On withdrawal of troops from CHT

Hanufa Shamsuddin and Jyoti Rahman

Published by the New Age on 29 October 2009.

The underlying cause of tension in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is the reality of continuing discrimination faced by the region’s indigenous peoples in terms of the ongoing land encroachment and eviction, often in the name of development (eco-parks, plantations, construction of infrastructure), discrimination in access to justice and protection of the law.

THE right to preserve and foster diverse ethnic and religious identities was one of the fundamental issues underpinning Bangladesh’s freedom struggle that culminated in the war of independence of 1971. Ironically, by declaring that citizens of Bangladesh were to be known as Bengalis, the constitution (Article 6 Part 1) of the people’s republic transgressed that very idea in 1972. The Bangladeshi nationalism adopted by post-1975 governments should have ameliorated the original grievance of the non-Bengali peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. These didn’t happen because those same governments militarised ethnic tensions in the region, leading to the formation of Shanti Bahini, which waged a military insurgency that raged until the 1997 CHT Accord was signed to end the conflict in the region.
   As a result of the accord, Shanti Bahini no longer exists. It has been replaced by two Pahari political groups — the United People’s Democratic Front and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity. These groups do not seek separation of the region from Bangladesh. Their demand is full implementation of the accord within the framework of territorial integrity of the country.
   Units of the Bangladesh Army are being withdrawn from the three CHT districts as per the accord. Some commentators have cynically questioned these withdrawals on misleading or distorted grounds. (Interview to the Himal Magazine by Brigadier Genera (retired) Hannan Shah is an example; see http://www.himalmag.com/Interview-with-retired-Brigadier-General-Hannah-Shah_fnw15.html.) Interestingly, many of these commentaries highlight only the most recent withdrawal of 35 camps, neglecting to mention 200 or so camps withdrawn during 2001-06 under the last elected government.
   The commentaries typically argue that as a result of the withdrawal of armed forces, the law and order situation in the region has deteriorated. But surely it is not the military’s responsibility to maintain law and order. If deteriorating law and order situation across the country doesn’t call for martial law, then why should CHT be an exception? Historically, it is the deferential treatment to the military that has created conflicts in this region.
   Indeed, the military’s record of keeping law and order in the region is akin to the peace of the graveyard, littered with random ‘arrests’, ‘questioning’ and torture by the army of political activists. There have been incidences such as the mass killings in Longadu in 1989 and Logang in 1991, or the abduction of Kalpana Chakma in June 1997. As late as in April 2008, 70 homes of mostly Paharis were burnt in Sajek. The inhabitants have still not been able to return to their homes. Those who held press conference in Dhaka were threatened and had to go into hiding.
   Another issue frequently raised by those who question the withdrawals is that of Bengali settlers. However, these pundits seldom differentiate between those who came in the region through natural migration and those who have been settled through forced migration. The Ganges-Brahmaputra delta of today’s Bangladesh (and neighbouring regions of the Indian northeast) has seen natural migration for many centuries. However, the source of discontent in the CHT region is usually not such natural migration. Rather, it is the 400,000 or so Bengalis who were settled there at gunpoint, and given deeds over land that was customarily owned by Paharis.
   The 1997 accord recognises customary ownership of land according to the CHT Regulation Act 1900. The forced settlement took place ignoring this act, and is the source of land disputes. The Bengali settlers here are as much victims as the Paharis. And demagoguery on this issue helps no one.
   Sadly, land grabbing is still going on in the CHT region. The forestry department alone has grabbed 2 lakh 18 thousand acres. The army has been taking over land in the name of garrisons, training and artillery. In Chimbuk recently, Parjatan (the state tourism bureau) took over 250 acres of land when they were only supposed to take ten. Even NGOs have taken part in land grabbing.
   Lack of proper demarcation compounds the situation. But the underlying cause is the reality of continuing discrimination faced by the region’s indigenous peoples in terms of the ongoing land encroachment and eviction, often in the name of development (eco-parks, plantations, construction of infrastructure), discrimination in access to justice and protection of the law.
   Those who genuinely wish to see peace in Chittagong Hills should focus on the discrimination and injustice, instead of using hyperbolic half-truths to support a military occupation

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