Things that make you to Think

Santu Larma

‘The government wants a country with a particular religion and culture’
Bangladesh Adibashi Forum President Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, popularly known as Santu Larma, also the chairman of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS), signed the peace accord with Bangladesh government in 1997 after decade long armed struggle against the government. Recently He talks with Abid Azad on laws, institutions, governments, land disputes, UPDF, culture, religion, and language, among other things, while speaking openly about issues regarding the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the ‘jumma‘ people who inhabit the area.

What is your observation about the government’s attitude towards the interests and expectations of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) people and the 1997 Peace Accord?

This government passed the CHT Development Board Act, 2014 on July 1, has taken initiatives to amend the Hill District Council Act, 2014, and to establish the Rangamati Science and Technology University and a medical college without any prior consultation with the district councils, Parbatya Chhattagram Anchalik Parishad (regional council) and other CHT representatives.

Such attitude of the ruling government is an expression of their total lack of sincerity regarding the CHT issues. It also shows their undemocratic, communal, and extremist nationalistic ideology.

Why do you not agree with these new legislations and amendments to a few existing laws?

First of all, we could not agree with such initiatives as the fundamental sections of the peace accord are yet to be implemented. However, there are many other bluffs and loopholes in executing it.

If the government takes any reasonable initiative that expresses the interests of the indigenous people, there will be no question of denial. But we have seen that the Zilla Parishad elections have not taken place in the last 22 years. But the government amended the law on hill district councils on July 1 where the number of members has been raised from five to 11, without any discussion with the regional council.

First things first; at first, the government should take initiatives to hold the elections.

On the other hand, the government passed the CHT Development Board Act the on same day (July 1). This board is like a statutory body which actually works to improve the economic condition of the people. But there should not be any administrative, political, and cultural activities in this body.

Such a body will only hinder the economic development and also increase bureaucratic complexities in the administrative system. This board will operate merely as a parasite – dependent on bureaucrats.Untitled-1 copyIn this case, what is the nature and pattern of discussion and communication between the government and the CHT representatives? Do you think that the CHT representatives are failing to reflect the expectations of the CHT people?

Before taking any initiative or placing any bill or Act in parliament, the government is legally-bound to discuss it with the regional council. Still, the union council and the municipalities are under the local government whereas these institutions were supposed to be handed over to the CHT ministry, but the government did not take any such initiatives.

On the other hand, the interim period district councils have become the key source of corruption. The council members [selected by the government] act according to the government directives. Generally, the members of parliament represent the government’s thoughts and expressions. They all are parts of the government’s system of control and manipulation.

Thus, all such institutions and the representatives of the indigenous people echo the government’s views.

The few  people who represent and express our rights, demands, and interests have no broader platform.

The PCJSS is against the establishment of the proposed science and technology university and a medical college in Rangamati. On the other hand, you are demanding for an increase in the quotas for indigenous people and other facilities of the existing educational institutions. Then why are you, instead of antagonising the government, not proposing a road-map for the establishment of the university and the medical college that will reflect the interests of the indigenous students?

There are two points to be noted:

Firstly, the government did not discuss with us before taking such initiatives. We came to know about it not from the government officially, but unofficially after the government passed the bill.

Secondly, the recent context in the CHT area is not appropriate to establish such institutions. How many qualified students among the indigenous communities are here to study in the university level? How many experienced and qualified teachers do we have among the indigenous people? They can, at best, get the third and fourth class jobs in those proposed institutions.

Thus, a huge number of students, teachers, and other employees will come from outside the hill tracts area. It will gradually create more pressure and complexity on the existing social and cultural crisis.

On the other hand, there is not a single academic institution in Bangladesh which is free from political turmoil. Therefore, the largest number of outsiders will be involved in political activities which will affect the CHT’s political and social situation adversely.

Moreover, as both the Awami League and the BNP do not want the existence of the indigenous people in Bangladesh, such adverse situation will raise more tension in the CHT area.

If the government takes initiatives to rehabilitate the displaced and evicted families as a solution to the land issues in the CHT, what will be your position?

Yes, land grabbing in the CHT area has become a common scenario, and day by day it has been causing acute problems among the indigenous people. Lands are mostly grabbed by the Bangalee settlers who are backed by the government and the Army. The district administration and the army have also been grabbing the lands of the indigenous people in the name of tourism.

Actually, the government has no interest in solving the much-disputed land problem in the CHT. When Awami League government passed the land commission bill in 2001, they neither informed us nor discussed the matter with us. Later, many discussions were held with both the AL and the BNP governments, but there is no progress until now.

We placed 19 amendment proposals to the government, and later added four more. The government agreed on 10 issues. But later, we found that when the bill was tabled in parliament, the government kept three of those issues unchanged and intact according to their own whims.

The government is responsible for taking actions to solve the refugee problems, according to the 20-point demands made in 1997.

On the other hand, to change the land management system, the government should consider the contemporary context of the CHT area.

Actually, no improvement is possible until the government becomes sincere and committed enough to solve this major problem in the region.Untitled-2copyWas there any deadline for the implementation of the accord? What types of initiatives are you taking to implement it from your side?

Actually, there was no set time frame for the execution of the agreement. The then Awami League government showed much devotion for the implementation of the accord, and questioned why such a deadline is needed as the government was committed to implementing the accord by the shortest possible time. We did not realise that it would take such a long time.

On the other hand, our position regarding the implementation of the accord, in attitude, is cooperative but not proactive. Without having such an attitude, we actually have nothing else to do because all these things depend on the steps taken by the government.

The accord observation committee identifies and informs the government regarding the sections of the accord that are to be implemented, the district councils, the PCJSS, and other representatives from the CHT region have also helped.

I think we have already shown our highest patience towards the government since the accord was signed. Above all, we still demand its immediate implementation.

At the recent press conference, you announced that the government will be responsible for any unexpected situation in the CHT if the initiatives of the government go against the indigenous people. Do you think that the people in the CHT are strong enough to create any uncomfortable situation for the government?

We have no other option left at present. Now the indigenous people want to see immediate implementation of the 1997 agreement. They do not want to see any more bluffs and false promises.

I believe that the indigenous people are still strong enough to protest again, and create any sort of uncomfortable situation for the government. I want to state clearly that the pattern of the protest could be changed and shifted to any direction at any time.

Do you see any possibilities that the accord will become a reason for conflict between the government and the CHT-people in the near future?

Yes, definitely. The accord was signed to solve the conflict between the indigenous people and the government. But now, we see that the accord itself has become a new crisis and an issue of conflict. It is like the Treaty of Versailles signed at the end of World War I.

So, the Peace Accord is actually becoming another reason for conflict as the government continually violates its conditions intentionally.

Why do not you involve yourself in any other national issues except for the CHT-related ones?

We are not apart from national politics, rather we are involved enormously with mainstream or national politics. Our activities are not only based on the hill tracts areas or among the indigenous people of the country. We also pursue our political activities throughout the country although it is not visible directly.

The PCJSS works for all of the working class and struggling people. The ethical values of the PCJSS are not only based in the country, but also for the people around the world who fight for their existence, who struggle to establish human rights, and who protest against any kind of hegemonic domination and exploitation.

What do you think about the gradual proliferation of NGOs in the CHT?

The concept of the NGO, in the CHT region, was introduced to dominate the indigenous people. Before the accord, there were no NGOs, and we had no idea about NGO activities. They came after the accord and started their domination in the name of development.

More importantly, the NGO activities are neither contributing to the social and cultural aspects of the CHT area nor they promote any development of the CHT area or the indigenous people. Rather the NGO activities causing negative impact on the CHT’s social, cultural, economical and political issues.

Thus, the problem is becoming more critical as each day passes.

What are the fundamental differences and issues of conflict between the PCJSS and the UPDF?

The PCJSS is the only political organisation representing 11 multilingual indigenous Jumma people of the CHT region. It was established and driven by a humanitarian ideology based on the principles of nationalism, democracy, secularism, equality, and social justice. We have specific objectives and organisational structure.

On the other hand, the UPDF, born just after the signing of the accord, was established to fulfil the interests of the government, and raised as a terrorist group. The Bangladesh Army and the DGFI masterminded it to demolish the PCJSS and hinder the Peace Accord.

Later, the caretaker government, during 2007-2008, influenced this issue by making a fraction of the PCJSS.

The UPDF was never a political organisation. It has no history, it has no ethical values or organisational structure. They demand autonomous governance in the CHT region which will never be materialised. There is no one in the UPDF who was involved with the PCJSS earlier.

But I believe that the indigenous people will never lose their meaning of existence, inspiration, commitment, and strength towards upholding their identity and significance in Bangladesh. Such crisis is constructed artificially by the government and its different agencies.

Why is the relationship and tension between Bangalee and indigenous people labelled as a crisis?

The tension between the Bangalee and the indigenous people is not a real crisis, but it was created deliberately by the power-structure of the state by raising social, cultural, political, economical, and identity issues from the very beginning.

The Pakistan government had plans to turn the non-Muslim hill tracts area into a Muslim-dominated area. However, it is clearly understandable that after the independence of Bangladesh, no government has left the policy aside.

Now, so far I know, the ratio between the indigenous and the Bangalee people is 40:60 which proves how efficiently the policy has worked. It also reflects that no government is concerned about the rights of the indigenous people. Moreover, the government does not want the existence of the indigenous people in the CHT area.

Thus, land grabbing and eviction of indigenous people have become a common scenario in the CHT area. Beside this critical land issue, rape, killings, abduction and other criminal activities are perpetrated frequently while most of the victims do not get proper justice and the perpetrators go unpunished.

Thus the crisis in the CHT area is not where it is seen, but it is where it is not seen. The conflict between the Bangalee and the indigenous people is merely an eyewash – like many other social and cultural crises crafted by states.

Due to changes in religion, culture, and language, there has emerged a conflict between Jumma nationalism and aggression of new culture. How will you evaluate this situation?

My first and foremost identity is that I am a human being. But my nationality is Chakma. Interestingly the word “Chakma” is not right, it correct word is “Changma.” I can tell you clearly that the word “Chakma” was forcefully imposed on us by the dominant groups. Since the British period until now, we have had to face many names and identities which have been actually constructed by the dominant group for their own interests.

In the CHT area, there are different languages for different communities of people. But the matter of regret is that we could not protect our own mother tongues. If there is no such opportunity to protect the language, how can we do so?

This does not necessarily mean that we deny the Bengali language, but we want our language to at least exist. On the other hand, we will use Bengali language as a state language. The state should make all possible opportunities and rights to protect all such communal languages.

The state should ensure my rights to dream in my language, talk in my language. There should be a management where all minor and communal languages and dialects will be protected. Otherwise, the loss of language will be only the beginning for a community which will lose everything.

We urge the government to at least teach every indigenous children in his/her mother language in primary schools. To protect one’s own identity, history, and existence, language is the prime factor.

Likewise, religious studies should be introduced to protect the indigenous people’s beliefs, values and history.

Unfortunately, what we see is that the government actually is busy fulfilling their own interests which, as a result, will uproot the indigenous people in the near future. Now, the country is not moving on the way to becoming a country of many nationalities and cultural diversities, but the activities of the government means to us that it is the process of making a country with a particular religion and culture.

Do you think the 17-year-old Peace Accord is still relevant, contemporary, and pragmatic in the present political and economic context or do you demand revision in any of its sections?

How can I judge whether the Peace Accord is relevant and pragmatic in the contemporary context while it is yet to be applied and implemented?

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