Untangling the Chittagong Hill Tracts

Nazmul Ahasan
2022.10.28
Berkeley, Calif.
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Untangling the Chittagong Hill Tracts A statue of the Buddha stands among burnt debris in the village of Baghaichhari after destruction by Muslim Bengali settlers amid communal violence with ethnic Chakma, a Buddhist tribal group indigenous to the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh, March 23, 2010.
AFP Photo/STR STRDEL

The Chittagong Hill Tracts is a sparsely populated but volatile region in southeastern Bangladesh that borders India and Myanmar. The heavily militarized hilly region consists of three districts – Rangamati, Khagrachari, and Bandarban – and is generally dominated by ethnic tribal communities who say they are indigenous to the region.

After Bangladesh’s independence in the early 1970s, Manabendra Narayan (M.N.) Larma, the only lawmaker from Hill Tracts at the time, demanded greater self-control for the local ethnic communities, but his passionate calls were rebuffed by the country’s founding president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family members were killed in a military coup d’etat in 1975, Larma reportedly fled to neighboring India. In the years that followed, his party, Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), launched an armed wing and waged an insurgency against the Bangladesh government.

The military rulers responded by deploying a massive army contingent and sending a sizable number of Bengali settlers to the Hill Tracts in a bid to alter the region’s demography.

The protracted insurgency claimed hundreds, if not thousands, of lives and displaced a large number of ethnic people, with both sides – mostly the army – accused of rampant human rights abuses.

The insurgency formally ended in December 1997, not long after Mujibur’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, came to power as prime minister for the first time. Hasina’s government struck a peace treaty with the rebels, now led by Larma’s brother, Shantu Larma.

Ever since, the younger Larma has been the ceremonial head of the Regional Council, the supposedly all-powerful board with significant executive powers, but the central government has never formally vested it with such powers.

Today, the 1997 treaty is seen as a travesty by ethnic communities because the government hasn’t implemented its key provisions. But at that time, it was the military establishment that viewed the treaty with intense skepticism and allegedly helped create a new rival ethnic group to undermine it.

The United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) appealed that the peace treaty did not sufficiently address the concerns of the indigenous communities and called for greater autonomy instead. Its cadres engaged violently with PCJSS, leading to numerous casualties on both sides.

In 2007, when a military-backed interim government ruled Bangladesh, the PCJSS saw itself divided again.

Several of its bigwigs left the party and formed a new faction they called “PCJSS (M.N. Larma)” – as opposed to Shantu Larma’s PCJSS – and that was actively supported by the UPDF.

M.N. Larma, who was killed by a fellow rebel in 1983, is still a revered figure, and the new faction sought to capitalize on his image.

Spasms of inter-communal violence have also gripped the Hill Tracts region in more recent years, such as deadly rioting that took place between ethnic Jumma Buddhists and Bengali Muslims in 2010.

RTRMADP_3_THAILAND.JPG
Bangladeshi Jumma Buddhist student monks hold up placards during a rally outside the United Nations building in Bangkok, March 5, 2010. The monks urged the Bangladesh military and Bengali Muslim settlers to stop attacks on the Jumma indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and asked the U.N. to help victims of the attacks. [Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom]

More lately, a faction has been carved out of UPDF, too. That led the organization to reconcile with its former nemesis, PCJSS, holding to a fragile non-aggression pact.

At the same time, their respective breakaway factions have also forged an alliance of convenience and routinely attack – or defend themselves from – the original PCJSS and UPDF.

None of these formal ethnic parties publicly acknowledge maintaining an armed branch. Authorities often make arrests but never target their political heads, such as Larma, a move which might threaten overall peace.

Larma’s PCJSS has also been stuck in a rivalry with the local branches of the ruling Awami League party since its candidate in Rangamati defeated Awami’s incumbent in the 2014 general election.

That was an embarrassment for the Awami League because the party otherwise “won” the general election mostly unopposed due to a boycott by mainstream opposition parties.

roadside-ambush.jpg
Police investigate the scene where gunmen shot and killed five people who were traveling to a funeral in Rangamati, Bangladesh, May 4, 2018. [BenarNews]

The enigma of Bandarban

While Rangamati and Khagrachari have always been turbulent due to the insurgency and recent factional violence, Bandarban district remained somewhat unscathed.

The Marma community is the largest in the district, which also boasts a diverse group of smaller ethnic populations.

In contrast, in Khagrachari and Rangamati, the largest ethnic communities would be Chakma and Tripura, who also dominate the two major ethnic organizations, PCJSS and UPDF, both of which originated in Khagrachari, and their breakaway factions. Some observers credited Bandarban’s somewhat different ethnic demographic characters for its relative peacefulness.

That all began to change in recent years when PCJSS attempted to assert its control in Bandarban, an Awami League stronghold. Bir Bahadur Ushwe Sing, an influential Awami League leader of Marma origin, has retained the district’s sole parliamentary seat since 1996 and commands strong support even among the non-ethnic Bengali population. He currently serves as the Minister of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs.

But as PCJSS made inroads in Bandarban, new armed groups with narrow ethnic undertones began to pop up.

For example, one of these recently formed groups was known as the Mogh Party, as if to represent the Mogh people, which mostly inhabit Bandarban, against the supposedly Chakma-dominated PCJSS.

The Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF), against which the Bangladeshi security forces have launched a crackdown in recent weeks, is known as the “Bawm Party,” as if they represent the Bawm people, also indigenous to Bandarban.

With alleged support from security elements and local ruling party politicians, these groups have essentially acted as a shield against PCJSS’s advances.

But what’s unique about KNF is that they also reportedly collaborated with an alleged Islamic extremist group. While reports that Muslim extremist groups used the CHT as a sanctuary aren’t new, they were understood to be acting alone.

That was why a group with strong ethnic non-Muslim connotations aligning itself with an Islamist group came as a surprise to most observers.

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