Jan 03, 2003

Chittagong Hill Tracts: Squandering the Peace and Human Rights Dividends

There was a consensus that peace and security at home are essential prerequisites for poverty reduction
“There was a consensus that peace and security at home are essential prerequisites for poverty reduction. The development partners encouraged that this should include follow up of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord.” – Bangladesh Development Forum in its press release on 15 March 2002.

1. Introduction:

On 16 January 2002, European Commission approved an indicative sum of Euro € 411.5 million under the National Indicative Programme for Bangladesh for the period 2003-2005. This includes €7.5 million for financing projects in areas such as peace building measures, community development activities as well as small projects in local communities and a longer term plan of action in the area of water and natural resources in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs). Earlier, Asian Development Bank signed an agreement with the government of Bangladesh to provide US$ 61 million to carry out development activities in the CHTs in the next seven years.

Although international donors resume major development activities in the CHTs from 2003, peace in the region is on a razor’s edge. The Joint Risk Assessment Mission of the Government of Bangladesh, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other donor agencies reported an improvement in the security situation in the CHTs in August 2002. But, the failure to implement the CHTs Peace Accord of 2 December 1997, the failure to rehabilitate the returnee Jumma refugees and internally displaced Jummas, the persistence of discriminatory policies such as provision of free rations only to the illegal Bengali settlers and the violent suppression of political formations of indigenous Jumma peoples by the Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS) in its efforts to claim as the sole representative of indigenous Jummas and the consequent violent conflicts the United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF) – all have served to keep peace at bay.

Unless the donors address the root causes of the conflict within the framework of the Peace Accord and adopt rights-based approaches to development along with effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, development aid will fail to benefit the CHTs’ indigenous peoples. Peace will remain ever elusive.

2. The Joint Risks Assessment Mission

After the kidnapping of three road engineers of DANIDA in the Chittagong Hill Tracts on 16 February 2001, most aid agencies withdrew their operations due to security concerns. From 1 to 9 June 2002, a joint mission comprising representatives of Bangladesh government, UNDP, ADB and other donor agencies visited the CHTs to conduct the risk assessments.

The Joint Risks Assessment Mission in its report in August 2002 recommended resumption of development activities in a majority of areas in the CHTs in the light of the improvement of the overall situation. The mission concluded that out of 27 Upazilas of three hill districts of Khagrachari, Rangamati and Bandarban, 22 are at minimum risk for development activity. Four Upazilas and few disturbed localities offer moderate risk. Only one Upazila, Mahalchhari, in the remote terrains of Khagrachhari district was marked as "red" or high risk area due to political tension there. It has caused a "very unstable and insecure environment" – reported the joint mission. Tension due to indigenous and settlers’ feelings is high in Mahalchari where development work should not be attempted until the political situation improves.

The mission identified six priority areas for assistance: consolidation of peace initiatives, building of institutional capacity, focus on the poor, community participation and empowerment, small-scale projects, partnership and network.

The report further recommended establishment of a risk management system to monitor 'dynamic' security situation. In addition, the police should be better equipped and more local tribal people should be recruited to the force. The report further recommended to the government, donors and other development agencies to adopt a common approach managed by a facility based in the area, with a secretariat in Dhaka to meet the critical development needs of the population.

3. Non-implementation of the Peace Accord

The key obstruction to peace in the CHTs is the failure to implement the CHTs Peace Accord of 2 December 1997. The previous Awami League government did little to implement the Accord. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which initiated the talks with the JSS in 1992 but vehemently opposed the Peace Accord, has taken further measures after it came to power in October 2001 to undermine the Accord.
Peace dividends have not lived up to many hopes
Courtesy BBC, 3 December 2002

Unless the donors first focus on “consolidation of peace initiatives” by ensuring incremental but full implementation of the Peace Accord within a specified time frame, the frustration over the failure to implement the Accord will seriously hamper implementation of other programmes such as building of institutional capacity, focus on the poor, community participation and empowerment, small-scale projects, partnership and network. The root causes of the conflict must be addressed simultaneously with development initiatives.

3.1 Land Commission

The illegal government-sponsored population transfer of over half a million plain settlers in violation of the Article 52 of the CHTs 1900 Regulation and Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and land grabbing by these illegal settlers and military exacerbated the conflict. The Peace Accord provided for establishment of a Land Commission to resolve the land disputes within three years. However, between 1997 and 2001, then Awami League government did little to set up a Land Commission. One day before handing over power to the caretaker government prior to the 2001 general elections, the Awami League government passed the CHTs Land Dispute Settlement Commission Act, 2001. The government did not even consult the CHTs Regional Council.

Indigenous Jumma peoples have rejected the CHTs Land Dispute Settlement Commission Act, 2001, among others, because of (i) the arbitrary powers of the Chairperson to provide final judgement in the event of lack of consensus among other members; (ii) the exclusion of Jumma refugees who returned to the CHTs under the 1992 repatriation agreement from the ambit of the Land Commission; and (iii) the exclusion of the internally displaced Jummas from the scope of the Act. These provisions undermine the CHTs Peace Accord.

The other members of the Land Commission have yet not been appointed. The current BNP government has shown little interest to amend the anomalies of the Land Dispute Settlement Commission Act, 2001 or setting up the Land Commission.

3.2 Pervading military presence

Article 17 (a) of the peace accord states: “Immediately with signing and executing the agreement between the government and the Parbattya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) and with the members of the PCJSS coming to normal life, all temporary camps of army, ansar and village defence force in Chittagong Hill Tracts excepting Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) and permanent cantonments (three in three district headquarters and in Alikadam, Ruma and Dighinala) will be gradually brought back to the permanent places and a deadline for this will be fixed.”

However, only 31 camps of the estimated 520 temporary camps have been withdrawn so far.

While the government may have genuine security concerns, ordinary Bangladesh Police could tackle the prevailing situation in the CHTs. More so, when the Article 17 also provides that “The members of the armed forces can be deployed under due rules and procedures in case of deterioration of law and order situation and in times of natural calamities or like other parts of the country under the control of the civil administration.”

Instead of withdrawing the military, the government has launched “Operation Uttaran” and continues to conduct military operation through out the CHTs. The order issued in 1973 to impose military administration in the CHTs remains in effect at present, having never been withdrawn. Until today, indigenous students require no objection certificate from army for admission to universities and other institutions of higher education. The quota system reserved for the indigenous students under the Peace Accord is directly controlled by the military.

In addition, in violation of Section 64 of the Peace Accord, the government had also allocated a total of 1,56,552 acres of land for military purposes after the signing of the Accord, respectively, 9,560 acres for establishment of Ruma Armed Forces Garrison in Bandarban district, 183 acres for expansion of Bandarban Brigade headquarters, 30,446 acres for establishment of Artillery Training Centre, 26,000 acres for establishment of Air Force Training Centre, 72,000 acres for reserved forestation and 18,333 acres as lease by District Commissioner. These lands were allotted without any consultation with the Regional Council.

The army had already occupied large areas of lands prior to the signing of the Accord. Article 17(b) of the Accord provides that “The lands to be abandoned by military or para-military camps and cantonments will be either returned to the original owners or to the hill district councils.” As the government failed to withdraw the camps, many indigenous peoples could not get back their lands.

Unless the CHTs is fully demilitarised through withdrawal of the army as provided in the Peace Accord, the civil society could neither grow nor development activities could be undertaken without hindrance.

3.3 Rehabilitation of returnee Jumma Refugees and Internally Displaced Jummas

About 43,000 Jumma refugees returned to CHTs from Tripura State of India after the signing of the Peace Accord. In addition, about 60,000 indigenous peoples were internally displaced between 1992 and 1997. They include people whose neighbours were massacred and whose homes were burnt down during military operations. The settlers confiscated their lands and in many instances obtained false official certificates of ownership.

In addition to returning the land under the CHTs Peace Accord, the government further agreed to “ensure leasing two acres of land in the respective locality subject to availability of land of the landless tribals or the tribals having less than two acres of land per family. However, groveland can be allotted in case of non-availability of necessary lands.”

The government took no initiatives to provide cultivable land or groveland. About 40 villages of returnee refugees are still under the occupation of the plain settlers. Over 3,000 families did not get back their own land.

Rather than rehabilitating the returnee Jumma refugees and Jumma IDPs, then Awami League government identified the illegal settlers – who had displaced indigenous Jumma peoples from their homes in the first place – as “internally displaced persons”. As a result, the Government CHTs Task Force on IDPs estimated the number of IDPs as of July 2000 at 1,28,000. The present Bangladesh National Party government has also failed to appoint a Chairman of the Task Force. It however provides free rations only to the illegal settlers.

3.4 Free rations to plain settlers: An act of racism

The government of Bangladesh sustains the conflict in the CHTs by providing free rations only to the illegal settlers under various food security schemes supported by international donors. Many illegal settlers have been getting free rations for the last two decades. New settlers, who have been trickling into the CHTs in large numbers since the signing of the Accord, are also provided free rations.

On the other hand, indigenous Jummas are uprooted from their homes under various programmes such as re-forestation. The denial of rations to the indigenous Jumma peoples including the refugees who returned prior to the Peace Accord and the Jumma IDPs - who are vulnerable and amongst the poorest solely on the basis of their ethnic origin, is a racist act of the Government of Bangladesh.

3.5 Guided illegal settler oriented development:

The CHTs Accord urges the government to “give preference to the eligible tribal candidates” in appointing the Chairman of the CHT Development Board (CHTDB). The BNP government however appointed Abdul Wadud Bhuiyan, a Member of Parliament from Khagrachari, as chairman of the Board. Under Bhuiyan’s leadership, the CHTDB has been undertaking settler-oriented development programmes and the flow of illegal settlers into the CHTs have increased manifold. In fact, Bhuiyan reportedly sought to issue orders to provide free rations only to the settlers. When the Deputy Minister for the CHTs Affairs, Mani Swapan Dewan refused to toe the line on the issue of providing free rations only to the settlers, he was divested of his portfolio although he remained minister. As Prime Minister Khaleza Zia decided to keep CHTs Affairs Ministry under the Prime Minister’s Office in clear violation of the Peace Accord, the Deputy Minister for the CHTs Affairs has become a show-piece meant for international donors.

4. Undemocratic Hill District Councils:

Since their establishment in 1989, the only elections to the Hill District Councils of Khagrachari, Rangamati and Bandarban were held in May 1989 under then regime of military dictator General H M Ershad. The socalled democratic governments of Bangladesh National Party and Awami League on the other hand appointed their party members as chairpersons of the District Councils, depriving the people of the CHTs of the opportunity to participate in governance.

No elections have been held to the Regional Council either since its formation in 1999.

On 1 January 2003, the High Court of Bangladesh ordered to hold elections to the three Hill District Councils by 13 March 2003, rejecting the government’s petition for extending the Councils’ terms by another six months. While the decision of the High Court is a step in the right direction to bring an end to the unconstitutional and undemocratic “Dhaka selection regimes” in the District Councils and the Regional Councils, government should exclude the non-permanent residents of the CHTs from the voter lists before holding the elections.

5. Fratricidal killings:

The non-implementation of the Peace Accord and violent suppression of other political formations of the indigenous Jumma peoples by the Jana Samhati Samiti in its efforts to claim as the sole representative of indigenous Jummas led to increasing conflicts between the United Peoples Democratic Front, another political organization of the Jummas and the JSS. In the last formal talks held between the JSS and UPDF on 23 September 2000, the UPDF proposed three suggestions for resolution of the JSS-UPDF conflict: (1) cessation of hostilities; (2) development of common minimum programmes for protection of the rights of Jumma peoples; and (3) launching of a joint movement of the patriotic Jummas including the UPDF and the JSS. While the JSS representatives agreed in principle, they refused to sign a written agreement. And the talks collapsed. Various attempts by elders and indigenous Jumma leaders as well as national and international NGOs failed to evoke positive reaction from the JSS. The JSS supremo, Santu Larma is against holding of any dialogue with UPDF. In the resolution adopted at the 7th Annual session held on 5-8 November 2002, the JSS termed the UPDF as a “terrorist organisation” and resolved to “extinguish” the UPDF. Not so long ago, the authorities in Dhaka used the same epithets against the JSS.

Nonetheless, the conflict between the JSS and UPDF has “emerged as a critical issue in the peace process.” Between February 1998- October 2002, the conflict between the JSS and UPDF has reportedly led to killing of 231 persons, injuring of 400 persons and abduction of 380 persons. The government continues to benefit from its “divide and rule policy that is primarily being facilitated by JSS Supremo, Santu Larma’s obduracy to find a negotiated agreement with the UPDF.

6. Continuing human rights abuses

There are credible reports of continuing human rights abuses including arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, rape, religious intolerance etc, in addition to violations of economic, social and cultural rights. While ordinary Jummas continue to suffer harassment, degrading treatment and serious human rights violations, a large number of activists of the United Peoples Democratic Front, Hill Peoples Council, Hill Students Council and Hill Women Federation have been specifically targeted and arrested under Section 54 of the Bangladesh Criminal Procedure Code and Special Powers Act, 1974. The Hill Watch Human Rights Forum reported that there are over a hundred UPDF activists being detained by Bangladesh government under various draconian laws.
On 16 November 2002, about 10.30 am Bangladesh army personnel led by Subedar Tarikul from Doshvila army camp under Lakshmichari zone went to Barbil Buddha Vihar under Manikchari area of Khagrachari district, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh. The soldiers entered the temple with their shoes on, ransacked it and dragged Reverend Kyolachai Bhikku out of the temple. He was severely beaten with fists, sticks and rifle butts in full public view. The army then hanged him upside down from a tree in the front of the temple and then again subjected to severe beating while being kept hanging. In addition to Reverend Kyolachai Bhikku, Bangladesh army personnel tortured a Sraman and Mongshey Marma, son of Pailaprue Marma of Barbil village. The army made a false allegation that Reverend Bhikku harboured terrorists of the area.

7. The security threat to development

Since the kidnapping of the DANIDA road engineers in February 2001, situation in the CHTs in practical terms has improved little. Arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, detention, killing, kidnapping etc continue unabated. The prevailing situation could at best be described as what the Risk Assessment Mission termed, “dynamic”.

The identity of kidnappers of the DANIDA road engineers remains a mystery. However, irrespective of whoever might actually have been behind the kidnapping, the circumstances leading to the release of the hostages point the needle of suspicion to the involvement of army. While many indigenous Jummas opine that kidnapping was orchestrated to justify the military presence in the CHTs, the role and interest of the army in the development of the CHTs cannot be overlooked. Even after the CHTs Peace Accord, the Army Engineer Construction Battalion has constructed the road from Dighinala to Marishya (19.5 km) in November 1999 and has been constructing the road from Chimbuk to Thanchi (53.7 km). The army has expressed interests to develop the roads in the CHTs.

The involvement of national and international road construction companies in the CHTs pose a threat to security and financial interests of the army, in particular, the Army Engineer Construction Battalion. Indeed, if the security situation remains “dynamic”, it is only the Army Engineer Construction Battalion that can provide security for road constructions. In the prevailing situation in the CHTs, it may not be difficult to hire vigilante groups or mercenaries. The army only does not pose a threat to development programmes, their involvement in the development of the CHTs will be catastrophic.

8. Conclusion and recommendations

As daily The Independent sums up the situation: “As the peace agreement was not implemented, no massive development work could be undertaken in the area. The CHT is a large area with untapped resources. If political settlement followed by economic development were earnestly undertaken, the area could be a model of progress and prosperity in the country. The settlers and tribals of CHT and the government will have to give peace a chance.”

It is clear that implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord is key to development of the CHTs and peace in the region. However, reluctance of the successive governments to preserve distinct identity of the CHTs region and government’s policy and programmes of destroying the distinct identity of the CHTs and its indigenous peoples prevail over implementation of the Peace Accord.

In its next annual meeting to be held in Paris in March-April 2003, the members of the Bangladesh Development Forum should take firm measures to address the root causes to consolidate peace initiatives, among others, by:

- Ensuring the functioning of the Land Commission after necessary amendments of the CHTs Land Dispute Settlement Commission Act, 2001 and appointment of other members of the Commission and endowing it “with adequate resources to pursue this extremely difficult task rapidly” , including hiring of external experts to deal with the complex land rights issues of indigenous peoples;

- Devising projects for the resettlement of returnee refugees and displaced persons and their rehabilitation within the CHTs and for the possible resettlement of the 400,000 Bengali non-permanent residents outside the CHTs pursuant to the outcome of the deliberations of the Land Commission, and for the sustainable development of the area in a way which preserves the culture of the indigenous peoples;

- Ensuring immediate withdrawal of the army as agreed in the Peace Accord; deploying, if necessary, the civil police, by recruiting indigenous peoples into the police force as recommended by the Joint Risk Assessment Mission Report;

- Contributing to the reduction of the conflict in the CHTs by not funding Poverty Reduction Programmes and Food Security Schemes under which provisions of free rations provided to the illegal settlers by the government to sustain the indigenous- settlers conflict;

- Ensuring assistance to the Jumma refugees and IDPs including those who had returned prior to the Peace Accord (between 1992-1997) under Food Security Schemes and Poverty Reduction Programmes;

- Ensuring that the Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board is headed by an indigenous person or else take measures of stopping implementation of the programmes through CHTDB until an indigenous person is appointed as the Chairman of the CHTDB;

- Giving priorities to local indigenous communities/NGOs in the development of the CHTs, if necessary by taking special measures to increase their capacity;

- Ensuring that the government of Bangladesh holds free and fair elections in the Hill District Councils as well as in the Regional Councils by excluding the non-permanent residents from the voter lists and by allowing international election monitors to observe the elections;

- Ensuring handing over of all powers by Bangladesh government to the Hill District Councils and Regional Council;

- Ensuring that composition of proposed National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh reflects plurality and diversity of the people of Bangladesh through appointment of representatives of indigenous peoples in conformity with the 1991 Paris Principles of National Human Rights Institutions.

Source: The voice of the Asian Indigenous & Tribal peoples Network