Extortion a ‘byword’ in CHT

It’s a Tk 400 crore annual ‘business’

Md Esaraf Hossain back from Bandarban

2nd December, 2019 11:31:34 printer

Extortion a ‘byword’ in CHT

From remote areas to urban vicinities in the three hill districts of Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachari, extortion by tribal terrorists has become the byword for the region leaving the residents in constant fear.

“Tribal or Bangalee, if you have business or job in the hills, you have to pay extortion to the three regional groups. Extortion is an open secret in CHT,” one source said. The source added that people have to pay tolls to the armed cadres if they got involved in any profit earning enterprise.

Armed terrorists-cum-extortionists belonging to different hill tracts-based political parties including United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF), UPDF (Democrats), Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (JSS-Santu) and Jana Sanghati Samity (Reformists) are involved in this crime, intelligence sources said.

But the representatives of these parties, however, deny extorting money from different quarters forcibly.  

At least 321 people were killed for not paying toll in the Chattogram Hill Tracts in the last five years, it was learnt.

Extortionists collect at least Tk400 crore every year from public, private sector workers, businessmen and also from the residents of Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari.

People of the three hill districts were a hostage in the hands of the extortionist and want an end to this situation.

A Bangalee student leader of the scenic region Mizanur Rahman said four extremist groups took 10 percent commission from all the government development projects.

Aanado Chakma, a UPDF leader, who surrendered to the Army, identified the four tribal groups which were involved in extortion from both the tribals and the Bangalee people.

“If anyone refuses to pay money, they (extortionists) kill them,” he said.

The three districts comprise one tenth of the country’s land mass. The population of these districts is around 16 lakh. Over 50 percent of them are Bangalees and the rest are tribal people. The Bangalees are settlers from the plains.

People fear they might become victims of violence, abduction, sexual harassment and killing if they refuse to pay the money demanded. 

The groups have unofficially fixed different rates of toll depending on the nature of business and profession.

A tea garden owner at Guimara in Khagrachhari pays Tk1 crore annually to JSS-Santu, JSS (Reformist) and both the groups of UPDF.

According to locals, JSS-Santu collects toll at 10 percent rate on the sale of each cow or goat while UPDF and JSS (reformists) charge Tk150 to Tk200 for each cow and Tk100 for a goat.

A professional fisherman pays Tk45,000 to Tk50,000 annually to JSS-Santu, JSS (reformist) and UPDF.

People from other backgrounds are also forced to pay according to the list of subscription. The tribal outfits collect tolls and donations from individuals on the eve of social and religious festivals.

Apart from the Bangalees, hill people also have to pay extortion money on a regular basis. Each rich family has to pay Tk1,000 to JSS-Santu and UPDF separately while a middle-income family pays Tk500 to JSS-Santu and Tk400 to UPDF and JSS (Reformists), and a low-income family pays Tk300 to JSS-Santu and Tk200 to UPDF and JSS (Reformists).

For each bunch of banana, a farmer pays between Tk6 and Tk10 to the four militant groups. The fund is used for purchasing arms and ammunition, military training and paying salary and perks to members of the groups.

Sources claimed that the extortion money is the lifeline for anti-Bangladesh campaign at home and abroad.

Law enforcers have managed to nab a number of extortionists round the year. But the illegal toll collection continues unabated.

The transportation sector has to pay illegal tolls to the tune of thousands of taka every day to the armed extremists.

Around 10,000 members of the three regional groups are active in Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban districts of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

Only a handful of such crime is published. But in most of cases, the incident of extortion remains hidden, sources said.

Surrounding the coming 22nd signing anniversary of the peace treaty between the government and PCJSS, the Shantu Larma-led JSS has recently served a letter to its party comrades for realising extortion money from different quarters including businessmen, government officials, construction firms, transport owners associations, hotel, motel and even tourists.

If necessary, it was instructed to use force to collect extortion.

Sources said UPDF is active in Khagrachhari and in some parts of Rangamati and Bandarban while JSS-Santu in the whole Rangamati and some parts of Bandarban and Khagrachhari and JSS (reformists) are in all the three districts.

The extremist groups and their wings have collected a huge quantity of sophisticated arms and ammunition smuggled from abroad with the money collected from public and private sector workers, businessmen and ordinary people illegally.

Intelligence sources said there are 2,000 armed members of the three local extremist groups involved in illegal toll collection. Of them, 750 belong to UPDF while 900 belong to JSS-Santu and 350 of JSS (Reformists).

Fear has gripped the residents of CHT as pre-planned military-style ambush for retaining supremacy in the area was a daily affair in this picturesque land, said Kazi Md Mujibur Rahman, former general secretary of ruling Awami League, Bandarban district unit. Armed terrorism and extortion have been on the rise after

some army camps were withdrawn from the once trouble-torn hilly region.

He demanded setting up more army camps and building up road communication on the hilly regions for the sake of safety and security of the common people.

When contacted Bandarban District council chairman and Awami League president Kyaw Shwe Hla told the daily sun over telephone that though the peace treaty was signed, but the feuding tribal groups including PCJSS was yet to deposit their illegal arms and ammunitions hampering peace in the hilly region. 

By using these sophisticated arms and ammunitions, these rival ethnic groups had been carrying out armed hooliganism and extortion on the three hill districts. It should be stopped at any cost, the council chairman added.    

Bandarban district superintendent of Police (SP) Zakir Hossain Mojumder said that the extortion was the main cause behind the armed terrorism among the rival tribal groups on hills. Its (extortion) their main source of income.

They are trying to make unsettle on the hill tracts to sustain the extortion. “We are alert against such armed hoodlums”, the SP said.

When his attention was drawn about extortion by some terrorist groups, the SP said, “We get some information about extortion from time to time. But instantly we take action against the culprits as soon as we get such allegation.”

Some killings were reported from remote areas of Bandarban over establishing supremacy.

Police and other law enforcing agencies have been conducting separate drives to catch the armed terrorists for long, he added.

As part of our drive “we have already arrested several suspected terrorists from different areas and recovered some firearms from their possession,” the SP pointed out. “There are many remote areas in Bandarban including Ruma, Thanchi, Alikadam.”

In most of the cases, it was not possible to conduct raids in extremely remote areas to arrest the terrorists and recover arms, the SP added.