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Chin-Kuki-Mizo refugees pour into Mizoram: What’s the new armed conflict in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts?

The tribal population of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southern Bangladesh has ethnic links with tribal populations in the adjacent areas of India, mainly in Mizoram.

Myanmar refugees in IndiaWhen people began pouring in from Myanmar’s Chin State, the Union Home Ministry asked states in the Northeastern region to act against “the illegal influx”. Mizoram CM Zoramthanga has continued to welcome the refugees. (Express Photo by Tora Agarwala/File)

At least 274 Bangladeshi tribal nationals entered Lawngtlai district in Mizoram this week, trying to flee fighting between Bangladeshi security forces and the Kuki-Chin National Army (KNA), an armed insurgent group that is active in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

A meeting of the Mizoram Cabinet chaired by Chief Minister Zoramthanga on Tuesday (November 22) expressed sympathy for the refugees, who belong to the Chin-Kuki-Mizo communities, and resolved to give “temporary shelter, food and other relief as per convenience of the state government”, a PTI report from Aizawl said, quoting Home Minister Lalchamliana.

The refugee problem in Mizoram

The CHT is an impoverished hilly, forested area that sprawls over more than 13,000 sq km of the Khagrachari, Rangamati, and Bandarban districts of southeastern Bangladesh, bordering Mizoram to the east, Tripura to the north, and Myanmar to the south and southeast. A significant portion of the population is tribal, and culturally and ethnically different from the majority Muslim Bangladeshis who live in the country’s deltaic mainland.

The tribal population of the CHT has ethnic links with tribal populations in the adjacent areas of India, mainly in Mizoram. Mizoram shares a 318-km-long border with Bangladesh.

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A government official told The Indian Express that “some people of the tribal communities [had] entered India”, and that “some villagers of the area (Indian side), who hail from similar communities, provided them accommodation”. Humanitarian aid was being extended to the refugees “through NGOs, village committees, civil societies and the BSF, which is looking after their safety and security”, the official said.

Some of the refugees who entered India this week are unaccompanied children, the PTI report said.

Mizoram is already playing host to about 30,000 refugees who have been fleeing fighting in Myanmar’s Chin state since around July-August 2021. A pro-democracy civilian resistance group called the Chin Defence Force — which is backed and trained by the Chin National Army (CNA), an ethnic armed organisation active in Myanmar — has been fighting the forces of the junta ever since the military coup of February 2021.

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The government of Chief Minister Zoramthanga — whose Mizo National Front is a constituent of the NDA — has openly differed with the Centre on the issue of refugees. India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or its 1962 Protocol, and does not have a domestic policy on refugees.

When people began pouring in from Myanmar’s Chin State, the Union Home Ministry asked states in the Northeastern region to act against “the illegal influx”. Zoramthanga declared solidarity with the people of Myanmar, and has continued to welcome the refugees. Their increasing numbers have, however, put strain on the state’s resources, and several NGOs, the church, and youth organisations have joined the effort. The Centre has so far not prevented the Mizoram government from helping the refugees.

The complex conflict in the CHT

The KNA, which is fighting soldiers of the Bangladesh Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in the CHT, is the armed wing of the Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF), an ethnic separatist organisation that claims to represent the interests of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo communities living in the area. The KNF emerged around 2008, with the demand of a separate state in the CHT. The KNF claims all members of the Bawm, Pungkhua, Lushai, Khumi, Mro, and Khyang ethnic groups belong to a greater Kuki-Chin race.

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Bangladeshi media reported last month that the RAB had arrested three members of the KNF along with seven members of a newly-founded militant outfit called the Jama’atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya from the remote hilly areas of Rangamati and Bandarban.

“The elite force also seized nine SBBL guns, 50 bullets, 62 cartridge cases for SBBL guns, six improvised explosive devices (IEDs), two cartridge belts, a locally made pistol, a walkie-talkie and 10 maps of the proposed Kuki-Chin State,” The Daily Star reported, quoting from a news conference addressed by Khandaker Al Moin, director of the RAB’s Legal and Media Wing in Bandarban on October 21.

The report quoted Al Moin as saying that the amir of the Jama’atul Ansar, Md Anisur Rahman alias Mahmud, had “developed a good relationship with KNF chief Nathan Bom in late 2020”, and that they had “struck a three-year agreement” at the beginning of 2021. “As per the deal, the KNF was providing shelter, training and other support to the militants. In return, the militant outfit was giving the KNF Bangladeshi Taka 3 lakh per month and the expenditure for food,” The Daily Star report said, quoting Al Moin.

Meanwhile, the PTI report from Aizawl said that the Zo Reunification Organisation (ZORO), a Mizoram-based association fighting for the re-unification of Chin-Kuki-Mizo tribes of India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, had last week told a press conference that the Bangladesh Army has “entered into a secret pact with Myanmar-based Arakan Army to launch joint operations against KNA”, which had long been seeking a separate state for the community.

First published on: 24-11-2022 at 12:59:43 pm
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