The ongoing escalation of violence in Myanmar has created a security dilemma for neighbouring Bangladesh. The intense battles in the Chin and Rakhine States, which border Bangladesh’s Chattogram Division, have put Bangladesh in a quandary. The Bangladeshis are familiar with the conflict in the Rakhine State owing to the protracted Rohingya refugee crisis, but the conflict in the Chin State and its effects on Bangladesh’s politics and security have received relatively little attention.
Conflict in the Chin State
On 27 October 2023, the Three Brotherhood Alliance, composed of the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), launched Operation 1027, a multi-front offensive operation against the Myanmar government. Several other ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), including the People’s Defence Force (PDF), the Bamar People’s Liberation Army (BPLA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and the Karenni Army (KA), have joined the offensive. So far, the insurgents have captured 20 towns and 300+ military installations from the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Armed Forces. The offensive has affected several regions of Myanmar, including the Chin State, which borders Bangladesh and India.
The Chin State, named after the Chin people, is a mountainous, underdeveloped, and impoverished region of northwestern Myanmar. The state, comprising a territory of 36,018.8 km2, is primarily populated by the Chin peoples, a constellation of numerous closely related ethnic groups who speak south-central Tibeto-Burman languages. According to the 1982 Citizenship Law of Myanmar, the Chin peoples constitute one of the eight indigenous ‘national races’ of the country, and the group is composed of 53 sub-groups. Since 1960, the Chin peoples have been waging an intermittent insurgency against the Myanmar government. During the 1960s, the Chin Liberation Army (CLA) waged an insurgency against the Myanmar government. At present, a number of EAOs are active in the Chin State, including the Chin National Army (CNA), the Kuki National Army (KNA), the Chin-Kuki Liberation Army, the Chinland Defence Force (CDF), and the Chin National Defence Force (CNDF).
During the 2010s, the Chin State remained relatively peaceful owing to the signing of a ceasefire between the CNA and the Myanmar government in 2012. However, the Chins opposed the 2021 coup d’état in Myanmar, and the level of violence spiked in the state. The CNA has allied itself with the National Unity Government (NUG), the government-in-exile formed in response to the coup. Meanwhile, several newly formed Chin EAOs, including the CDF and the CNDF, constitute parts of the People’s Defence Force (PDF), the armed wing of the NUG. By September 2022, the Chin EAOs obtained the control of approximately 70% territory of the Chin State. Following the start of Operation 1027, the Chin State has witnessed further violence. Chin EAOs are participating in hostilities against the Tatmadaw, while the conflict between the AA and the Tatmadaw has spread to the southern Chin State.
The ongoing conflict in the Chin State has affected both Bangladesh and India owing to the geographic proximity of the state to the two countries and the presence of their ethnic brethren beyond its border. The Chin peoples are closely related to the Kuki peoples and the Mizo peoples, and collectively they are known as the ‘Zo’ peoples. The Chin State shares borders with the Indian state of Mizoram, which is primarily populated by the Mizos. Similarly, the Chin State shares borders with the Bangladeshi hill districts of Rangamati and Bandarban, which contain a considerable number of Kuki-Chins. Hence, India’s Mizoram and Bangladesh’s CHT have faced spillover effects of the conflict in the Chin State. Mizo nationalists in India have waged an insurgency against the Indian government since the late 1950s. In spite of the detachment of the Mizo-populated territories from Assam and the creation of the Mizoram state, conflict in Mizoram has not yet fully subsided.
Kuki-Chin Insurgency in Bangladesh
Kuki-Chin nationalists in Bangladesh’s CHT have been waging a low-intensity insurgency against the Bangladeshi government since 2017. The Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF), locally known as the Bawm Party, and its armed wing, the Kuki-Chin National Army (KNA), includes members of six Kuki-Chin ethnic groups – the Bawms, the Pangkhuas, the Lushais, the Khumis, the Mros and the Khiangs. Led politically by Nathan Bawm and militarily by Vanchun Lian Master, the KNA consists of between 3,000 and 4,000 personnel. They oppose Chakma domination in the CHT and seek to establish an autonomous Kuki-Chin state on the territory of nine sub-districts of Rangamati and Bandarban Districts. So far, the KNA has killed several personnel of the Bangladesh Army and numerous civilians, and engaged in kidnapping and extortion. Moreover, the KNA has engaged in armed conflicts with other ethnic minority organizations in the CHT, including the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS), the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF), and the Mog Liberation Party (MLP).
While the EAOs in Myanmar’s Chin State are dependent on trade in narcotics and foreign donations, the KNA has financed itself by training and equipping the personnel of the Jama’atul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya, a relatively new al-Qaeda-affiliated Bangladeshi insurgent organization. The Bangladeshi government banned the KNA and the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Directorate termed the KNA as a ‘terrorist organization.’ Accordingly, the Bangladesh Army conducted several counter-insurgency operations against the KNA, but the group still remains active.
Owing to ethnic ties between the Kuki-Chins of Bangladesh and Myanmar, the KNA receives military and logistics support from the Chin EAOs in Myanmar. According to Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies, the KNA has received training in the Kachin and Karen States of Myanmar from Kachin and Karen EAOs, and these EAOs have supplied military equipment to the KNA via the Chin State.
Challenges for Bangladesh
At present, Operation 1027 has turned the Chin State into an active warzone, and this presents Bangladesh with a number of political and security challenges.
First, owing to the escalation of violence in the Chin State and the presence of numerous armed actors in the region, including the Tatmadaw, the Chin EAOs, the PDF, and the AA, the state is awash with weapons. The border between Bangladesh’s CHT and the Chin State is porous, largely mountainous, and hard to monitor. Amidst such a situation, weapons from the Chin State can easily end up in the hands of the KNA, strengthening its position and allowing it to conduct more attacks in the CHT against the Bangladeshi security forces and civilians. This may threaten the already fragile peace in the CHT, hamper its socio-economic development, and incite inter-ethnic conflict.
Second, the intensification of the conflict in the Chin State can result in different scenarios, and most of them do not hold favorable prospects for Bangladesh. If the EAOs win the war and take control of the state, the KNA is likely to receive more military assistance from their ethnic brethren on the opposite side of the border. On the other hand, if the war results in a stalemate, the Chin State is likely to become a zone of ‘frozen conflict,’ and the KNA will benefit from the situation.
Lastly, while the inflow of refugees from the Chin State into Bangladesh is not common, a serious deterioration of the situation in the region can compel thousands of Chins to take shelter in Bangladesh. This would create political, economic, humanitarian, and security challenges for Dhaka.
How Should Dhaka Respond?
Operation 1027 and its ramifications in the Chin State have come at a time when Bangladesh is occupied with the upcoming national elections in January 2024. Hence, Dhaka should deal with the escalating conflict in the Chin State with utmost caution and prudence.
First, Bangladesh should closely monitor the situation in the Chin State, and enhance vigilance along the border between the CHT and the Chin State to interdict possible arms shipments intended for the KNA or other insurgent groups and to protect the country from possible spillover effects.
Second, the country should engage with the Kuki-Chins of the CHT by conducting dialogue with them to comprehend and address their specific political and economic concerns. A successful ‘hearts and minds’ campaign will be key to the isolation of the KNA from the local community. This would reduce the danger posed by the escalation of conflict in the Chin State.
On a final note, even if Dhaka undertakes necessary measures, it can still face possible spillover effects – such as the influx of refugees – from the conflict in the Chin State. Therefore, the country should prepare plans to deal with future contingencies originating from the Chin State.