Thirty-eight years afterBangladesh’s independence, many issues surrounding ethnic minorities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) still lie unresolved. Denied proper constitutional recognition, they have been slowly marginalised by settlers moving into their land, since the evictions due to the construction of Kaptai Dam in the 1960’s. Their frustration turned into military action in the 1970’s, which was met with near-genocidal reprisals by Bengali settlers.
Since the regime of president HM Ershad in 1989, several efforts were made to establish peace between the ethnic people of the CHT and the government. The latest was the Chittagong Hill Tracts Treaty signed in 1997, an agreement with a representative group from the ethnic minorities – Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samity (PCJSS). The then prime minister Sheikh Hasina was awarded the UNESCO Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize for the treaty.
The treaty discussed the formation of three district councils in Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachhai to carry out development in the tribal regions; a regional council to supervise the district councils; rehabilitation; general amnesty and other matters. A Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs was also formed following the peace accord. However, since the fall of Awami League government in 2001, little progress was made in the peace process. But the returningALhas expressed its interest in reviving the treaty.
However, a section of the ethnic community does not accept the peace accord. Basic issues involving the rights and protection of land and Bengali settlers in the CHT, remained outside the peace accord, say experts on CHT affairs. ‘The agreement was not carried out following parliamentary procedures,’ says Ujjal Smriti Chakma, a central committee member of the United Peoples’ Democratic Front (UPDF), a faction that pulled itself out of the PCJSS after the latter signed the peace accord.
Meanwhile, the efforts made to end the conflict between ethnic minorities, Bengali settlers and theBangladeshgovernment in the CHT have resulted in the formation of multiple administrations ruling simultaneously in the region. There exists the brigade command of defence, present for counter insurgency since the 70’s; three hill district councils that former president HM Ershad introduced in 1989; the regional council that was formed through the peace accord of 1997 with ministry of CHT affairs; and also the ethnic leaders appointed by the British government under the CHT manual 1900.
The construction of the dam at Kaptai near Rangamati between 1957 and 1963 began the destruction of nearly 54,000 acres of cultivable land, and displaced 100,000 indigenous people in the CHT. The arbitrary evictions were the seeds to continued unrest.
Following 1971, a delegation from the ethnic communities led by Manabendra Narayan Larma urged the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to ensure their four basic demands: autonomy for the CHT, the retention of the CHT manual 1900, recognition of their ethnic leaders, and restrictions to the amendments of the CHT manual through the constitution.
The unrest in the region flared up after the formation of the first constitution in 1972, which didn’t recognise the ethnic minorities’ rights and protection. The constitution, in principle, identified all citizens of the country as Bengalis by nationality. The failure to secure their rights through the constitution led to the formation of the PCJSS on March 7, 1972 – and subsequently its armed wing, the Shanti Bahini (Peace Forces). Between 1977 and 1986, president Ziaur Rahman, and subsequently president HM Ershad, started sending Bengali settlers to the region. ‘The government strategy to settle Bengalis in the hill tracts was a counter insurgency measure,’ says Professor Amena Mohsin of the department of international relations at theDhakaUniversity.
‘Violent army operations in the CHT began in March 1980, when it was reported that 22 soldiers were ambushed by the Shanti Bahini in the village of Kaukhali, west of Rangamati, where Bengali families were being resettled,’ reads a report titled ‘Human Rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts’ published by the Amnesty International in 2000.
‘The army retaliated by deliberately firing on two groups of unarmed tribal people killing a number of villagers after they were ordered to line up. From then on, Bengali settlers began to attack the tribal people apparently at the instigation of the army or in conjunction with the operations of army personnel. The army reportedly recruited armed groups known as VDP – village defence police – from the new settlers and provided them with firearms to resist the Shanti Bahini. Official figures indicate that more than 8,500 rebels, soldiers and civilians were killed during two decades of insurgency. The number of civilians killed is estimated at 2,500,’ says the report.
While violence in the CHT continued, the government of General Ershad and the PCJSS began to hold dialogues to resolve the conflict from 1985. The formation of the Hill District Local Government Council Acts 1989 for Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban was the outcome of those dialogues. Successive governments continued the peace dialogues until the CHT treaty was signed in 1997.
Questions of recognition
‘The Chittagong Hill Tracts Treaty, 1997 has been a triumph for the ethnic minorities, because it legitimised their movement for justice,’ says Professor Mesbah Kamal of the history department atDhakaUniversity. ‘The CHT accord has created an opportunity to resolve a political problem politically’.
He is concerned about the ethnic minorities’ identity crisis, which he believes has to be resolved through constitutional recognition. ‘If Jyoti Basu can be a Bengali by nationality and an Indian by citizenship, then why can’t Santu Larma be Chakma by nationality and Bangladeshi by citizenship?’ he asks.
The first constitution identified all citizens of the country as Bengalis by nationality. Legal experts explain that the amended constitution has pulled out the issue of nationality, and mentions only the citizenship of the country’s people as being Bangladeshi. ‘The issue of nationality is unlikely to be the most concerning factor,’ they say.
‘The constitution needs to be democratised,’ says Professor Amena. ‘Without recognising the plurality of culture inBangladesh, we cannot term this constitution democratic. Ever since the first constitution was framed in 1972, the issue of ethnic minorities have remained excluded.’
TheALgovernment’s recent promise to restore the first constitution is feared to hinder the peace process, as it requires all communities to become Bengalis by nationality; this was the issue that resulted in the revolt by Manabendra Narayan Larma in 1973.
Advocate Adilur Rahman Khan, secretary general of human rights group Odhikar, says that a fresh constitution with the participation of the people is needed to rule out the contradictions.
All the peace processes carried out in the hill tracts and the peace accord that was signed have, in principle, remained outside of the constitution so far. A section of the PCJSS broke off to form the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) because of the failure of the peace accord to cover these basic issues.
Ujjal Smriti Chakma, the central committee member of the UPDF, argues that the peace accord does not have constitutional recognition nor does it comply with the parliamentary process.
The land issue
The migration of Bengalis into the CHT was a strategy to make demographic changes in the region that began during President Ziaur Rahman’s regime. This has resulted in ethnic groups becoming a minority within their own territory, making up less than half of the 15-20 lakh people spread over 5,000 square kilometres.
‘The peace accord has not discussed the issue of Bengali settlers occupying land in the CHT, which remains a very sensitive one for the ethnic minorities,’ says Ujjal. ‘The peace accord suggests that the land issues be settled as per the prevailing state laws, but most of our lands are undocumented and maintained under customary laws. If state laws are applied, then many of us fear that we will lose those lands.’
The majority of the indigenous people want the settlers to be resettled outside the CHT. The issue is debatable though, considering that the constitution supports the freedom of movement. Since ethnic people have the opportunity to live on the plain-lands, the Bengalis argue for their right to accommodation in the hill tracts as well. Signing the peace accord, however, has recognised the CHT as a tribal-populated region; a move that has been considered necessary for the protection of the character of this region, and for its overall development.
The ethnic people, consisting of 13 communities, have enjoyed communal land until the Bengali settlers began to occupy them. Although a land commission was formed after the peace accord to settle the land issues, it was never effective.
The UPDF wants the government to look after the taxation, defence, foreign affairs and heavy industry in the hill tracts, and allow the local ethnic representatives the autonomy to carry out other developments. ‘We will, however, discuss the development issues with the state policy makers and follow the state mechanisms,’ says Ujjal.
While a section of the ethnic community want to keep the CHT manual 1900, the latter has already been compromised by the creation of a regional council and the peace accord.
‘There is little representation of the ethnic community, so it is difficult to determine how much of the population assent to their decisions. It is necessary for the hill people to find a way to make the peace accord compatible with the CHT manual before having it constitutionally recognised,’ says Professor Amena. Both Professor Amena and Mesbah believe that a lack of political will has held back the effective implementation of the peace accord.
‘Not every law is passed through the constitution,’ says the state minister for CHT affairs, Dipankar Talukdar. ‘We have not taken any initiative as of yet, but we will look into how the peace accord can be best implemented,’ he said, when asked whether his government will involve the parliamentary process.
‘The treaty should have been debated in parliament, so that all the parliamentarians could participate in the peace agreement. It should have passed through the parliamentary process in order to become enacted as a law or ordinance,’ says Advocate Adil.
When asked about how Dipankar’s government will deal with the Bengali settlers that were not mentioned in the peace accord, he says, ‘we will have to go through the eleven meetings that the BNP government held during its tenure, have discussions with the concerned persons, and then see what we can do about it.’
The state minister is alleged to have kept the names of Bengali settlers in the internally displaced persons’ list formed to rehabilitate those whose homes were burnt during army operations between August 1975 and August 1992. Dipankar Talukdar was the head of the task force that was responsible for the IDP. The Bengalis were included in the IDP because of electoral politics.
Regarding the settlement of communal lands that are undocumented, the state minister said that the land commission will settle all land issues, but could not outline exactly how it would do so.
The story was first published in New Age Xtra on February 13, 2009, jointly authored by Saad Hammadi and Khamin