhet and CHT regions of Bangladesh, the north-eastern states of India, and the Chin State of Myanmar. In the Indian States of Manipur and Mizoram, they are referred to as Kuki and Mizo, respectively, while in Myanmar they are known as Chin.

KCNF claimed that, in 2021, more than 100 members of their ‘military wing’ moved to Myanmar’s Kachin Province for guerrilla training. A trained group later returned to Bangladesh in the same year.  KCNF initially had 300 armed members, and is now reported to have a cadre strength of nearly 700. It is suspected that the group keeps strong ties with separatist groups that share similar ideologies and operate in the Rakhine State in Myanmar as well as Mizoram and Manipur in India.

Peace negotiations with the KCNF began with a discussion on May 29, 2023, with the intention of reintegrating the armed group into society at large. During the peace negotiation, the KCNF asked the government to accede to the six demands that initially inspired the rebels to organize and take up arms. The demands included:
  • The establishment and forming of a separate administrative system of a KTC covering areas in the hilly Districts of Bandarban and Rangamati.
  • The formation of the Kuki-Chin Armed Battalion.
  • The non-return of 500 people from the Bam community who had sought refuge in Mizoram, India, until the peace agreement is executed.
  • Any person from the hills or plains could buy land and settle in the KTC and the circle chiefs or headmen of Mauza would have no power on land.
  • The official functions of KTC shall not be under the jurisdiction of Hill District Councils or Chittagong Hill Regional Council.
  • The chairman of KTC should be equivalent to a minister.
Subsequently, on June 9, 2023, the Peace Establishment Committee was formed, comprising 18 members. The Committee seeks to facilitate the return of KCNF members to civilian life. Within its parameters, the KCNF committed to cooperating with law enforcement and abstaining from violence during the peace process.

However, in August 2023, terming the KCNF a terrorist organization, the CHT Peace Accord Implementation and Monitoring Committee asked the Government to act against it.  Additionally, the Committee recommended that the Secretary of the Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs write a letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs, requesting that prompt action be taken against KCNF.

The first direct negotiation between KCNF and the Peace Establishment Committee was held on November 5, 2023, at Ruma. After that, on November 6, 2023, Kanchan Joy Tanchanga, a government-backed negotiator and one of 19 members of the Peace Establishment Committee, observed,

The Peace Committee cannot give any assurance about meeting their main demands for they are matters of the state. But the negotiation discussed possibilities of releasing arrested KCNF members, withdrawing cases against them, rehabilitating ethnic minorities evicted by the conflict, and helping KCNF fighters to return to a normal life.

In a letter to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on December 8, 2023, KCNF President Nathan Bom urged the Government to support the conditions necessary for a ceasefire, work on disarmament procedures, and grant its demand for a Kuki-Chin State within the bounds of the Constitution.

More recently, on March 5, 2024, in a bid to restore peace and stability in the hill areas and to address the ongoing conflict in the region, KCNF engaged in its second face-to-face meeting with the Peace Establishment Committee in Ruma. The meeting was led by Bandarban Zila Parishad Chairman and Peace Establishment Committee convener Kyaw Shwe Hla and KCNF ‘general secretary’ Laljongmoy Bawm alias ‘brigadier’ Muiya.

The two rounds of direct talks led to the signing of four Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) on November 5, 2023, relating to a cessation of armed activities by KCNF in the hill tracts. Nevertheless, in defiance of the MoUs, KCNF continued to engage in violence.

Not surprisingly, later on April 4, 2024, Kyaw Shwe Hla announced a suspension of peace negotiations with KCNF. The grounds for suspension were declared as KCNF’s involvement in bank robberies in Ruma and Thanchi on two consecutive days as well as the outfit’s role in providing training to Jamatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya (JAFHS) operatives in Bandarban in exchange for money. The decision of suspension, he added, was triggered by the continuous violations of the terms of the agreement, as well as the abduction of locals.

Despite several virtual meetings and two rounds of direct dialogue held on November 5, 2023, and March 5, 2024, KCNF persisted in its armed activities, violating agreements made in two memoranda of understanding regarding abstention and other matters.

In October 2022, law enforcement agencies discovered that KCNF operatives had provided combat training and taught operational strategies to operatives of the terrorist group JAFHS at KCNF training camps in Bandarban.

KCNF violence certainly presents a challenge to enforcement agencies and the state in Bangladesh, but ramifications of the activities of this militant outfit extend beyond Bangladesh’s borders, since Kuki-Chin affiliation extend into three national jurisdictions, and the KCNF is affiliated with militant groups functioning in both Myanmar and North-eastern India. Kuki-Chin militancy has heightened tensions in the region, and has also facilitated arms and drug trafficking. The suspension of negotiations by the Peace Committee is likely to exacerbate these problems. Although efforts have been made to initiate a peace process between KCNF and the Government, the distrust shown by the Peace Committee because of KCNF’s recent activities could jeopardise the whole process. Bangladesh, India and Myanmar must come together to combat the group, as well as the wider Kuki-Chin militancy in the region.

Afsara Shaheen is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, India