The Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Treaty is an example set by Bangladesh that a peace could be achieved in a volatile area if there was political will.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government signed the peace pact with tribal hill leaders over two decades ago. Many displaced people of the hilly area returned to their homes and all kinds of rights were established following the treaty. Although the three hill districts are part of the country, people of the region have got an extraordinary privilege to get administration run by the regional council represented by their own leaders.The country observed the 22nd anniversary of the peace agreement on Monday. The accord was aimed to restore peace in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and establishing the rights of the tribal people.
Tribal people are harvesting the fruits of the agreement which contributed to huge infrastructural development, establishment of schools and colleges, healthcare facilities, roads and highways, telephone and internet facilities.
At the same time, the government is spending a lot of money and energy to improve the quality of life of the tribal people, but various ethnic groups are locked in vendetta and clash.
Abduction, murder and use of arms in crimes are jeopardising the peace agreement.
Collection of ransom is common in the hill districts of Khagrachhari, Bandarban, and Rangamati.
Vested groups are taking advantage of the internal feuds of the tribal people.All the governments except Awami League failed to dispel fears and concerns of the people in the hilly belt. Ethnic groups resorted to armed insurgencies to realise their demands within a few years of independence of the country. Such insurgency ceased with the signing of the peace treaty between the government and the Parbatya Chattogram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS) on December 2, 1997.
The hill districts 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.
Two decades into the agreement, ethnic groups living in the hill districts are clashing with one another.
The treaty was marked by recognition of the distinct identity of the CHT ethnic groups. Under the provisions of the agreement the Regional Council with representation from local government councils of the three districts was created. The Regional Council includes representation from 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 the 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 people returned to their homes.
It is alleged by the tribal people that many of the issues are yet to be resolved as the institutions created under the provisions of the treaty are unable 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 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 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 times, 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 sometime to see its result. Here it needs to point out that lasting peace in the hills depends to a great extent 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, 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 leaders of some tribal groups have intention to establish peace in the hilly belt. But other people of the same groups seem to be not interested in the peace. Other groups are trying to create unrest. Various local and international agents are out to fish in the dirty water.
Arms race among the ethnic groups in the CHT has emerged as a major cause for security concerns and peace in the area.
Weapons in their possession include 144 LMG, 641 SMG/ AK-47 rifle, 323 7.62 MM rifle, 122 M-16 rifle, 59 G-3 rifle, 85 22 rifle, 5 Sniper rifle, 180 pistol, 40 mortar, 180 local pistol, 245 local guns, 1166 hand grenade and 54 rocket-launchers.
The ethnic groups represented by their political fronts including, the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) and the United People's Democratic Front (UPDF) in the three southeastern hill districts are involved in the sophisticated arms smuggling.
Activists of these groups are using such sophisticated arms against one another to establish their supremacy in the hill tracts triggering panic and security concern in the hilly region.
A total of 56 people including 14 Bengali settlers were killed in different parts of the hill tracts, bordering India and Myanmar only in last couple of months.
Meanwhile, 23 tribal people and 33 Bengalis were injured and 28 tribal people and 13 Bengalis were abducted during that time. Around 33 incidents of shootouts took place at that time with 192 tribal and 46 Bengalis were arrested. Nearly 75 guns and 2,378 bullets were recovered during the time.
Some security experts believe that Myanmar and its sympathisers have exported Rohingya problem to Bangladesh wishing that the government to be busy with calming hill-tract unrest.
Reconciliation among the tribal groups is needed to help government implement the treaty fully. The government and ethnic leaders should adopt various programmes to boost public awareness in the hilly belt. Educated youths are enjoying quota facility in job and other purposes. The hilly groups should be made to feel that they are benefiting from the peace accord. They should be encouraged to upgrade their lives in line with people of the plain lands. The hill people have to practice their own culture, but not disregarding the spirit of the whole nation. They should make a balance to be integrated into the mainstream society. The tribal people have a demand to be developed. If any group of people remains confined to their way of life, they will not be able to upgrade themselves to the standard level. The people other than ethnic groups should show tolerance for peaceful coexistence.
The government should take new strategy and steps to implement the accord fully and meaningfully. It should detect the elements which are blocking the execution of the treaty.
The writer is a columnist