The government continues to hurt the pigeon of peace in the Hills


Sajib Chakma

The Government of Bangladesh led by Sheikh Hasina signed the ‘Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Accord’ with the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) on 2 December 1997 with the very aim of resolving the CHT problem in a political and peaceful means. In presence of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Accord was signed by Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma (Santu Larma), President of PCJSS on behalf of the permanent residents of CHT and Abul Hasnat Abdullah MP, convener of the National Committee on CHT on behalf of the government.

Subsequent to signing the Accord, on the first arms depositing day in Khagrachari, Santu Larma formally deposited arms to the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Hill leader Santu Larma and Abul Hasnat Abdullah MP flew white pigeons, a symbol of peace into the open sky. Not only that, in that historic moment, the Prime Minister in her speech also conveyed the nectar message of peace, harmony and prosperity in the Hills with signing of the Accord to the people of the Hills and the countrymen. In fact, at the time with the exception of a few UPDF-led students and youths, most of the hill people welcomed the Accord. As with the hill Jumma people of all walks of life, there is great hope and excitement among the Bengali people who are permanent residents of the hills.

At that time, an organization called ‘Old and Permanent Bengali Welfare Council’ was formed by the permanent Bengali residents in support of the Accord. (During the state of emergency in 2007-2008, the personnel of the military and intelligence agencies made the organization deactivate by detaining, torturing, threatening and imprisoning several members of the organization.) And the CHT Accord has been widely appreciated at home and abroad. As a result of signing this Accord, then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was awarded the UNESCO Peace Prize.

Actually, those who opposed the Accord did not get the support of the people at home, abroad and locally. Though a section of the BNP-Jamaat led communal Bengali group and an insignificant number of hill students and youths led by the then newly formed UPDF opposed it, but they did not actually gain the significant support from the general people. The BNP-Jamaat’s argument was that as a result of this Accord, the region from the CHT to Chittagong-Feni will be annexed to India. In other words, there is no interest of the Bengalis in the Accord, and the region will also go to the hand of India. The UPDF, on the other hand, said the Accord was a compromise Agreement. There is nothing in this Accord for interest of the Jumma people. The PCJSS is rotten. The UPDF is the real revolutionary party, in the style of the Chinese revolutionaries, they call it ‘the New Party of the New Age’. There is no way to achieve the liberation of the Jumma people without full autonomy.

This is why many of the UPDF members went underground and started taking up arms soon after the PCJSS deposited their arms after signing the Accord and returning to normal life from the underground. However, when the BNP-Jamaat alliance came to power it did not talk about cancelling the Accord. In addition, some clauses of the Accord were implemented during its tenure including the withdrawal of some army camps. On the other hand, the UPDF has never been able to mount a strong movement against the government, but has used most of its power against PCJSS activists and supporters. However, at one stage they also started speaking in favor of the CHT Accord, at least at the sense of lip service.

In fact, due to the overwhelming support of the people, the consensus between the government and the PCJSS and the national and international recognition, the CHT Accord gained immense importance and acceptance. It is also noteworthy that there was an international context behind this Accord. At that time, only the CHT Accord was not signed in the world. Many more such Accord were signed following the collapse of Soviet Russia and in the immediate aftermath of it, keeping pace with the unified new world order that was created after the end of Cold War. From that point of view, the CHT Accord was signed timely in the context of local, national and international realities. Shortly before and after the signing of the CHT Accord, at least 20 Accords were signed to resolve the political problems that have arisen around the world over ethnic conflict. According to the study, with the exception of one or two, most of these Accords were implemented 90% to 95% within 10 years.

Most importantly the people of the hills as well as the country wanted to have a political and peaceful solution to the CHT problem, to end more than two decades of armed conflict between government forces and Shanti Bahini, and to regain just rights of the Jumma people, who are the victims of exploitation, deprivation and oppression over centuries. As a result, all the peace-loving people of the country, including the Jumma people of the hills accepted the signing of this Accord positively.

The Accord declared and made provision to acknowledge the need to uphold the political, social, cultural, educational and economic rights of all citizens in the CHT and accelerate socio-economic development and preserve the features of this region considering the CHT as a tribal (Jumma) inhabited region and achieve the overall development of it. Needless to say, so far the government could have implemented the Accord in full if it had sincerely wanted to. Most of the basic issues could have been easily implemented. This would have made it easier to overcome as much as the opposition and confusion there had over the Accord. If there were other problems, it would have been easier to discuss and find solutions to all those problems. Undoubtedly, if the Accord had been implemented, many more friendly and conducive environments could have been created in the CHT.

But the situation in the CHT has become more complicated and explosive again due to the fact that the Accord has not been implemented properly and fully in the last 24 years and due to the anti-Accord and anti-Jumma interest activities constantly violating the Accord by the government side. Immediately after the Accord, the Prime Minister flew which pigeon of peace in the open sky today a vested quarter of her government is constantly making wounded that pigeon trapping in the net of conspiracy. As a result of the signing of the CHT Accord, the door to the possibility of peace, harmony and prosperity was opened in the bloody and conflict-ridden CHT, but the government itself is now trampling on that possibility in the grip of vested interests.

Although the government has formed the Ministry of CHT Affairs as per the Accord, it is not playing any positive role in the implementation of the Accord. On the contrary, it is more involved in conspiracies against the Accord. On the other hand, although the CHT Regional Council and the three Hill District councils have been formed, they have not been able to function properly due to anti-Accord policy of the government and anti-Accord conspiracies of vested quarters of the government. Moreover, if the basic provisions of the Accord are not implemented, these councils will not be able to work in the interest of the indigenous peoples as well as CHT people as per the Accord. That is why, elections to these councils have not been held in the last 24 years, councils elected by the people have not been formed and no accountability system has been introduced. As a result, people are deprived of the actual services of these institutions.

Regrettably, in the last 24 years, none of the basic issues or clauses that have been inserted into the Accord to solve the basic problems of the CHT has been implemented. Some are still in the primary stage. Although more than 550 temporary camps were supposed to be withdrawn, only around one hundred were withdrawn by 2009, but the rest still remain as usual. Even at least 20 new army camps have been set up during COVID-19 pandemic. The military rule ‘Operation Uttoron’ has not been withdrawn yet.

Land dispute, one of the main problems of the CHT has not been settled yet and not even a single Jumma has got back his dispossessed land. In addition, even after signing of the Accord, many Jumma people have been evicted from their ancestral land and homesteads by both state and non-state actors. Although, India-returnee Jumma refugees received some financial assistance but did not get their lands back and did not have an opportunity to be rehabilitated on their land. On the other hand, as per the terms of the Accord, the internally displaced persons also did not get any assistance and their lands back. Electoral Rules and Election Rules have not been formulated for the election of the CHT Regional Council and three Hill District Councils. Arrangements have not been made to rehabilitate the illegally Bengali Muslim settlers outside the CHT. How will people benefit from the Accord if all these basic issues are not implemented? How will this problem be solved?

Instead of implementing the Accord and without discussion with counter-part signatory party of the Accord, PCJSS, and apex institution of the special governance system, CHT Regional Council, the government continues to implement various projects devastating to life and livelihood of the Jumma people including construction of border roads and land ports one after another in the name of development, leasing out lands to outsiders in the name of rubber plantation and horticulture. The army have also been constructing luxurious tourist establishment one after another in violation of the Accord.

As a result of these harmful actions by the government and its forces, hundreds of Jumma families have been facing the loss of their land and homesteads and eviction. Thus, again the Jumma people are being pushed towards an uncertain future with continuous eviction, economic destruction and further marginalization. It is to be noted that even after the signing of the Accord, with the help of the administration and under the leadership of communal group there have been more than 20 major communal attacks on Jumma people, hundreds of houses and religious institutions have been set on fire, looted and lands have been grabbed by the Bengali settlers. No impartial investigation and trial has taken place for those Incidents.

The saddest thing is that the present government has taken no initiative to implement the Accord even after holding power for more than consecutive 13 years, though it used to make excuses of not being in power or other parties being in power in the past. The implementation process of the Accord has been completely stopped. Not only that, instead of resolving the CHT problem in a political and peaceful way through the implementation of the Accord, the present government has intensified its efforts to resolve the problem militarily like the previous dictators.

In fact, it is not a solution to the problem but a direct violation of the Accord, and it is nothing but stifling the vocal voice of the Jumma people for the just rights using the force in the old fashioned way and a hit on the movement for establishing the rights to self-determination of the Jumma people including the implementation of the Accord. In fact, undemocratic and unjust military rule has been restored in the CHT as before the Accord. In every field of the political, administrative, developmental, social life and livelihood etc. in the CHT, the authority and intervention of the army has been activated again. Operations, raids, searches, torture, detention, imprisonment, extra-judicial killings, arrests etc. have been intensified with military authority in every nook and corner of the CHT. On the other hand, there are attempts continues to establish a reign of terror in the areas by conspiratorially creating anti-accord and terrorist groups from among the Jummas led by the army and the local Awami League and by unleashing them against the pro-accord people including the leaders and activists of PCJSS and its associate organizations.

In the last five months alone (January-May 2022) there have been incidents of total 52 human rights violations by the security forces in the CHT, in which at least 128 Jumma people have been victims. At least 4 people have been victim of extra-judicial killing as well as 28 people including public representatives have been arrested, 46 people have been temporarily detained and tortured, and many have been the victims of false cases, threats and house searches. During this period, 14 people were killed, 19 persons were abducted and ransomed after the abduction and many others were beaten, threatened and victim of attempt to murder by the army-backed terrorist group of Reformist JSS, UPDF (Democratic), Mog Party, KNF known as Kuki-Chin Party. At the latest, on June 21, 2022, armed terrorists of the Army-backed Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF), firing indiscriminately, killed three innocent Tripura villagers including two from the same family and seriously wounded two children. Despite widespread protests over the brutal killings, the administration has not been able to arrest any culprit till now and has not taken any steps to bring the accused to justice.

Needless to say, a political solution to the CHT problem and peace in the region will never be possible by keeping aside the implementation process of the Accord while implementing conspiracies against the Accord and Jumma interests. Any development and achievement is bound to fail and collapse in the end. Will the government finally strangle the pigeon of peace, the Prime Minister of which government flew the pigeon in the sky of CHT after signing the Accord? The people of the CHT want peace, they want solutions to the problems. The people of the CHT want to live in peace with their rights and dignity. How can they be in peace without those just rights and dignity?