In Chattogram Hill Tracts, a new group of armed insurgents is making waves. Who are they?

It has been a week full of shock and deep anguish for Rungdati Tripura, a resident of Saijan Natun Para in Rangamati's Bilaichhari Upazila.

Special Assignments Editorbdnews24.com
Published : 29 June 2022, 08:24 PM
Updated : 29 June 2022, 08:36 PM

After losing her husband, Rungdati is desperately hoping that their two children don't suffer the same fate as she tends to them anxiously in Chattogram Medical College Hospital.

The siblings sustained gunshot wounds to the head, face and other parts of the body. The condition of her 16-month-old daughter, in particular, is critical.

The tragedy unfolded on Jun 21 when a group of around 20 to 25 armed assailants descended on their remote locality and began shooting indiscriminately, according to Rungdati.

Her husband, Subhash Chandra Tripura, 30, father-in-law Brishochandra Tripura, 50, and neighbour Dhanrang Tripura, 15, were all killed in the attack.

Asked if she knew who the attackers were, she said, "I heard they were the Bawm Party."

Home to around a dozen ethnic groups collectively known as the Jumma people, the Chattogram Hill Tracts is one of the most diverse regions in the country.

But historically, it has also been one of the most restive regions, spawning a separatist movement led by Jumma nationalist MN Larma's Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS). The JSS has since splintered into several factions which remain active in the hill tracts.

And now, a new group, going by the name of Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF), has emerged with the goal of building an autonomous state.

Locally known as the 'Bawm Party', murmurs about the group's emergence began in April following the killing of a man in Bilaichhari's Bilpara village.

But the KNF came to the forefront of discussions when it claimed responsibility for the Jun 21 killings on social media.

In a post to its Facebook page, the KNF claimed its 'special commando force' had successfully carried out an attack on the "the basement camp of the terrorist JSS' armed wing JLA", adding, "three members of the JLA force were killed on the spot".

However, Sushil Jiban Tripura, president of the Bangladesh Tripura Welfare Organisation, says the casualties of the attack were "three innocent Tripuras".

Rungdati Tripura with her child in hospital.

Although the KNF directly referred to the party of Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma (Santu Larma), brother of the late MN Larma, the JSS is yet to issue a statement on the matter.

But Atumang Marma, president of the Barathali Union wing of the JSS, denied the presence of the group in Saijan. "No political party had any camps in the village. There is no chance of that.”

Atumang, also the chairman of Barathali Union Parishad, added that a total of 22 families from the Tripura, Bawm, Khyang and Thanchangya tribes lived in this remote area.

In mid-April, a "group of thugs" had threatened residents of the village, according to him.

"At the time, the residents of the area went to live with their relatives in the area. But as all these families are dependent on jhoom cultivation and had left their livestock behind, two of the families returned to the neighborhood on Jun 6. Then on Jun 21, the killings took place.”

Although law enforcement is aware of the KNF's activities, the group's leaders have remained elusive.

THE MAN BEHIND THE GROUP

The KNF opened the Facebook page in its name on Dec 16 last year. The organisation has been very active on the platform since then, publishing posts almost daily.

Nathan Loncheu Bawm.

bdnews24.com tried to reach out to the group by leaving messages on its Facebook page in the last few days, but no reply was forthcoming.

The group names Nathan Bawm as the head of the organisation. But he could not be reached for comment either.

However, a few people who have been associated with him say his full name is Nathan Loncheu Bawm. A resident of Aden Para in Bandarban's Ruma Upazila, Nathan was a student of Dhaka University's Institute of Fine Arts.

During his student life, Nathan was politically active through his involvement with the JSS-backed Hill Student's Council. After the Hill Tracts Peace Accord was signed, Nathan worked alongside Nimmi Dewan on a sculpture of MN Larma which was later unveiled in Khagrachhari town's Larma Square. He was also associated with the Hill Artists; Group at the time.

Dhanmani Chakma, president of Hill Artists' Group, said: “From the time Larma Sir's sculpture was created, Nathan started distancing himself from the Hill Artists Group. We hadn't seen him for a long time after that. I thought he'd left the country.”

Nathan's reputation as an artist grew after the sculpture of MN Larma was unveiled in 2000. He also made a foray into writing, publishing a book on the Kuki-Chin ethnic group titled 'The Bawmzos'.

Since then, he has been trying to create a circle of Kuki-Chin nationalist thought, according to another member of the Hill Artists' Group.

The artist, who did not want to be named, said: "Nathan had already taken the initiative to create a nationalist awakening. He had also started writing about it."

"In 2008, he founded an organisation called the Kuki-Chin National Development Organization (KNDO). Nathan wanted to contest the 2018 parliamentary elections on behalf of the organisation."

But it ultimately came to no avail as his nomination was cancelled.

Nathan later changed the name of the KNDO to the Kuki-Chin National Volunteers before settling on its current iteration, the Kuki-Chin National Front in 2019, according to the artist.

In a post on May 18, Nathan tried unsuccessfully to establish a relationship with the authorities to "bring peace to the marginalised and neglected ethnic groups in the Chattogram Hill Tracts" with a view to "bringing peace to the region, including stopping discriminatory and oppressive practices".

Afterwards, the KNF established its armed wing called the Kuki-Chin National Army "to stop terrorist activities and protect innocent people" in the region.

In the post, it was also stated that more than 100 members of the group had travelled to Myanmar's Kachin state to partake in guerrilla training. The group returned in 2021 and has since gone into hiding.

In another post, the group said that despite having a large armed wing, the Kuki-Chin National Army (KNA) has not carried out any armed or subversive activities against the government or the Bangladesh Army.

Nathan's current whereabouts are a mystery even to his own family, a distant relative of his told bdnews24.com on condition of anonymity.

"Although his home is in Aden Para, Nathan also lived in Ujanipara for some time. His family members occasionally see him in Ruma. I haven't seen him since December last year.

WHAT DOES THE KNF WANT?

According to KNF's Facebook page, the group wants an autonomous state within the Chattogram Hill Tracts based on the maps they have drawn. The state will remain a part of Bangladesh, but will be self-governed.

A map published by the KNF

The map of the proposed ‘Kuki-Chin State’ encompasses Rangamati's Baghaichhari in the eastern part of the hill tracts, Barkal, Juraichhari, Bilaichhari, Roangchhari and Chimbuk Hills on the outskirts of Bandarban along with Ruma, Thanchi, Lama and Alikadam.

The three major tribes of the hill tracts, the Chakma, Marma and Tripura, will be excluded from the state, which will comprise the Bawm, Khyang, Pangkhua, Lusai, Khumi and Mro people.

In terms of numbers, the Mro people are second only to the Chakma, Marma and Tripura in the hill tracts. According to the 1991 census, the total population of Mro was 22,178, although the group claims the number exceeds 50,000. Meanwhile, the Bawm population was just 6,978, although they too claim the actual figure is much higher.

Vannun Siam Bawm, general secretary of the Young Bawm Association, said the group's population was over 16,000 according to their own census in 2014.

The total population of the Khyang, Pangkhua, Lusai and Khumid is believed to be not more than 5,000.

However, leaders of these groups say that only a handful of young men from the Bawm community has joined the KNF so far.

"None of the Khyang are in the Kuki-Chin group," said Lelung Khyang, who works at a private development agency. “The number of Khyangs in Bangladesh is about 4,500. They live in the Bandarban Sadar, Roangchhari and Thanchi areas. There are a few Khyangs in Chandraghona of Rangamati. ”

Lelung said he had contact with the Khyang almost everywhere because of their small numbers.

Jonathan Bawm, general secretary of the Bawm Social Council, said he had first learnt of the KNF's existence in April.

However, Jonathan claimed that the majority of the Bawm people have no affiliation to the KNF. "If large swathes of our people had joined the Bawm Party, it would have been publicised in our society."

Asked about Kuki-Chin nationalism, educationist Nirupa Dewan, said, "There is no need to go into the complex debate of history and anthropology.

"But from what I can see with my own eyes, a vested interest group, that does not want peace in the hills and that benefits from unrest, is giving birth to these parties one at a time." added Nirupa, a former member of the National Human Rights Commission.

LAW ENFORCEMENT'S RESPONSE

After the KNF claimed responsibility for the Jun 21 killings, bdnews24.com reached out to Rangamati's superintendent of police and the chief of the Bilaichhari police station for comment but they did not respond.

On the day of the incident, Rangamati's Additional Superintendent of Police (Administration and Crime) Mahmuda Begum had said the Sajai area was so remote that it would be ‘difficult and time consuming’ for law enforcers to go there and investigate the matter.

However, Alamgir Hossain, chief of Cox's Bazar Ruma Police Station, said he had heard about the formation of the KNF at the beginning of the year.

"I heard that a separatist group led by Nathan Bawm had been formed a few days after his arrival in Ruma," he said.

The police officer was transferred to Ruma from Naikhongchhari Police Station in Bandarban in March. Asked about Nathan, Alamgir said, "Nathan has been wanted since mid-April. Police could not find him.

On Nathan's current whereabouts, he said, "We suspect that Nathan is not in the country. That's what Nathan's family said."

Police are trying to find out whether he left legally or not, according to Alamgir.

Asked about the killings on Jun 21 and the activities of the KNF, Assistant Inspector General of Police (Media) Md Kamruzzaman said, “Every murder is seriously investigated. No matter who the culprit is, no one is spared. Various units of police, including cyber teams, are working around the clock to identify the criminals, arrest and bring them to book."

[Writing in English by Turaj Ahmad]

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher