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FOCUS March 1997 Volume 7

Crisis in the Chittagong Hill Tracts - Bangladesh

Adilur Rahman Khan

Genesis of a Crisis

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is the most turbulent area in Bangladesh. It is also the home of ten different ethnic tribal groups who call themselves the O^Jumma' nation. A deep sense of resentment has built up in the hearts and minds of these people over the past two decades. The situation was brought about by a sustained policy of discrimination, disparity and negligence, culminating ultimately in repression, or as it is officially known, a strategy of "counter insurgency".

The building of a dam in the sixties, called Kaptai Dam, resulted in the destruction of the homes and livelihood of over 100,000 persons, all members of the Caking community. Efforts to rehabilitate more than 18,000 affected hill families were not satisfactory because of fund shortage, inadequate planning and, in all probability, bureaucratic corruption and red-tapism. The cumulative effect of all these was increased discontent and resentment among the tribals. In such a situation, the educated young people from the hills turned to Marxist political philosophy and eventually formed the Rangamati Communist Party in 1970 as an underground organization to preserve and protect the interests of the Chakmas.

The hill tracts people suffered from the wrath of the people from the plains because Chakma King Raja Tridib Roy took the side of Pakistan during Bangladesh's War of Liberation in 1971. Many lands and properties of the Chakmas were taken over by people from the plains. [1]

Following the independence in 1972, the separate identity of the ethnic tribals in the CHT was constitutionally subsumed under the concept of "Bengalee Nation" despite protests from the Chakma representative (Manabendra Narayan Larma) in the parliament. An attempt to add a new article in the Constitution that will recognize CHT as an autonomous area to safeguard the political, economic, social and religious rights of the Jumma nation was defeated on the ground of being contrary to the basic principle of Bengalee nationalism. The colleagues of Mr. Larma in the parliament failed to recognize the need to have a constitutional guarantee for the rights of the CHT people. [2]

An armed struggle that inevitably followed this failed constitutional move led to counter-insurgency measures by the state. A planned joint Indo-Bangladesh military operation against the armed struggle did not materialize due to change of government in Bangladesh on August 15, 1975. In fact, after the change over, Mr. Larma and his followers crossed over to India, from where the armed struggle has been operating since then. [3]

Successive governments of Bangladesh adopted a two-pronged policy to resolve the problem. On the one hand, counter-insurgency operations were expanded and intensified; on the other hand, massive socioeconomic development efforts were undertaken under the supervision of the military. The governments simultaneously declared CHT as a Special Economic Area, declared repeated amnesties to facilitate the surrender of armed strugglers, offered cash awards for recovery/surrender of arms and ammunitions, made special provisions for admission of O^tribal students' in institutions of higher education including medical and engineering schools, relaxed the qualification requirements for entry of O^tribals' in government jobs, set up special local governments in the three hill tracts districts (Khagrachri, Rangamati and Bandarban), and put in place a host of similar special arrangements for the CHT and its people. [4]

Human rights situation

The overall situation in the CHT remained unchanged under the different governments of Ershad and Khaleda Zia. The military controlled the entire administration of the area and influenced political groups, social organizations, the press and other agencies. Even the national newspapers have been getting information from the press department of the armed forces every now and then.

Human rights violations occurring in the CHT have been attributed to the members of the military, paramilitary and the police. A prominent woman leader of Hill Women's Federation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Ms. Kalpana Chakma, was abducted recently and has not been found since then. Eyewitness points to the members of the military as being responsible for the abduction.

Government formed committees to investigate the human rights violations cases in the CHT have not gone beyond paper work.

The 20-year old armed conflict has led to the killing or capture of more than 2,000 Shanti Bahini (armed opposition group) members. Thousands of hill people have become refugees in neighboring India or deep in the forests of the CHT. Factionalism caused division in Parbotto Chottogram Jono Shonghoti Somity (PCJSS) and Shanti Bahini, and led to the assassination of Mr. Larma. The Indian government has allegedly helped and trained the Shanti Bahani in order to gain leverage over Bangladesh.

Political dialogue

Peace talks during the Khaleda Zia administration resulted in a number of ceasefire agreements, started the repatriation of refugees in India numbering around 56,000 (through an agreement with that country), caused the surrender of around 3,000 Shanti Bahini members and the turn-over of huge quantities of arms. The small number of returning refugees still faced problems as lands and homes were restored only to a few of them. But a lasting political solution has not been obtained. This government move however raised hopes for a solution to the problem.

The present Hasina Wajed administration recently resumed talks with the PCJSS.

National Initiatives

Just after the Logang incident in 1992, some human rights activists, journalists and lawyers met together and decided to form a campaign group to address the issues of CHT locally and internationally. The National Committee for the Protection of Fundamental Rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts was thus formed. On June 2, 1995, this committee organized a national seminar in Dhaka entitled "Chittagong Hill Tracts: Problem and Solution" that was attended by many concerned people for the first time in the heart of Bangladesh capital. The speakers in the seminars who were members of parliament, politicians, cultural activists, lawyers, litterateurs, NGO activists and CHT representatives called for the dismantling of O^cluster villages' and settling of repatriated refugees in their own lands. The speakers also stressed the need for continuing ceasefire and peace talks to find a solution to the problem. In this regard, they called for the talks to be held in Dhaka participated by all political parties to obtain a national consensus.

On September 26-27, 1996, the Committee organized another seminar in Dhaka on the theme "Peace, Democracy and Self-Determination of Chittagong Hill Tracts" where high level government officials, political party leaders, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, other professionals and representatives of other South Asian countries attended. Discussed were the issues of political solution to the CHT problem, and solving the settlers and refugee problems. A call was made to the government to find a solution to the problem based on a national consensus, to establish a permanent commission to look after the human rights situation in the CHT, and for the government and PCJSS to agree to extend the ceasefire. [5]

Recommendations

The governments of Bangladesh have pursued discriminatory and oppressive policies toward the people of the CHT. Now is the time to end these policies and look for a political solution. For a comprehensive solution to this issue, the seminar participants recommend the following:

a. A consensus among all political parties in Bangladesh is a must for a solution to the problem. The political parties need to enter into an agreement keeping the issues related to the CHT outside political rivalries for the greater national interest. This would work as a necessary signal to armed strugglers that the rest of the country is totally united for a peaceful solution of the issues;

b. The Chakmas have been fighting for regional autonomy with a constitutional guarantee. But the unitary nature of Bangladesh precludes such regional autonomy which amounts to much more than provincial autonomy. A half-way house solution may be found by detaching the three hill districts from the existing Chittagong division, and then grouping them in a separate administrative division with necessary powers. This will give the geographical area a totally separate identity;

c. With the consistent demand for constitutional guarantee of regional autonomy for the CHT ever since the birth of Bangladesh, the majority Bangladeshi population may be able to settle for a compromise by agreeing to this demand by the CHT people. The peace issue being also a psychological matter, special status for the CHT people may be given and representation in parliament can be provided to give them (CHT people) a sense that their exclusiveness and special needs have been recognized by the majority population;

d. The issue of Bengalee settlers in the CHT also needs attention. While the entry of political settlers have stopped since 1984, there are still many settlers who entered the area as part of the natural course of migration over a long period of time. These settlers have, for a long time, faced untold miseries and hardships including reprisals by the Shanti Bahani. The majority population of the country probably would not be happy with an outright resettlement of these people. However, all future permanent entry of non-Chakmas may be stopped by law. Along with that, voluntary return of the old settlers may be encouraged by granting them lease of lands in various districts outside the CHT. International agencies may be approached for assistance to facilitate this. Such international agencies are likely willing to help as they have already expressed their views that the CHT situation is a violation of human rights and may serve as an obstruction to aid programs;

e. Land problem is one of the most serious impediments to peace in the CHT. Its resolution is also a key demand of PCJSS. The concept of individual and communal rights of the Chakmas in the CHT is totally different from the concept of land rights in the rest of the country. A mechanism will have to be found to recognize these rights of the Chakmas by identifying those who are owners and occupiers of land on the basis of hearsay evidence since documentary evidence either did not exist in the first place or was lost when they migrated to India or elsewhere in CHT as a result of the armed struggle;

Scarcity of cultivable land in the CHT is another problem. It will be necessary to make more land available for the rehabilitation of the Chakmas affected by the Kaptai project who were not covered by earlier programs. Handing over of land to the non-Chakmas in the CHT region must be prohibited and steps should be taken to return the lands already handed over.

The participants believe that the crisis in the CHT is not a conflict between ordinary Bengalees and Chakmas. It is a problem created by the then Pakistani and the present Bangladeshi ruling classes. Besides, Bengalees who fought against colonial repression as a nation can not impose the same form of colonialism on another nation. They should be held responsible for their misdeeds. So by creating an effective unity between the Bengalees and Chakmas, the whole scenario can be changed and the oppressors can be faced properly.

End Notes

  1. Rashed Khan Menon, Free the CHT of military intervention, Dhaka Courier, 5 June 1992.
  2. Abdul Muyeed Chowdhury, Insurgency in Chittagong Hill Tracts,: Modalities for Solution (unpublished paper).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Abu Sayeed Khan, How to Solve the Problem of the Chittagong Hill Tracts?, (unpublished paper) 1996.

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