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Tension in CHT may escalate due to mistrust

Recent incidents of attacks on and rape of indigenous people, and impunity to the attackers together with the government’s “unilateral” move to establish education institutions and tourist spots allegedly by evicting locals have adversely affected the process of
bringing peace in Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The indigenous communities even fear that the situation may turn as violent as it was before 1997. The Awami League in its previous term struck the landmark agreement – the CHT Peace Accord – with the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) to end a decade-long armed struggle.

Even though 17 years have passed, the key issues of the accord including removal of army camps, holding elections to the regional council and councils of three hill districts, resolving land disputes through the CHT Land Commission and transfer of government bodies to the district councils have been pending.

The United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF), known for its antagonism towards the accord, has also hinted that they may join hands with the PCJSS in the latter’s announcement to enforce non-cooperation movement from May 1 if the key issues are not met by that time.

The government claims that it is working sincerely to execute the accord, but the process would take some time.

Indigenous community leaders have recently expressed fear that the region may face a deep political crisis in coming days, especially after April 30, the deadline given by the PCJSS for the movement to take “meaningful” steps with a view to implementing the peace accord, especially its core provisions.

The latest incident of communal attack took place on January 10 in Rangamati after a demonstration of Pahari Chhatra Parishad, the students’ wing of the PCJSS, protested the inauguration of Rangamati Medical College. The procession came under an attack of the ruling Awami League’s student front Chhatra League. Around 30 people were injured in the incident.

Later, Bangali people attacked local indigenous people forcing the authorities to impose a ban on gathering and even a curfew. But, ruling party men were later seen demonstrating despite the ban.

In another incident that occurred on December 16, the Victory Day, at least 54 houses and seven shops belonging to indigenous people were torched and looted while a Buddhist temple was vandalised in Naniarchar upazila, Rangamati.

At least three incidents of rape of indigenous children took place in the last two months. Adivasi leaders term the persistent sexual harassment of women a “systematic oppression” as no case get to trial.

Grievances and fear towards Bangali settlers as well as the government, a lack of trust that the accord would be executed sincerely, and threats by the PCJSS of strong movement have rendered the lives of the indigenous people vulnerable again.

Meanwhile, Parbatya Bangali Somo Odhikar Andolon – a platform of Bangali settlers comprising leaders and activists of the ruling Awami League, BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami – has also been opposing the peace accord and any privilege towards the indigenous communities.

CHT Citizens’ Committee President Gautam Dewan said the adivasis had hoped that their rights would be ensured with the signing of the accord.

“But most of the key provisions of the accord have not yet been implemented. Therefore, indigenous people have kept demanding full implementation of the accord through a democratic and peaceful movement since its signing.

“So, if the indigenous people remain deprived of their proper rights after more than 17 years, it will not be unusual that the situation may return to the pre-1997 era which will not be good for the country,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.

At a press conference on November 29 last year, chief of PCJSS and the CHT Regional Council Bodhipriya Jyotirindra “Santu” Larma said if the government failed to “take concrete steps to ensure the full implementation” of the accord within April 30, they would go for a non-cooperation movement.

Terming the government’s claim that the accord was being executed “a sheer lie,” he said: “The government is giving false and confusing statements on the issue.”

Santu Larma, who on behalf of the hill tracts people signed the accord, also said: “We will stage both violent and peaceful demonstrations during the non-cooperative movement. It depends on the situation.”

Niron Chakma, the spokesperson and also responsible person of press and publication unit of the UPDF, told the Dhaka Tribune that they were following the steps taken by the PCJSS.

“We are waiting to see what Santu Larma is going to do; although he had made such threats several times.

“If the movement focuses all the indigenous communities, we will definitely join to the fight. We believe that if we fight together, then the government will be compelled to ensure the rights of hill people.”

PCJSS Information and Publicity Secretary Mangal Kumar Chakma said: “A deep discontent is mounting among the indigenous people’s minds which cannot be controlled this time. No obstacle created by the government will last in the face of mass movement.

“We will do whatever is required to forge a mass movement.”

Local women MP from reserved seat Firoza Begum Chinu said the government was very much sincere in implementing the accord.

“But Santu Larma should play more effective role to resolve the political crisis and unsustainable situation in the CHT area,” the Awami League lawmaker told the Dhaka Tribune.

Chinu observed that there was lack of trust between the two parties of the accord.

She, however, said: “Being as a representative of the people, I will face the non-cooperation movement politically.

“Santu Larma is the leader of the hill tracts people. Therefore, he must take all the responsibilities in this regard.”

Indigenous rights activists strongly criticised Chinu’s statement saying that ensuring peace in the region was the key responsibility of the government.

Issues of concern

While talking to ordinary indigenous people, political leaders and rights activists it is learned that the main reasons behind such tension are continuous land acquisition by different agencies of the government, land grabbing by Bangali settlers for which a huge number of indigenous people are displaced without being rehabilitated and persistent communal attacks perpetrated upon them.

The indigenous people say they have ever been deprived of proper citizen rights and facilities with regard to education, health, employment and development opportunities while their rituals, culture and language are gradually being lost due to lack of sincerity of the state.

They are also concerned over the land commission which is supposed to resolve the land disputes but remained inactive since its formation. They alleged that the government had been able to bypass the indigenous people’s interest in initiating any development activity in the region since no election has been held to the regional council and the three district councils.

They allege that the government never holds discussion with the hill people’s representatives before taking any decision regarding the CHT area even though the councils were supposed to be consulted as per the accord.

Chinu said: “The accord will not be implemented in one day; it will take time. It will be implemented slowly. The Awami League signed the accord and will implement it. Most sections of the accord have already been executed.”

She denied having bypassed the indigenous people’s opinion prior to taking any development plan in the region. “This is not right that the government took decisions without discussion with the district councils. It is also not trustworthy that the representatives concerned did not get invitation at the government meetings.”

Rights activist Gautam Dewan said apart from being reluctant to hold election to the councils, the government also gives a blind eye to the repeated incidents of rape, killing, murder, abduction, arson attack and land grabbing.

Impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators for over the years is behind the recurrence of such activities, several indigenous activists said.

What’s waiting ahead?

Under the circumstances, a hushed-up tension is prevailing among the common indigenous people, especially in Rangamati and Bandarban as they are waiting to see changes after the April 30 deadline.

An indigenous rights activist, on condition of anonymity, told the Dhaka Tribune: “Actually the government either may not realise or it may not be given such opportunity to understand the sufferings and bitter experience of the indigenous people in the CHT area.”

Pointing at the activities of Bangladesh Army in the region, he alleged that an influential quarter did not want peace in the region. “If peace is established here, they will have nothing to do here.”

A senior Awami League leader echoes activist. “Actually the government wants peace in this area, but there is an obstacle somewhere between the government and the indigenous people. I do not want to say anything more.”

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