Perspective and Persistence of Militarization in CHT


                Bachchu Chakma                

        The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), the southeastern part of Bangladesh – the land of indigenous Jumma peoples and once Non-Muslim dominated area happens to be the world’s most militarized region in context of the global military deployment. In the Report titled: Life is not ours published by CHT Commission in 1990, it has been mentioned that the deployment of army in CHT had been proportionately 1 soldier behind 6 Jumma people during General Ziaur Rahman’s regime. According to the IWGIA Report-14 titled: Militarization in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh published in 2012, the military deployment in relation was 1 soldier behind 40 Jumma people following signing of the CHT Accord.

In fact, it may be said that de facto military rule has been running since the independence of Bangladesh. This merciless and brutal military supremacy has been kept functional in the CHT during almost half of a century last. Immediately after independence, the ruling class of Bangladesh undertook the militarization plan for massive deployment of army so as to turn the non-Muslim inhabited CHT into a Muslim-dominated region – an effort to give a complete shape to the unfinished task left by Pakistani rulers.

As part of the blue print, militarization in the CHT began during the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman regime in 1973. The demand of Regional Autonomy for the indigenous Jumma peoples in the CHT was met with establishment of three full-fortified army cantonments in Ruma, Alikadam and Dighinala of the CHT in 1973. During that time, Manbendra Narayan Larma, invincible Jumma leader of the time, delivered rational speech in the parliament against establishment of the cantonments. Despite opposition, the construction of cantonment and expansion of army camps was not put to halt.

Alongside, military atrocity, brutality and repression came down upon the innocent Jumma people in the name of searching for ‘Razakar’ and ‘Mujahid’ forces the paramilitary setups of which were established by the Pakistan authority as supplementary forces to combat the ‘Mukti Bahini’ – the Liberation Force established in 1971. Basically, soon after the end of Liberation war the government resorted to such suppressive measures against the Jumma people in order to implement the program of settling thousands of Muslim families in CHT, especially, in the areas of Feni of Khagrachhari, to begin with the population transfer.

It may be recalled that Bangladesh underwent a military rule from 1975 to 1981 under General Ziaur Rahman’s leadership. By then, militarization program got further intensified in CHT. It was the military might to find solution to the problem like national and political crisis of CHT. But General Zia identified the crisis as an economic problem and formed the Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board (CHTDB). The GOC of 24th Infantry Division stationed in Chittagong was appointed as the Chairman of CHTDB since the very inception. It is needless to mention that it was through the CHTDB the plan was concluded to develop the infrastructure for military purpose and to settle the Muslim families being shifted into CHT from outside. The militarization process got further accelerated in CHT during this time.

Indeed, during General Zia’s tenure, militarization grew at geometric rate in CHT. ‘Operation Dabanal’ (Operation Wildfire) was promulgated in 1977 and the whole CHT was brought under control of militarization process. It was by then alone, some 115,000 military and para-military forces were deployed in the CHT at which 1 soldier would stand for duty behind 6 Jumma people. Thus, how the militarization got heavily weighted in the CHT resulting in establishment of more than 500 army camps across the CHT. Alongside, Islamization began to get heightened with settling thousands of Muslim families from the plains.

During the time, on 25 March 1980, the army perpetrated the first genocide upon the Jumma people, known as the ‘Kalampati Massacre.’ This genocide was jointly carried out by the army, Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), Village Defence Police (VDP) and Muslim settlers under a planned manner. Right on the previous day of the incident, the local army Camp Commander issued a notice to all the Karbaris (the village heads) instructing them to attend the meeting on the following day with villagers in the premises of the Buddhist Temple closed by the Poya Para High School. As the Karbaris along with the villagers gathered at the venue, the army unwarrantedly opened fire at the mob while the illegally infiltrated settlers lynched the fleeing Jumma villagers with choppers. This genocide allegedly claimed to have killed some 300 people including women and children. This hellish episode did not spare the Buddhist monks while the temple was burnt down and Buddha statue were vandalized.

The military regime continued as General Hussain Muhammad Ershad succeeded General Ziaur Rahman. As part of the Islamization alongside the militarization, more than 400,000 Muslim population from outside was given settlement in the lands owned by the Jumma people, within a span of time from General Zia’s tenure 1979 to General Ershad’s tenure of 1985. The army made use of the Muslim population not only as human shield but also a mean to occupy the lands under its control. The ‘Operation Dabanal’ (Operation Wildfire), which was promulgated in 1980 to assert military supremacy in the region, finally led to declaration of CHT as a ‘Disturbed Area’ in 1980s.

The CHT in 1980s has been a locality overwhelmed with panic under seizure of the army. Massacres in villages after villages of the Jumma people were perpetrated jointly by the army and Muslim settlers. The settlers would plunder and amass the properties, lands and homesteads left behind by the Jumma people fleeing for fear of lives from the military atrocities. When the Jumma villagers would offer resistance to the plunderers, the army would open fire at the Jumma villagers and force them flee away. Availing this advantage, the settlers would plunder and set fire in the deserted houses only to make the villagers totally indigent.

Chronological record reveals that 15 genocides involving communal attacks were perpetrated jointly by the army and Muslim settlers in CHT. Hundreds of houses were set ablaze. Several hundred Jumma people were killed. Innumerous women and children were made preys to raping and killing. Consequently, hundreds of Jumma people had to take shelter to the forests leaving own homesteads and lands. Many had to lead an insecure life or a fugitive life in the forests as expatriates in own land while many of them had to leave the country forever.

According to the information of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), the army in league with the Muslim settlers perpetrated a massacre in Longadu Upazila of Rangamati hill district on 4 May 1989 and killed 40 Jumma villagers. Hundreds of Jumma people were killed and including many of them were burnt alive while many were shot to kill while running away for life during genocide perpetrated in Logang Upazila of Khagrachari hill district in 1992. In this context, the European Union passed a proposal so that the Bangladesh army was kept refrained from conducting attack. But later on, some 100 people were killed in Naniarchar massacre. During that time, the UN Special Representative brought to notice a report focusing innumerable incidents that involved gross violations of human rights. A study over the then available news showed that approximately 2500 Jumma women and adolescent girls fell victims to raping.

In 1995, a study over women violation reveals that the incidents that had taken place from 1991 to 1993, the security forces had been involved in most of such violations. During this period, the Bangladesh authorities, while using the security forces, resorted to different policy involving rape, repression, filing up false cases, mass arrests, putting behind the bar and kidnapping – all of which led to almost breaking out a war.

Despite there has been an Accord, popularly known as ‘CHT Accord’ signed in 1997 between the government of Bangladesh and PCJSS aimed at solving the CHT crisis peacefully and politically, yet militarization and Islamization drive under the army did not stop. Despite passage of 23 years after signing of the CHT Accord, the government has kept the spinal and significant issues of the Accord unimplemented as yet. Instead, in one hand, the government has kept implementing process of the Islamization program while on the other, continues with the military rule and militarization drive obviously to abolish the national entity of the Jumma people. In place of ‘Operation Dabanal’ introduced in 1980, ‘Operation Uttoron’ (Operation Upliftment) was promulgated in 2001 as to reassert the de facto military rule in the CHT. It is by the army, Muslim population from the plains and the Rohingya people migrated from Myanmar are being given settlement inside the CHT unabatedly.

As per the CHT Accord, all the temporary army camps including the camps of Ansar and VDP para-military forces are to be withdrawn. According to the provision as shrined in the Accord, only 6 cantonments will be in the CHT of which 3 cantonments in each of the three hill district headquarters and the other 3 cantonments will remain in Alikadam, Ruma and Dighinala – thus altogether 6 cantonments. As per the government of Bangladesh, meanwhile 240 camps have been withdrawn from among the 500 temporary camps. But as per the PCJSS, it is only 100 temporary camps in three phases have been withdrawn so far. As a result, more than 400 temporary camps are still remaining functional in CHT. Moreover, the withdrawal process of the temporary camps has remained stopped since 2009.

In the 10th Session of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) under UN Economic and Social Council held on 16-27 May 2011, it was mentioned that soon after emergence of Bangladesh as a nation state in 1971, the Bangladesh army has been playing a decisive role in the CHT. Owing to this, centering the political, economic and social aspects, especially, the excessive density of military presence has had a negative impact in the lives of civilian people. It is for that reason, expansion and establishment of the army camps have got enhanced widely and that it appears, as if the CHT has been devolved to the army authority. Furthermore, it was mentioned that it is the army that stands as the main hurdle on the way to implementation of the CHT Accord. The army has been obstructing the Accord implementation process in every step.

In fact, the principal task of the army has been and is to turn the non-Muslim-inhabited CHT into a Muslim-dominated region during the post-Accord period. Hence, in one hand, as they have been obstructing the Accord implementation process by interfering in all the subjects while discharging the prime role in implementing the anti-Accord and anti-Jumma-interest programs.

The following are some of the instances of the kind:

Interference in General Administration: It is by merit of the “Operation Uttoron” promulgated in 2001, the army authority in the CHT has been illegitimately controlling the general administration, law & order, development, judiciary, etc. In this regard, the Armed Forces Division attached to the Prime Minister’s office issues anti-Accord and anti-Jumma-interest directives to various ministries from time to time. For instance, based on report of the security forces, the Home Ministry concluded 11 decisions on post-Accord situation of CHT and relevant issues in its meeting held on 7 January 2015. The 5th decision states: “If any individual or foreigner or organization wishes to talk to any tribal person or hold a meeting with tribal people in the CHT, shall have to ensure the presence of official from the local administration and army or Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB).” This directive signifies the meaning that on willingness of seeing an indigenous friend or holding a meeting with the natives or intending to work on human rights issues, as such, attendance of the representative from the general administration, army or BGB is a must.

Execution of Islamization Policy: In one hand, the army has been conspiring to consider and identify the Muslim Bengali settlers as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) – an equal status to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of Jumma people who had been uprooted during the pre-accord turmoil period, while on the other hand, the army has been preventing the returning of the dispossessed lands and homesteads to the actual owners and rehabilitation of the IDPs of Jumma people in their own lands, as per the CHT Accord. During 4-party coalition government led by BNP, the conspiracy of providing ration to 28,000 Muslim Bengali settler families and settling 10,000 such settlers in the Sajek area was lively.

It is worth mentioning that in the CHT, as to this day, the infiltration process of Muslim Bengali families from plains and the Rohingya families that came from Myanmar is being supervised by the army in settling them in the CHT. During the post-accord period the cluster villages of the settlers have been expanded by the army. In addition, the Muslim families affected by the national disasters namely, ‘Sidr’ and ‘Aila’ in 2007 and 2009 respectively, also had been brought in the CHT and given settlement violating the CHT Accord.

Organizing the Muslim Settlers: The army, having organized the settlers under the regional political platforms, namely, Parbatya Gano Porishad (Hill Peoples Council), Parbatya Bangalee Chhatra Parishad (Hill Bengali Students Council), Pabatya Chattagram Soma Odhikar Andolon (Chittagong Hill Tracts Equal Rights Movement), Bangali Chhatra Oikya Parishad (Bengalee Students Unity Council), etc. on the line of ultra-communalism and ultra-nationalism, has been leading all that communal crimes through these organizations. During the 4-party coalition government led by BNP, communal-line environment was created through organizing the so-called ‘Sama Odhikar Andolon’ in the CHT. In continuity, during the present Awami League led government, all the Bengali regional communal political organizations have been recently brought under a single organization named Parbatya Chattagram Nagorik Parishad’ (Chittagong Hill Tracts Citizens Council) with assistance of army and intelligence agencies in 2019. The army, while inciting the ultra-communal and ultra-nationalist organization, has been obstructing the implementing process of CHT Accord including the functions of the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission.

Communal Attacks: The post-Accord period has witnessed altogether 20 communal attacks designed to forcible eviction of the indigenous Jumma peoples as to occupy their deserted lands and homesteads under direct support of the army. Of them, the major communal attacks are: Mahalchhari communal attack in 2003, Baghaihat communal attack in 2008, Taindong-Matiranga communal attack in 2013 and Longadu-Tintila communal attack in 2017. With these communal attacks, the economic base of the Jumma people is brought down to catastrophic level through burning down villages after villages.

Criminalization of the Jumma Rights Activists: The army is in its ill-efforts with hatching repeated conspiracies and propagation, in a bid to identify the individuals and supporters devoted to assertion of rights to self-determination of the Jumma people as terrorists, extortionists and miscreants. As part of the modus operandi, it has become very usual matter to file up sequences of false cases against the PCJSS workers and supporters, taking indiscriminate arrests, arresting the persons released on bail just at the jail gate yet under another false cases. Alongside, projecting as ‘terrorists’, ‘extortionists, ‘arms miscreants’ and taking arrests followed by sending to jail, forcible picking up and making disappeared and extra-judicial killings in the name of ‘cross fire’, calling to camps and meting out inhuman torture and searching houses at the wee hours in the name of looking for terrorists, etc. inhuman activities are being perpetrated by the army.

Human Rights Violation: It is by merit of the ‘Operation Upliftment’ introduced in 2001, the army has been free-handedly carrying out drives associated with arbitrary arrest, beating up as per whims and wishes, sending to jail, unwarranted searching of houses, bringing out undue harassment, etc. in the CHT. As per the news and features appeared in the dailies like the Daily Star, Prathom Alo, etc. and the report of the PCJSS and the International CHT Commission, the army had committed to some 1,487 human rights violation crimes from 2004 to 2011. Of them, the crimes include: death without offence, hitting, raping, attempting to rape, plundering, arson in houses, destroying temples, undue arrest, beating, harassment, eviction, etc.

Illegal land occupation and Interest of Economic gain: The ‘Pacification Project,’ which had been introduced as a counter insurgency weapon during the turmoil, has not yet been withdrawn, rather it is continuing with fresh programs. The army receives 10,000 MT food grains under this project. The army does not need to submit account of the amount granted under the project to the government. The amount granted under the project is basically used to organize the settlers, for expansion of their cluster villages and their education and healthcare programs. Besides, the army also has the commercial interest out of the tourism industry under its proprietorship. The army has taken hundreds of lands in acquisition and illegal occupation in all the three hill districts for promoting tourism. Of them, the most luxurious Tourism Centers under army’s possession, for examples, are located at Chimbuk and Sajek hills. Apart from it, the army deployed in the CHT has free access to illegal gains in crores of hard cash from the forest resource transport and management.

The news that appeared in the Prothom Alo daily on 16 April 2020 reads: “Bangladesh Security Force gets involved in extra-judicial killings of national minorities and political opponents including others in the CHT and in other parts of the country – allegation of the kind could lead to arise question as to what extent the army is respectful to the international law and could appear as a hurdle in having access to the UN Peace Keeping Mission in future.”

It is needless to say that the Bangladesh army, having participation in the UN Peace Keeping Missions, is serving for maintaining peace and human rights in various countries. But the dichotomy is that inside the country, it is the same army, which has been erecting obstructions against the process of peaceful solution of CHT problem through implementation of the CHT Accord by often violating the human rights. In the UNPFII session held in 2011, a recommendation was adopted urging not to appoint the members of the Bangladesh security forces who had been involved in human rights violation inside the country.

Ever since achieving independence, military governments, interim caretaker governments and political government have, for many occasions, ascended to power in Bangladesh alternately but no government has been in a position to set the CHT free from military rule. No government, within its tenure, has been able to put a stop to the repression, tyranny and injustice of the army done upon the Jumma people. It is no wonder that basically, each and every successive government has been pursuing the ‘militarization policy’ in the CHT through coercion and fascist manner without any pause. Indeed, in case of bringing a political and peaceful solution to the CHT crisis, it is left no other alternative but to withdraw all the temporary camps including the ‘Operation Uttoron’. In the CHT, for the case of establishing democratic governance and prevention of Islamization, it is highly essential and a matter of urgency to demilitarize the CHT as has been enshrined in the CHT Accord of 1997.

* Bachchu Chakma:

Translated by Hill Voice