No Peace in the Hills Yet

Hana Shams Ahmed

Hana Shams Ahmed

It was the previous Awami League government in 1997 that signed the historic CHT Accord in 1997, promising to end 25 years of guerrilla war in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Unfortunately the government-encouraged settlement of poor Bangalis into the area, started in the 1980s, has never stopped therefore destabilising the situation 11 years after the signing. Most of the key provisions of the accord remained unimplemented in the last decade. The newly elected AL government has clearly mentioned in its election manifesto that they will take steps to fully implement the Peace Accord.

Hana Shams Ahmed

[STAR magazine, THE DAILY STAR, February 27, 2009]
Chittagong’s face-lifted Shah Amanat International Airport boasts ceramic artwork of various tourism selling points of Bangladesh. One of them shows a group of quaint-looking Pahari girls doing a traditional dance. Next to it is another Pahari girl in a traditional pinon picking leaves from a hill in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The depiction of Pahari girls as part of our cultural heritage has always been used to attract national and international tourists. Unfortunately how the common Pahari girls are living their lives seems to be hardly of concern. The Chittagong Hill Tracts is the only place in the entire country (except for the Cantonment areas) where the army still remains with nearly six brigades of approximately 35,000 army personnel.

The Awami League government in 1997 signed the historic Peace Accord with the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS), which was nationally and internationally welcomed as a bold step to bring peace to the disputed land of the hill districts. Unfortunately despite being in effect for more than 11 years many of the most crucial clauses in the accord have remained unimplemented and tension between the Bangalis and the indigenous communities still remains high.

“I can’t take any of my products to the market in Dighinala, I can’t take my children to school,” says Moina Chakma (names have been changed to protect identity), “they have stopped all the public transport here.” Even if she does take her agricultural products to Dighinala where she can get a better price she alleges that she is barred from selling them. She is also stopped from bringing products from Dighinala and she can only do so with the help of Bangalis. According to Moina and others in the area about 70 to 80 Bangali families have been indiscriminately settled in the area. But they also expressed hope at the arrival of the Awami League government. “We want peace,” say the people, “we voted for this government because we think they can bring peace for us.”

Moina is a resident of Gongaram village in Sajek, a place that not too long ago came under attack from unidentified assailants and the residents are still recovering from the destruction. Late at night on April 20, 2008 about 200 Bangali marouders came and set fire to 77 houses of Paharis and 15 khupri homes of Bangalis in seven villages across Sajek. Some conscientious Bangalis of Baghaihat had warned the Paharis about the attacks from beforehand so the residents were prepared but because the army was allegedly behind the attackers there was not much the residents could do. The vast Sajek Union is located at one end of Rangamati District, and mainly comprises of reserved forests. Many Paharis have lived in this area for generations in accordance with their customary norms and without any official title deeds. Before the incident of April 20 there had been rising tension in the area for some time because the Bangalis had been erecting houses near to the Pahari’s houses.

Daney Chakma also has the same complaint. “When we go to sell our products we are stopped,” he says, “if we try to protest they call us terrorists.” Referring to the International CHT Commission’s first visit to the area in August he also said, “your team came here once before, and you’re here again but our condition is still the same.” Daney also said that he had to go into hiding after speaking to the press as a false case was lodged against him. “All I did was speak out against the atrocities against our people.”

There had been allegations that right after the newly formed CHT Commission’s first visit to the area in August, settlers backed by security forces carried out an attack on the village of Gangaram Mukh in Sajek under Rangamati district on 9 August. Many villagers alleged that the security forces and settlers started avenging those Paharis who had spoken to the delegation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission who visited the three districts of Khagrachari, Rangamati and Bandarban.

Since August 2007 Buddhist monks in a meditation centre in Sadhana Tila under Dighinala, which comprises of 300 acres of land, have been ordered to leave in order to settle over 800 illegal plain settlers’ families. The Jumma people refused to comply but the illegal settlers have already been cutting the jungle around the Buddhist temple for constructing houses.

Bimol Anondo Mohathero, the head monk of the Maitripur Buddhist Meditation Centre in Itchori also talks about other attacks on the temples and meditation centres. A notice has been allegedly been issued by the authorities to stop the construction of the temple in Itchori. When the temple authorities applied for registration the local authorities multiplied the registration charge a couple of hundred times.

During the middle of 2008 a non-government organisation named Development Organisation of the Rural Poor (DORP) started occupying the land of the indigenous Tripura community at Tongo Jiripara of Soroi union in the Bandarban district. DORP allegedly set fire on orchards around 35 acres after cutting its trees planted by the indigenous villagers. DORP claimed that the lands had been leased out to the DORP. However, the authorities at the Bandarban Hill District Council (HDC) said that there is no opportunity to give leasing out any land as per CHT Peace Accord.

The recent case of environmental activist Ranglai Mro also shows how vulnerable the Paharis are. In an interview with Prothom Alo journalist Tipu Sultan he describes in detail how he was taken and tortured by the army. Even after being released on bail he was placed on bar fetters while being severely ill in hospital. Ranglai had been campaigning on the issue of forcible displacement of villagers in Bandarban. He was arrested on February 23, 2007. He was hospitalised the next day in a serious condition, and an FIR was lodged against him under the Arms Act. A trial was held under the Emergency Powers Rules 2007. The Court convicted him and sentenced him to serve 10 years and 7 years imprisonment. He was released on bail early this year. The bar fetters were only taken off after interventions by Ain o Salish Kendra and the National Human Rights Commission.

The poor landless Bangali families who have been settled in the hill tracts living in Sajek are simply caught in the middle. Organised groups of Bangalis complain that some Pahari terrorist groups are not letting them live in peace. Some have been living there since the early 1980s, brought to live there under the strategic plan of Ziaur Rahman’s regime some want to live securely in their homes in the CHT, but an overwhelming number of people want to go back to their original homes in places outside the CHT. Ruhul Amin complains that he has not been getting any of the ration that the government promised his family for months and has not even been able to send his children to school because public transports have been stopped from going to Gongaram.

It is clear that until the land dispute is settled there will be no peace in the hill districts. It was particularly the incident in Sajek brought to the forefront the urgency and sensitivity of the land settlement issue. And Sajek it seems, is still a balloon gathering air, and ready to burst once again. There is still high tension among both the Bangalis and the Paharis and all the trouble is centred around land rights. According to UNHCR about 60,000 indigenous people were internally displaced between 1992 and 1997. The settlers confiscated their land and in many instances obtained false official certificates of ownership.

During a meeting with the CHT Commission headed by Lord Eric Avebury, the Chief of the Army stated that the Army is present in the hill tracts region to provide health care services and undertake other development projects. In an article published by Probe magazine, Lt. Col. Md. Nazrul Islam quotes the Army Chief (during the signing of the Accord) Lt. Gen. Mahbubur Rahman (retd), MP, saying about the peace accord: “The army is part of the peace process. We will continue in our role to work with the people to establish permanent peace.” But this directly contradicts what is in the accord itself. What the Army Engineer Construction Battalion has done is constructed various roads throughout the hill tracts region. According to the UN Commission on Human Rights these road-building activities have little economic value but are of immense military strategic value to the army.

Article 17a of the Peace Accord says, ‘After signing of the agreement between the government and the Jana Sanghati Samiti and immediately after the return of the JSS members to normal life, all the temporary camps of military, Ansar and Village Defence Party shall be taken back to permanent installations except the border security force (BDR) and permanent cantonments (three at the three District Headquarters and Alikadam, Ruma and Dighinala) by phases and with this in view, the time limit shall be determined. In case of deterioration of the law and order situation, natural calamity and such other works the army can be deployed under the civil administration like all other parts of the country as per relevant laws and rules.’

Article 18.2 of Awami League’s Election manifestation says, ‘The 1997 Chittagong Hill Tract Peace Accord will be fully implemented. More efforts will be directed toward the development of underdeveloped tribal areas, and special programmes on priority basis will be taken to secure their rights and to preserve their language, literature, culture, and unique lifestyles.’

Unfortunately at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva the Foreign Minister did not reiterate this commitment.

After Bangladesh’s review a member of the CHT Commission, Lee Swepston expressed his surprise. “When the Foreign Minister presented the government’s report, it did include some reference to indigenous people, but she did not make any mention of what had been going on or indeed what the government’s plans were in the hill tracts.”

The government has said that the problems of the CHT are political and not military and therefore the solution should also be political. As such the government should immediately hand over the development projects to the civil administration, which also means making public the exact nature of Operation Uttaran. Many of the human rights abuses taking place in the hill tracts are directly linked to the land disputes. It is essential for the land commission to be established. There are many cases of human rights violations which deserve redress but the Pahari people have complained that most of their cases are not even registered by the police. Legal services must be provided to the people living in the hills. As tension intensifies in the area it is crucial that the government starts the process as soon as possible.

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