Rise of KNF: What’s behind Nathan Bom’s demand of ‘KTC’

KNF members during the robbery of a bank in BandarbanScreengrab of a CCTV footage

Shanti Bahini, the armed wing of Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS), began a struggle for regional autonomy of Chittagong Hill Tracts in the 70’s. Despite reports of various violent incidents, Shanti Bahini never in its two decades of struggle engaged in bank robbery in the three districts of CHT. That is why the recent incidents of robbery in three branches of two banks in two days by the members of Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF) and their safe exit astounded many people.

However, there is an incident of taking refuge in the hills after robbing a bank elsewhere. The incident took place in 1971. Several armed organisations started their activities in several northeast states of India, adjacent to the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the 50’s. The organisations, including Mizo National Front (MNF), used to receive assistance from the then rulers of Pakistan.

MNF chief Laldenga and his associates looted a bank in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, in 1971. Laldenga and his family lived near the current residence of superintendent of police in Rangamati during the liberation war of Bangladesh that year. Laldenga’s force not only helped the Pakistani forces, they took up arms against the freedom fighters, recalls Gautam Dewan, one of the organisers of liberation war in Rangamati and the first elected chairman of the district parishad.

Not only Gautam Dewan, many local people could recall the activities of Laldenga and his forces. The MNF leader, however, shifted his den to Myanmar from Rangamati swiftly when Bangladesh was freed on 16 December in 1971. Incidentally, Laldenga and current KNF members are racially similar.

KNF actually wanted to attract attention
Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of the International Relations Department at Dhaka University

The time and context has changed. Pakistan state extended its support to Laldenga and his forces but the incumbent government of Bangladesh is aware of the criminal acts of KNF and has taken a tougher stand against them. The army and the police chiefs have clearly expressed their stand against KNF. The home minister not only warned the organisation, but kept the path of discussion for peace open too, though the issue is a bit murky.

KNF leader Cheosim Bom (55) arrested by RAB
Prothom Alo

A “peace establishment committee”, headed by Bandarban Hill District Council chairman Kyaw Shwe Hla, was formed on 30 May in 2023 when a joint operation was being conducted against KNF. The committee held several virtual meetings with the armed group in July and August that year too. Later, the committee held two in-person meetings with KNF in November that year and on 5 March this year, where representatives of administration and law enforcement agencies also attended.

The question is, which agency or department gave consent to the constitution of the committee that held discussions with an armed organisation that announced war against the state?

Committee chief Kyaw Shwe Hla on 9 April told Prothom Alo, “No department directed this. We ourselves formed the committee thinking about the people of the locality and their peace. Since the district council is part of the government, that is why this can be considered that the government has its consent to this. The police and administration officials also attended the discussion. Why is the question being raised now?”

KNF and the peace talks with them - the whole thing seems mysterious to me. There is no transparency here
Rashed Khan Menon, Member of a committee formed for peace talks with hill people during the BNP government

The question has been raised as Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs minister Kujendra Lal Tripura himself does not know how the committee was formed. This correspondent talked to the minister on the night of 7 April. “I don’t know anything about this (peace establishment) committee. The ministry has not directed to form any such committee.”

There are a few more questions. When there were activities of armed Shanti Bahini in the hills, discussions with the JSS were initiated with the formation of committees from the highest level of the government, from the time of Ershad government onwards. When the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) formed the government in 1991 under the leadership of Khaleda Zia, the initiative of peace talks was taken by forming a national committee under the leadership of then communications minister Oli Ahmed. Rashed Khan Menon and a few other MPs were members of that committee. Later, when Awami League formed the government, the discussions went forward with forming a high-level committee.

KNF founder Nathan Bom

Later, on 2 December, 1997, on behalf of the Bangladesh government, the then Chief Whip of the Jatiya Sangsad Abul Hasanat Abdullah and on behalf of JSS, Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Santu Larma signed the historic Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord, in the presence of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Abul Hasanat Abdullah is the head of the current committee to implement the accord.

Speaking about the recent initiatives of discussion, Rashed Khan Menon told Prothom Alo, “KNF and the peace talks with them - the whole thing seems mysterious to me. There is no transparency here.”

I don’t know anything about this (peace establishment) committee. The ministry has not directed to form any such committee
Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs minister Kujendra Lal Tripura

The issue of peace talks with the KNF should at least have been informed to the regional council formed, according to the CHT peace accord, if not the higher echelon of the government. Because according to the agreement, the regional council is responsible for coordinating the activities of the three hill district councils. But regional council sources said that they were never informed about these discussions.

Security boosted at Ruma upazila branch of Sonali Bank
File photo

The reason for this “apathy” of the Bandarban District Council to the regional council is not clear. KNF, however, has openly expressed its hatred towards the regional council.

What’s in the modified six points of KNF?

If a group demands a new state out of some deprivation, to whom would they raise the matter? The simplest answer is - either to the state or the government representatives. But a different thing was seen in the case of KNF.

From the beginning of 2022, KNF on Facebook announced a separate state consisting of nine hilly upazilas. In their Facebook page, they direct their anger on regional councils, JSS and Chakmas, not on any department or institution of the government. Apart from these three, they apparently had no issue to be aggrieved. The KNF members started imparting messages of “revenge” against the Chakmas by attacking different localities of the community. In the meantime, they killed two jhum cultivators and injured some others, including children, in a Tripura village of Farua Union in Bilaichhari Upazila of Rangamati.

RAB launched a special operation against the KNF in October 2022 as allegations were raised against the armed organisation of cooperating with militant groups. Meanwhile, the initiative of peace talks started in May last year.

Following this, dropping the demand of a “separate state”, KNF put forth its six-point demand seeking forming a separate administrative system for Baghaichhari, Jurachhari, Barkal, Bilaichhari, Rowangchhari, Ruma and Thanchi and autonomy for the region. They named this region, the Kuki-Chin Territorial Council (KTC).

KNF presented six new points to the peace committee formed to negotiate with KNF.

The KNF says any person from the hills and plain land could buy land and settle in the KTC they have imagined!

The conditions of KNF include, “The official functions of KTC shall not be under the jurisdiction of Hill District Councils or Chittagong Hill Regional Council.” But this is not the end. KNF wants the chairman of KTC to be equivalent to a minister.

KNF claims, “Kuki-Chin i.e. Bom, Pankhowa, Lusai, Khumi, Mro and Khiang are the natives of Chittagong Hill Tracts. But they are deprived by the government and the larger population of the region.”

Although KNF has been using names of five other ethnic minority communities in their activities, the representatives of these ethnic communities held a press conference and said that they have no support for the demands of KNF.

Jarlam Bom, president of Bom Social Council, the largest organisation of the Bom community, and also the member secretary of the peace committee formed to negotiate with KNF, told Prothom Alo on 10 April, “Neither this organisation nor any of its members have anything involvement with KNF. Peace-loving Bom people are living in peace with other ethnic communities. They have no separate demands.”

Thanchi police station is just 100 yards away of the robbed bank
Prothom Alo

KNF also seeks to change the traditional land management in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The entire CHT has long been divided into Chakma, Bomang and Mong circles. The three circle chiefs or kings collect revenue on behalf of the government. The land management here is separate from the other 61 districts of Bangladesh and that is legally recognised. But the KNF wants the circle chiefs or headmen of Mauza to have no power on land.

Land is one of the major issues of the hills. The prime reason for this problem in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is the immigration of at least 400,000 people from the plain land during the military government in the 80’s. Many Bengali settlements were built in the areas owned by the hill people for a long time. This made the land issue in the hills more complicated. Even after nearly 25 years of the formation of the land commission, the land problem of even one person has not been resolved. People of any ethnic community in the hills face these land-related complexities.

But the KNF says any person from the hills and plain land could buy land and settle in the KTC they have imagined!

Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of the International Relations Department at Dhaka University said, “KNF actually wanted to attract attention. That is why they robbed a bank in broad daylight. At the same time, they talked about providing an opportunity to everyone, including the Bangalis, of buying and selling land in the hills. Even if these proposals of KNF are not realistic, they will attract the attention of many. Maybe that is what they want.”

He further said the question is whose interests the KNF has taken into consideration especially for the hilly area that is rife with land disputes.

* This analysis has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza