Jan 02, 2012

Chittagong Hill Tracts: New Report Voices Concerns For Displaced Indigenous Peoples

The report finds that more than a decade after the signing of the CHT Peace Accord, violence and deprivation are still major concerns.

Below are extracts of a report published by Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre:


Twenty years of armed struggle in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), pitting the armed forces and Bengali settlers against indigenous groups seeking greater autonomy, formally ended in 1997 with the signing of the CHT Peace Accord. The accord granted cultural recognition and a degree of self-government to indigenous groups and foresaw the rehabilitation of internally displaced people (IDPs), but the situation of displaced indigenous people and Bengalis has not been resolved. 

Insecurity continues to generate new displacements. These go largely undocumented because of restrictions on independent reporting, but some sources suggest that tens of thousands of people have been affected. Insecurity is also preventing IDPs from achieving a durable solution to their displacement. Most who are unable to return to their places of origin cite a combination of insecurity and a lack of guarantees for political activity as their main obstacles. 

There is disagreement over who should be recognised as an IDP. Under the CHT Peace Accord, all parties recognise displaced indigenous people as IDPs, but the indigenous groups refuse to accept the Bengali settlers they have displaced from recently occupied land as such. Their position is not in line with the common definition of an IDP, which does not require a person to have lived in a place for a long period before they can be recognised as displaced from it. Given the background to the conflict, it may make sense to offer settlers compensation and safe alternatives to their discontinued occupation of the land in question, but any attempt to do so should be on the basis that they too should be recognized as IDPs and treated as such under the accord. 

There is a also a general lack of up-to-date information and monitoring of internal displacement, some of whom were displaced as many as 35 years ago, so it is unclear what their settlement intentions might have been and whether they have achieved a durable solution. 

Disputed land rights remain the most important issue. Given a context of continuing forced evictions and expropriation of ancestral lands, the commission set up to settle disputes needs to establish land ownership rights prior to undertaking a cadastral survey. By doing so, land would be registered to its original owners rather than the land grabbers. 

Internal displacement in Bangladesh is largely the result of two distinct phenomena: sporadic, massive displacements linked to natural hazards; and continuous but irregular displacement of minority groups marginalised by Bangladesh’s nation-building project. This overview focuses on the second phenomenon.

After the emergence of sovereign Bangladesh in 1971, the country’s leaders promoted homogenous Bengali nationalism. Groups which challenged that vision were marginalised by legal, political and military means (CSS, December 2008).

Legal measures, notably the Vested Property Act, served to expel Hindi landowners from their land. The act was a continuation of a Pakistani law passed to take over land owned by Hindus after separation from India in 1947, and was broadly used after the Pakistan-India war in 1965. One study estimated that the government had appropriated the property of 10.5 million Hindu households by 1997; 5.3 million Hindu landowners fled, mainly to the Indian state of West Bengal between 1964 and 1991 (ISS, 22 July 2011).

Political and later military measures were used to assimilate indigenous groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). This hilly territory covered by dense forest lies along the south-eastern border with Myanmar and India, and accounts for one-tenth of the country’s geographical area but only one per cent of its population.

In 1950, 98 per cent of CHT's population belonged to 13 ethnic groups distinct from Bengalis in terms of their language, culture and religion. Similar differences exist among the “hill people”, but they are collectively known as Jumma as they practice the slash-and-burn cultivation of land or jhum (BDI, January 2009; AJSS, 36-2008).

The British restricted the colonisation of indigenous land by outsiders and helped preserve indigenous institutions based on chiefdoms, customary law and common ownership of land. Since 1950, however, CHT has been open to immigration and non-indigenous people have acquired land (CSS, December 2008). 

The constitution drawn up in 1972 did not recognise the distinct Jumma identities. Instead, the government opened up CHT for economic development and offered poor Bengali families land to settle there. The construction of the Kaptai dam on the Karnaphuli river in the 1960s inundated from as much as 50 per cent of the region's arable land CHT and displaced more than 100,000 people from their ancestral holdings, both to other areas of CHT and into India. Bengalis from neighbouring districts also seized land which had been collectively used by indigenous population (Bushra Hasina, August 2002; BHDRC, April 2009:2).

The struggles over this land, together with the threat perceived by indigenous groups of their assimilation into the majority culture of Bangladesh, provided the background to the armed conflict which followed.

In 1976, indigenous groups organised under the United Peoples’ Organisation of Chittagong Hill Tracts (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti or PCJSS) formed an armed insurgency called Shanti Bahini. PCJSS called for constitutional recognition of indigenous rights, full regional autonomy and for all non-indigenous people to be relocated outside CHT (UN - ECOSOC, 18 February 2011).

Successive governments found these claims unacceptable, and they used force to displace the indigenous population from their land and villages and replace them with loyal Bengali households. Hundreds of thousands of poor Bengalis were moved into the area between 1979 and 1985, causing a significant demographic shift. By 1991 the indigenous and Bengali populations were roughly equal in number and the Jumma were pitched against the settlers, the latter supported by the army (BHDRC, April 2009:5). The settlement policy violated international law as it “aimed at altering the ethnic composition of the affected population” (BI, 2008:20-22).

The Bangladeshi government understood that it was losing valuable resources in CHT as a result of the disturbances, and when democratic rule replaced 15 years of military rule in 1991, members of the two dominant parties - Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, initiated dialogue with PCJSS. The government and PCJSS signed the CHT Peace Accord in 1997, granting cultural recognition and a degree of self-government to CHT indigenous groups and allowing them to form regional and district councils. It foresaw the withdrawal of military installations, the rehabilitation of internally displaced people (IDPs) and the repatriation of refugees (ISS, 22 July 2011; CHTC, August 10-18, 2009). The government established the Land Commission and the Task Force on Rehabilitation of Returnee Jumma Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons to implement the accord. 

Many of the most contentious issues, however, such as the settlement of land disputes, the demilitarisation of CHT and the devolution of authority to local institutions have still not been implemented. Neither did the accord resolve the future of the Bengali settlers. It was specific about return of the land to theJumma but did not clarify the land rights of the settlers (BDI, January 2009; UN - ECOSOC, 18 February 2011).

The Awami League election manifesto of 2008 stated that the accord would be fully implemented during its mandate, but new displacements have continued. According to some reports, tens of thousands of people have been affected (IRIN, 12 May 2011; CHTC, 28 June 2010; Indigenousportal, 20 December 2009).

The government does not formally recognise the collective rights of the indigenous people to communal land and continues to regard it as state-owned, and as such to be given to settlers. That said, the seizure of Jumma land does not always result in displacement, at least not directly. Rather than being lived on, the land may be used exclusively for agriculture and its loss may rather affect the long-term sustainability of people’s livelihoods (AIPP, August 2007:6).) 

According to displaced Jumma, the militarisation of CHT and the activities of the army have also led to displacement. These have included clashes, killings and other human rights violations committed by the army and its collaborators, military orders obliging people to leave their homes, and joint settler-army attacks involving the burning of homes.


In some cases as many as 35 years after the event, there is a lack of up-to-date information regarding the number of people who have achieved a durable solution and the number still displaced. 

A survey by the Human Development Research Centre (BHDRC) published in 2009 went some way to shedding more light on demographic changes in CHT. It found that, as of 2007, 31 per cent of the households in rural CHT had been displaced since 1977. It also estimated that a total of 56,000 households (291,200 people) had been displaced within CHT and that as many as 67,500 people had left for other parts of the country “due to alien and inhospitable living conditions”. It suggested that ten per cent of those displaced to other areas - up to a third from some indigenous groups - returned after 1997, mainly due to security improvements.

On the basis of the BHDRC's figures, as many as 323,000 people were internally displaced within or away from CHT between 1997 and 2007, but that as few as 5,000 of those who fled to other areas returned to CHT. Information on the number who might have achieved durable solutions, whether in their place of origin, the place they were displaced to or elsewhere was lacking (BHDRC, April 2009).

More recent displacement has largely been undocumented due to the restrictions on independent reporting in the area, but tens of thousands of people have been affected, according to some reports (IRIN, 12 May 2011; CHTC, 28 June 2010; Indigenousportal, 20 December 2009). In February 2010, for example, an attack apparently launched by the army and labourers employed by the military displaced almost 2,700 people (16 per cent of them Bengalis and 84 per cent indigenous) Rangamati district (EU, 26 February 2010). In April 2011, the NGO Survival International reported that more than 500 people were displaced and six indigenous villages razed to the ground amid fighting between Jumma and settlers. 

Displacement has reportedly affected an equal number of men and women from CHT (CRG, 2006). Most ethnic groups in CHT have had members displaced, but political groups seen as linked to the insurgency were the most affected. According to BHDRC, 22% of the Bengali population, 37% of the indigenous population and up to 72% of the indigenous Chakmas were displaced between 1977 and 2007 ((BHDRC, April 2009:42-43).

Most but not all displacements took place during the 1970s and1980s. Research from 2007 suggests that the majority of the households affected by dispossession were displaced a long time ago when their fathers owned the land; only 6% were dispossessed when they were the owners (Ibid). Anecdotal evidence from the Calcutta Research Group suggests that indigenous people keep moving from one place to another due to insecurity. Forty percent of the displaced indigenous population living in settlements inside CHT interviewed in 2006 were displaced after the accord was signed (CRG, 2006; see also CHTC, 28 June 2010). 

Most indigenous people, who often have important ties to their territory, sought protection in other areas of CHT rather than further afield. More than 80 per cent of all displacements took place within CHT, according to BHDRC's research. Census data from CHT in 1981 and 1991 supports this finding. The census indicates that the indigenous population in CHT grew from 455,000 in 1981 to 501,000 in 1991 (ten per cent over a decade, similar to the national growth rate). This would suggest that a large number of the IDPs remained within CHT (Adnan, 2004 quoted in chtarchive.com, accessed 20 December 2011).

While two-thirds of the current Bengali population in CHT have been living there for less than 30 years, the displaced Bengalis also chose to flee within CHT, often to areas near military installations where they could enjoy relative safety (BHDRC, April 2009: 42).

The households whose members fled CHT were often fragmented. On average, two members of these households left the territory while three remained. Separation also occurred in families which were forced to flee more than once, a characteristic of 80 per cent of the displaced households in CHT. Displaced indigenous households had to move on average 1.7 times, and Bengalis displaced between 1997 and 2007 on average 1.5 times (BHDRC, April 2009: 42).