Two decades after Bangladesh's government signed a peace pact with rebels, residents of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the southeast are fighting land management issues and confronting a heavy military presence, local leaders said.
Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, who signed on behalf of 11 tribal groups living in the southeastern region, issued a warning about what could happen if the pact, signed on Dec. 2, 1997, remained unsettled.
“The hills could burn if the peace agreement is not implemented,” Larma, who is popularly known as Shantu Larma,told reporters recently.
Before the political agreement, the region witnessed bloodshed beginning in the early 1970s, when Larma led an armed group, Shanti Bahini, in fighting against Bangladesh security forces.
The conflict began when the political representatives of the native residents protested the government’s policy of recognizing only the Bengali culture and language and designating all Bangladeshi citizens as Bengalis.
Abul Hasnat Abdullah, who served as chief whip in parliament, signed the peace deal on behalf of the government while Larma represented the tribal population. The agreement recognized Chittagong Hill Tracts as a “tribal-dominated area.”
“The way the land ownership disputes were supposed to be settled were not done,” Larma said without elaborating. “The cultural and educational rights of the people in the Hill Tracts were not recognized in line with the peace deal.”
“The government is not recognizing that the tribal people are the original inhabitants,” he said.
Bir Bahadur Ushwe Sing, the state minister for the Chittagong Hill Tracts, challenged Larma’s statement.
“He has been issuing such threats repeatedly. His allegations are baseless,” Sing told BenarNews.
Larma, who serves as chief of the political party Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS), issued the warning earlier this month, a day after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina claimed her government had taken steps to honor the pact.
“The government has been working hard for full implementation of the peace deal,” Hasina told a video conference with hill people marking the anniversary.
“Forty-eight of the 72 sections of the agreement have been implemented,” she said.
Hasina said her government had taken steps to fully implement nine more sections and partially implement the remaining 15 sections.
Government claim challenged
PCJSS spokesman Mongal Chakma challenged government claims of bringing peace to the region.
“In 1979 and 1980, Bengali settlers were brought into the hills and they were settled on the land of the hill people. One of our main demands is the return of the land to the hill people. But the government is not taking necessary practical measures in this regard,” he told BenarNews.
He said the government formed a commission, headed by a retired judge, to settle the land disputes in the region. It failed to consult the Chittagong Hill Tracts regional council before enacting a law to settle disputes between hill people and Bengali settlers.
“The law contained many mistakes,” he said, adding the government amended it 16 years later.
“The commission has no manpower, no funds to even hold meetings. So, how can this commission function,” Chakma asked.
But Sing said the government extended the tenure of the commission chairman on settling the land disputes.
“The commission will get necessary funds,” he said.
The government was also required to hand over authority of 33 departments to three hill district councils, Chakma said.
“Sixteen departments were handed over,” he said. “Actually, the government, not the Chittagong Hill district councils was ruling in the Hill Tracts.”
Sing said the action was a positive reflection on the government.
“If we were not cordial, why did we hand over 16 government departments? This government signed the peace deal, and we are sincere about its full implementation,” he said.
Chittagong Hill Tracts is made up of three hill districts – Bandarban, Khagrachhari and Rangamati – in the southeastern region bordering India and Myanmar. About 1.6 million people live in the districts, including those belonging to 11 tribal groups. Bengalis make up 50 percent of the population, according to the last government census in 2011.
In 1972, tribal people led by Larma’s brother, M.N. Larma, demanded autonomy for the region. But Hasina’s father, Bangladesh’s founding president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, rejected the demand, asking them instead to become Bengalis.
In March 1973, M.N. Larma formed Shanti Bahini and fought against the Bangladesh security forces and the Bengali settlers in the three hill districts. He was killed in India in 1983.
After the assassination of Mujibar Rahman in 1975, military ruler Gen. Ziaur Rahman in 1979 authorized the military to carry out operations in the hill districts.
Rahman also moved thousands of poor Bengalis into the districts as thousands of tribal people fled to India. The infiltration of the Bengalis angered the hill people as the government started leasing tracts to them, declaring the land as state property.
The region’s ethnic groups united under the PCJSS and Shanti Bahini as armed conflicts blanketed the region.
The Awami League government, which assumed power in June 1996 under Hasina for the first time since her father’s assassination, aimed to bring an end to the bloodshed, leading to the 1997 peace deal.
Under the peace deal, the three districts were to form councils whose members are selected by popular vote, but no elections have taken place.
Jewel Chakma, president of the PCJSS student front, told BenarNews that land disputes were one of the main areas of contention.
“But the government has not done anything in this regard,” he said.
Chakma said the peace deal did not allow the government to lease any land without the permission of the Chittagong Hill Tracts regional council. But the government has leased more than 90,000 acres to different non-government organizations without input from the council.
“The hill people were not consulted,” said Chakma, adding the lessees had been setting up resorts, hotels and restaurants.
Abu Taher, a college teacher in Bandarban, had mixed feelings about the pact.
“Look, I support implementation of the peace deal. But I think the government must look after the interests of both the hill people and the Bengalis living here,” he told BenarNews.
“If the government did not lease land, how would we get roads? Without roads, tourists would not come, foreign investment would not come,” he said. “A treaty is better than no treaty.”