Two decades have passed since the signing of the peace accord with the ethnic groups living in the hill districts. The Hill districts in Bangladesh include Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban.
These are located in the south-eastern part of the country bordering Myanmar and India. These districts together cover about 10 per cent of the total land area of the country. The population of the hill districts is little over one million that include about 11 different ethnic groups. Soon after the independence of the country in 1971 these groups felt alienated from the mainstream national life and politics out of the fear of losing their distinct identities in the midst of the overwhelming majority of the Bengali speaking population of the country. The other associated fear was losing their lands and habitats in the face of increased settlements of the people coming from the plains.
The successive governments also failed to dispel their perceived fears and concerns and they ultimately resorted to armed insurgencies to realise their demands within the few years of the independence of the country. After a time span of about two decades the insurgent activities ceased with the signing of the peace treaty between the government and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS) on 2 December, 1997. The treaty was signed with the primary objective to end the hostilities and moving forward in ensuring rights and to expedite socio-economic development of the people particularly the ethnic groups living in the hill districts.
The hallmark of the treaty was the recognition of the distinct identity of the ethnic groups of the Chittagong Hill districts. Under the provisions of the agreement Regional Council with representation from the local government councils of the three districts was created. The said regional council includes representation from the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Murang and Tanchagya ethnic groups. Hill district councils were also established for the three hill districts. These bodies have authorities and responsibilities to maintain law and order, social justice and ethnic laws, oversee general administration, co-ordinate disaster relief and management and other development activities. The agreement also made provision for the setting up of a Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tract Affairs to look into the matters concerning the three Hill districts. The agreement also ensured the return of land to displaced ethnic groups who went to India in the face of armed hostilities between the PCJSS and the armed forces. According to one estimate, more than 50,000 displaced persons returned to their homes.
Though two decades have passed since the signing of the peace treaty, it is alleged particularly by the hill districts’ ethnic communities that many of the issues are yet to be resolved as the institutions created under the provisions of the treaty are not being able to discharge their assigned functions and responsibilities due to legal and procedural complications and lack of coordination. It is further alleged that the government lacks firm political will to implement the provisions of the peace treaty in the truest sense of the term. Land settlement has been one of the most important issues that is yet to be resolved. It has been reported that the lands used for traditional Jhum cultivation and the lands already recorded and under occupation of the different ethnic groups are being leased out on long term basis to people coming from the plains for various purposes like agro businesses, tourist establishments and expansion of reserved forests and protected forests. The peace accord made provisions for the establishment of a land commission to resolve land related disputes in accordance with the laws, customs and practices prevalent in the hill districts. Unfortunately, the Land Commission’s functioning has been stalled because of the contradictory provisions of the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act 2001. However, in recent time, the government got rid of the contradictory aspects of the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act 2001 through an amendment. But we will have to wait for quite sometimes to see the result of it. Here it needs to be pointed out that lasting peace in the hills to a great extent depends on the resolution of land rights related issues. In that sense, the Land commission in the coming days is required to exhibit some results to the satisfaction of the stakeholders particularly the ethnic communities of the hill districts. It has been mentioned earlier that the institutions created under the provisions of the treaty are not effectively functioning due to legal and procedural complications and lack of coordination among them. To overcome these constraints, the government needs to streamline the procedures and develop effective mechanisms for coordination of the activities of these institutions. However, the government’s responsibility does not end there. It needs to take more concrete steps and development initiatives for confidence building among the ethnic communities of the hill districts. It has been reported that in recent times many of the development projects undertaken by the government in the hill districts have been subjected to resistance especially by the ethnic groups. Many of them consider these initiatives as ploys of the government to ensure increasing settlement of the Bengali speaking people in the region. As such, here one important thing that ought to be remembered that whatever confidence building measures are planned should be undertaken only after due consultation and with the consent of the ethnic groups of the hill districts. Thus it is perceived that only by this way the fears and apprehensions could be dispelled and unity in diversity in the national arena could be achieved in Bangladesh.
(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude)
The writer is the Professor and Chairman, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka and Member, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh