Peace remains elusive for hill people in the CHT

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In CHT, apparently, a de facto military rule continues, and ‘Operation Uttaran’ has not been withdrawn, even though it was agreed in the accord to stop targeting the hill people. The authorities are engaged in anti-accord activities with the settlers as an excuse to provide security and protection.

The Adivasis continue to suffer in pain and agony for non-compliance of the much talked about peace accord signed 23 years ago with the autonomy seeking armed ethnic minorities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

For the hill people, peace continues to remain a far cry as the Bangalee settlers from the floodplains, on the behest of the Bangladesh Army, continue to enjoy blessings of the military, civil administration and ruling party politicians.

When the peace accord was signed on 2 December 1997, the BBC Bangla radio and Dainik Ajker Kagoj interviewed me for my long experience reporting on the insurgency and peace process since 1980. I said the treaty will not be implemented even after 25 years, because of the nonchalant military and civil bureaucracy.

However, my comment was taken seriously neither by the government nor by the Shantu Larma led Parbatiya Chattragram Jana Sangati Samity (PCJSS). Both parties dismissed my concerns and claimed they would start implementing the accord soon enough.

That soon never came into the life of Shantu Larma — the supremo of Shanti Bahini. His party created a paramilitary force waging a bush war across one-tenth of Bangladesh.

It was understood that after the surrender of Shanti Bahini combatants along with their weapons, who once reigned unchallenged in the hill forest, that the accord would see the light of the day.

After several years, the accord was only implemented through the piecemeal measure of ‘pick and choose’. This frustrated groups, mostly youths, leaders and former combatants.

The youths and student leaders launched a violent movement to pressure the government to realise the accord’s implementation, which reached a critical stage.

Eminent citizens of the country at various events, marking the 23rd anniversary of the CHT Accord in 2020, commented that the expectations created in 1997 through the signing of the CHT Accord have turned into frustration and anger as it has not been implemented even after 23 years and the Jumma people are being ruled, exploited, deprived and oppressed.

Bangladesh authority did not take much initiative to implement the CHT Accord. Not a single meeting of the CHT Accord Implementation Committee, the CHT Land Commission and the Task Force, formed under the CHT Accord, was convened.

Nonetheless, only a few clauses and sub-clauses of the accord have been implemented in the last 23 years since the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the PCJSS signed the historic CHT Agreement. Two-thirds of the clauses remain in grey section.

The fundamental provisions of the accord are either ultimately unrealised or have been partially implemented.

A formal meeting of the CHT Land Commission was scheduled to be held at Bandarban on 3 February 2020. However, the event was cancelled when the Bangalee settlers backed by local administration blocked the entrance.

Nevertheless, countrywide coronavirus outbreak, extended official holidays and lockdown overshadowed the government’s activities in 2020.

There is no respite from the operations of the military, paramilitary border guards and other law enforcement forces in the CHT even as the pandemic rages.

Thus in 23 years, the expected resolution to the CHT conflict remains elusive. Instead, according to the PCJSS annual statement released in the first week of January, the problem has become more complicated.

The PCJSS laments that, following the previous governments, the current government has been implementing Islamisation policy and intensified the CHT’s militarisation —threatening the Jumma people’s national, religious and cultural identity.

It has been alleged that all matters of general administration, law and order, development of the CHT, have been handed over to the army and security services deployed in the region.

The annual report also said that the army has undertaken initiatives to revive the camps once withdrawn after the CHT Accord. Many camps had been reconstructed on the same site in the last few years, including seven new camps in 2020.

In CHT, apparently, a de facto military rule continues, and ‘Operation Uttaran’ has not been withdrawn, even though it was agreed in the accord to stop targeting the hill people. The authorities are engaged in anti-accord activities with the settlers as an excuse to provide security and protection.

On the eve of the accord’s silver jubilee, not a single full-fledged Hill District Council has been formed by direct votes. The interim Hill District Councils were formed with hand-picked ruling party members last December. This undemocratic and partisan path demonstrates the lack of political commitment on the part of the government.

The PCJSS blames the ruling Awami League government, which deserves credit for getting the rebels to sit for peace talks, signing the accord, and organising a surrender ceremony at Khagrachari. However, it has not taken enough measures to implement the CHT Agreement.

In recent years, it has been alleged by PCJSS that, with knowledge of the security forces, government agencies are sheltering the JSS (MN Larma) known as Reformist, the UPDF (Democratic) and the Mog Party.

Widespread human rights abuses, including illegal detention, extrajudicial deaths, enforced disappearances, legal harassments and assaults against the hill people continues unabated.

The Bangalee settlers were responsible for inciting sectarian tensions in the region and remains upbeat with the moral support of the military and the civil administration.

Parbatya Chattagram Nagorik Parishad (CHT Citizens’ Council) has gained notoriety for forced conversion of Adivasi girls into Muslims, kidnapping for ransom, looting farm produces from the hills, grabbing of lands of the ancestors and the list goes on and on.

The refusal to register cases against the settlers is an everyday norm, especially when the Adivasis go to a police station. When the hill people approach the military with complaints, they are asked to back off and are treated as a potential threat to the military.

Instead of a political and peaceful solution to the CHT crisis by implementing the CHT Accord, the government has taken the initiative to solve the problem through repression like the previous regimes. So far, there are no signs of the government opting for an alternative, peaceful path in the foreseeable future.


Saleem Samad is an independent journalist and media rights defender. Recipient of Ashoka Fellow and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

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