Jul 30, 2002

The human rights situation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

Input received from Priti Bindu Chakma, Coordinator CHT Humanity Concern

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), comprising Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban hill districts of the south-eastern part of Bangladesh, the ancestral homeland of the Jumma indigenous peoples, still finds itself in a grim situation of human rights violations.

With the 1997 CHT Peace Accord, signed between the Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS) on behalf of the indigenous Jumma peoples, and the National Committee on behalf of the Bangladesh Government, enough hope of peace, development and stability in the region existed initially, but the government failed to respect the Accord in spirit. Instead of making efforts to achieve its objectives, the government spent much of its 5-year term in resurrecting the current state policy of Islamization and Awamileagization in the region. As a result, the situation of the Jummas has become more complex than it was before the Accord.

The CHT Accord is in jeopardy at this moment because of improper implementation and violation of its fundamental points such as, withdrawal of the Muslim Bengali settler from the CHT, dismantle of the temporary military camps, rehabilitation of the Jumma refugees repatriated from India and internally displaced Jummas, settlement of the land-disputes pending between the thousands of Jumma people and Bengali settlers, and restoration of the traditional land rights of the Jumma people. Moreover, the government allegedly created an armed group, the United Peoples’ Democratic Front (UPDF), with some Jumma youths as part of its policy to “divide and rule” the Jumma peoples.

The UPDF with its demand of “full autonomy” attracted the Jumma peoples in the beginning, but its unprovoked armed attacks only on the JSS workers and supporters, receiving direct or indirect support from government agencies, and poor political performance in projecting its program of action, reduced the group into yet another state agency. Reliable sources indicate that participation of the group’s leader, Prasit Khisa, in the October 2001 parliamentary elections, with the voter list prepared in violation of the CHT Accord, has created division among the group members because the elections have, in a way, legalized the residentship of the Bengali Muslim settlers in the CHT whereas all Jummas have consistently demanding withdrawal of the settlers from the CHT.

Now the armed cadres of the group reportedly carry out their armed and other activities such as, kidnapping and demanding ransom, against the JSS and its supporters from the positions controlled by the Bangladesh military. The group allegedly killed 42 JSS workers and supporters, kidnapped 55 and injured 27.

All the former governments of Bangladesh came to power and went without giving a proper solution to the CHT problem. Rather they created a complicated situation. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has formed the new government in alliance with three other parties on October 15, 2001. This new BNP government with Muslim fundamentalist components like Jamat-e-Islam opposed the Peace Accord when it took place. Immediately after coming to power, the new government has ordered to stop all developmental programs undertaken by the previous government in the CHT. So the Jumma people are very much skeptical about the policy of the new government towards the CHT and the CHT Accord. It is a known fact that some Muslim fundamentalist groups, in collaboration with the workers of the BNP, have been carrying out systematic attacks on the minority peoples, particularly on the Hindus in Bangladesh without impunity since the victory of the BNP.
In January 2002, the JSS President and the CHT Regional Council Chairman Mr. Jyotirindra Bodipriya Larma alias Santu, attempted to meet the Prime Minister, Ms. Khaleda Zia for proper implementation of the CHT Accord. She reportedly refused to meet him. But surprisingly she met Mr. Larma on April 20, 2002 and assured him of her best efforts for development and improvement of “law and order” in the CHT. This meeting took place in the backdrop of the Bangladesh Development Forum held on March 13 – 15, 2002 in Paris where the government committed for good governance, improvement of law and order, establishment of an independent national human rights commission, respect to the CHT Accord, etc.

Post-September 11th international scenario may also be one of the factors that led the Prime Minister to hold talks with Mr. Larma on the CHT issue. It should be mentioned that the International Jumma Community, Paris, in association with the France Section of Survival International and the Peace Campaign Group, New Delhi, organized a demonstration against the government of Bangladesh for violation of the CHT Peace Accord on 14 March 2002 in front of the Bangladesh Development Forum. They urged the representatives of donor countries and funding agencies attending the Forum to put pressure on the government for proper implementation of the CHT Accord. Now the thing to be seen is the result of the meeting on the ground. The CHT Accord, particularly some of its important points like removal of military and settlers from the CHT and functioning of the Land Commission, need to be dealt with immediately by the present Government, if fundamental rights of the indigenous people are to be respected.
No doubt, the first step of the present government in the CHT affairs has shaken the entire region. The Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has kept the portfolio of the CHT Ministry to herself and appointed Mani Swapan Dewan as Deputy Minister in the Ministry. She also appointed its party worker Wadud Bhuia, a BNP MP from the Khagrachari constituency, as the Chairman of the CHT Development Board on February 11, 2002 though the post is to be filled up, according to the CHT Accord, with a “permanent resident” of the CHT giving priority to the suitable Jumma candidates. The JSS on behalf of the Jumma peoples, made an appeal to the government against the appointment of Wadud Bhuia on February 20, 2002.

Reliable sources indicate that the government agencies are actively involved in instigating the UPDF armed members to carry out their activities so that the Jummas get to kill each other, and a long-lasting enmity is planted among them. The government on the other hand, is taking advantage of this intra- conflict of the Jumma people in various ways such as, giving settlement of the settlers in the CHT. Nowadays the military has re-opened their check-posts to control the movement of the Jumma people throughout the CHT in the name of law and order.