Where the Streets Have no Name

Bina D’Costa.

The Daily Star Forum, 6 September 2010.

This piece  looks into displacement and dislocation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The most important distinguishing factor between a refugee and an internally displaced person (IDP) is cross border movement. Unlike refugees, who cross the international border for fear of persecution, IDPs do not cross a border. There is very limited legal protection offered to IDPs due to this unique context, as the state itself is the perpetrator of violence instead of providing protection to the IDPs. The United Nation’s working definition of the internally displaced is, “…persons who have been forced to flee their home suddenly or unexpectedly in large numbers, as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, systematic violations of human rights or natural or man-made disasters, and who are within the territory of their own country.”

Another report by Janie Hampton, the editor of IDP: A Global Survey states, “Unlike refugees who cross international borders, those who stay within their own country must rely upon their own governments to uphold their civil and human rights. If the state chooses not to invite external assistance, then the international community has limited options to protect these people. In many countries, it is the government or its military forces that have caused the displacement or prevent access to their citizens.” Numbers of IDPs from the region are unfortunately growing. The reason for them to be displaced range from being forced to flee their home because of an armed conflict (Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq), environmental disasters (Indonesia, Burma, China), construction of dams (China, India, Bangladesh), industrialisation, famine and economic upheavals (the Philippines, Cambodia).

Internal displacement of the Pahari people in Bangladesh is the result of post-colonial nationbuilding and identity conflict. Known as Paharis or Hill People they are easily distinguishable from the people of the plains in terms of their features, socio-cultural practices and economic activities. Because of their traditional practice of shifting cultivation they are also collectively referred as “Jumma” people. This self-identification is also used by various CHT political communities to frame their own Pahari/Jumma nationbuiliding strategies.

The CHT has geo-political and strategic significance for Bangladesh and South Asian security due to its location and proximity to India and Burma, and the porosity of the border; its richness in commercial natural resources; and historical, political and social contexts that constitute the communities of the CHT as the “other” within a Bangladeshi state. A low-intensity conflict that is deeply embedded in the struggle over land and existence in the CHT has contributed to massive internal displacement over the years.

The construction of the Kaptai dam
While the long-term benefits from the construction of Kaptai Dam in order to generate hydro-electricity in 1962 should not be underestimated, the massive dislocation caused by this decision; the seeds of conflict that it sowed; the militarisation of the region and its effect on the society; and the huge economic costs of the conflict in the CHT should not be ignored either. It flooded 54,000 acres area and displaced 100,000 people, most of whom were Chakmas (IDMC Report, 2006). According to Amnesty International, more than 40,000 Chakmas left for Arunachal Pradesh in India, where a majority still remain as stateless persons. The construction of the dam led to the initial crisis of internal displacement, loss of control over natural resources, threats of forced assimilation, construction of non-permanent army camps, and oppression by the Bangladeshi state and resulted in an armed insurgency in the CHT in 1976. As a counter-insurgency strategy the government relocated over 400,000 poor and landless Bengalis to the region between 1979 and 1983. Many of the Chakmas crossed the border to Mizoram and Tripura. By 1983, nearly 40,000 Chakmas had arrived in Mizoram and by May, 1986 another 50,000 Chakmas had taken shelter in five refugee camps in Tripura.

There are no accurate statistics on conflict-induced displacement in the CHT and the ethnic composition of the figures often cited. The Government task force on internal displacement stated in 2000 that there were 90208 tribal and 38156 non-tribal families or 500,000-555,000 people. Ironically, the Bangladesh government also considers the Bengali settlers displaced and pushed for their resettlement in CHT. NGOs, Bangladeshi scholars and indigenous leaders argue that this figure is inaccurate. Amnesty International has estimated that 60,000 Adivasis were internally displaced between August 1975 and August 1992.

The accord of dissonance
The Peace Accord signed between the Awami League government and the Parbattya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS) on 2 December, 1997 was expected to empower people, withdraw non-permanent army camps from the region and deal with the repatriation of the Pahari people. While at the time of the signing, this was considered internationally a successful case of conflict resolution, it involved no third-party mediation or direct intervention by international actors, nor was civil society involved in the peace process.

These factors contributed to the weakness of the Accord. IDMC suggests that while in 2007, only 35 of the 500 non-permanent army camps were withdrawn from the CHT, by December, 2009, there were still around 300 military camps in the region. Deeply embedded distrust and vast power inequalities between the state (and the armed forces) and the Pahari communities made it impossible to achieve peace and stability in the region. Following the Peace Accord, the Indian government repatriated 65,000 Chakma refugees from Tripura. Many of the families, upon their return found their homes occupied by Bengali settlers and properties appropriated either by the army or the local administration. They became internally displaced.

Various international and national human rights organisations pointed out human rights violations of the newly displaced Pahari communities. For example, the CHT human rights groups alleged that many of their leaders have been arrested and imprisoned during the state of emergency that was declared in Bangladesh in January, 2007 and the election in December, 2008. They also alleged that during the caretaker government, the army used the state of emergency to exert pressure on the region.

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Accord, the London-based Survival International (SI), a worldwide support group for indigenous people, stated that violence, land grabbing and intimidation have still continued in the region and have been a major source of displacement. Over fifty Pahari activists have been arrested during 2007 and 2008, often on false charges. One example was the displacement of the Mru people. The Mru, one of the Pahari communities, rely on their land as their only source of survival. 750 Mru (or Mro) families were either evicted from their land or were forced to flee from their home and moved to remote villages of the Bandarban Hill District of the CHT in December 2006.

After protesting against the eviction of his people from their land to make way for an army training centre, one of the leader of the Mru people and the Chairman of Sulaok Union Parishad in Bandarban, Ranglai Mro, was arrested and allegedly tortured by the police and army in February, 2007. He was charged with possessing illegal firearms and had been sentenced to 17 years in jail in July, 2007. It was further alleged that the charges were invented in retaliation for his defence of the Mru’s rights to their land. While Ranglai Mro was eventually freed in January, 2009, this case demonstrates that intimidation still continues even after the Accord was signed, and intense fear of the authority as the source of internal displacement is still very real even after the rhetoric of peacebuilding by the state.

The situation remains volatile even after the election of the Awami League government in December, 2008. Both the BNP and the military elite repeatedly advocate that the state has to maintain a strong military presence in the area because of the risk of transnational crime networks operating in some of the impenetrable areas, illegal movement of people, drugs, arms and other goods on the porous borderland and potential armed insurgency. It is also alleged by the opposition and at least some of the enforcement agencies that the IDPs shelter armed groups and cross the border illegally to be trained in India. As a consequence, it is not only the military, but the functions of the police and border patrol have been increased over the years in the CHT.

Loyal or disloyal people?
In December, 2007, Bangladesh issued an official statement that rejected the allegations of continuing abuse of rights of Pahari people in the CHT as false and baseless and stated they enjoy more privileges than other citizens. A senior official of the Ministry of CHT Affairs was quoted in the media, “The allegation of any violence against the Pahari is totally false. We have found no evidence of it.” The attack on 14 villages under Sajek Union in February, 2010 and the government’s subsequent denial to allow access in the area is the most recent example of the state’s extreme sensitivity, regardless of the change of government, when it comes to CHT.

The displaced and dislocated people live in insecure conditions. They are subjected to violence and intimidation with little or no justification. When members of the Pahari community are taken into custody for breaking the law the perception is that they receive harsher punishment than the Bengalis for similar offences that is also not proportionate to the behaviour. A significant aspect of their persecution is land grabbing.

The state repeatedly invokes its moral authority through the lens of national security and state sovereignty in dealing with the Pahari people. There is of course a historical context to it. While civil society does not always draw upon the paradoxical history in its justice advocacy campaign for the rights of indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, members of the law enforcement authorities often justify their mistreatment of the Paharis based on this “good” citizens model. For them, disloyalty to the idea of a Bangladeshi statehood is demonstrated over and over again by the Pahari communities, such as when the Adivasi leaders sought to be part of India and Burma in 1947, when the community was divided in its support of the Bengali national movement and the war of 1971, and when the armed resistance started in the Hills in the late 1970s.

This is very similar to the Burmese military regime and some of its Rakhine population’s arguments about the Rohingyas as disloyal people who also opted for a separate homeland for themselves, and whose citizenship was eventually taken away from them. Unlike the Rohingyas, who could be forcefully evicted because they became effectively stateless due to a change in the Burmese Citizenship Act, for the Pahari community in the CHT the situation is more complex.

The status of protection that was granted by the British to the indigenous people in the Hills is unique and saved them from the fate of the Rohingyas across the border. Many members of the government are also sympathetic to the Adivasi causes. However, when members of the law enforcement authorities are posted in the CHT, they are confronted by differences in physical features, lifestyle, culture and religion, but “disloyalty” is the key protagonist. Many remember the history, and for many it is indeed an “us versus them” situation. If the Paharis could prove that they are law-abiding “good citizens” then they are less likely to be treated like “aliens” or non-citizens.

However, for the dislocated Pahari, civil disobedience is never a question of breaking the law, rather advocating for her or his rights as a member of the indigenous community that exists beyond the idea of a Bangladeshi state. When Pahari communities demonstrate for their rights to land it becomes a political statement for the whole community. Such actions have lost their private or individual claim. Pahari causes are inherently public and are the subject of an intimate violence constantly produced and reproduced by the state-Pahari dynamic.

The gruesome violence, abduction and killings that occur here, the fire that burns houses and sacred spaces such as temples, are all elements of the spectacle of violence that has two different kinds of audiencesthe Bengalis and the Paharis. The demonstrations that take place on the streets or in the bazaars, and in the presence of the media, the NGOs and the activists, all are part of this public spectacle of violence in the place called ‘the Hills’. The janus-faced narrative of nationbuilding has taken over everything that is sacred. How can this dislocation be ever resolved?

An ‘imagined’ dislocation?
The violence that ruptures the everyday life in the CHT is persistent in producing and reproducing trauma for the Pahari community. For them, this violence has not discontinued either with the signing of the Peace Accord, or with regime changes in Dhaka. The deep resentment has permeated in various levels of the community, and is the source of periodic physical (real) and constantly imagined displacements. By imagined, I mean the psychological effects of prolonged physical displacement for communities. In their collective memory, often passed through generations of oral history, displaced communities remember their shared history as that of an unsettled and displaced people (also disenfranchised and also marginalised, in various border narratives starting with the British rule) even after resettlements. This perception produces a legitimacy to continue their struggle to gain control over their land.

As a consequence, Bengali settlers and members of the Pahari community are also engaged in perpetrating violence against each other. One example of this is the curfew imposed in Khagrachari after seven houses in Golabari (a Pahari neighbourhood) and five houses of Bengali-speaking settlers in Mollah Para and Ganj Para were set on fire in February, 2010. This six-day violence claimed three lives and injured 70 while more than 500 houses were set on fire, over 400 of which belonged to the indigenous people. The violence displaced 3,000 Pahari families and 500 Bengali settlers. Without long-term dialogues at various levels and well planned confidence-building measures, that integrate trauma counselling, this crisis of displacement, both real and imagined could not be resolved.

While more complex, it could also be argued that another consequence is the split within the Pahari community and the radicalisation of some factions. United People’s Democratic Front’s (UPDF) rejection of the Peace Accord and its demand for the full autonomy of the CHT is well documented. In December, 2009, it claimed that seven of its activists were kidnapped allegedly by the supporters of PCJSS from Munsi Abdur Rouf square at Manikchhari, some twenty kilometres from Rangamati. Media reported other clashes, for example the death of UPDF activist Kalapa Chakma in July and revenge killing of two PCJSS members, the village chief Karbari Anil Bikash Chakma and an activist, Kaya Prue Marma in the same month.

PCJSS also claims that UPDF intimidates its members and their families. Intra-community clashes have also caused temporary and permanent displacement of people from their homes. The government must consider community confidence building measures that involve shared activities for youth groups and dialogues as effective ways to address radicalisation.

While during difference political regimes, the state’s engagement with the Pahari community in terms of confidence-building measures and integration in the broader Bangladeshi society have been somewhat arbitrary, it is the INGOS and NGOs that have provided key development assistance in the CHT through community development activities. However, many of their projects in the area of health, education and micro-credit are framed as “development” projects and deliberately left out human rights as a key component due to government sensitivity. Human rights is perceived as the desired outcome that would automatically be realised if development projects in the area succeed. As such, development projects that are carried out with the communities have not been successful in responding to the concerns of displacement and dislocation.

The Bangladeshi state has been relatively uncompromising in recognising the rights and diversity of its population, and has consistently failed to integrate the Pahari voices in its national security policies. Also, ambiguous and inconsistent management of CHT’s development policies failed to take account of anxieties faced by displaced Pahari communities. The first step towards achieving meaningful peace for the CHT remains in initiating a comprehensive, all-inclusive and sincere dialogue between various interest groups.

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