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     Volume 9 Issue 14| April 2, 2010|

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Cover Story

Promises Pending

Over 12 years into the signing of the CHT Accord, peace remains elusive in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Photo: Zahedul I Khan

"Why is there so much fear in a free country?" asks Lalita Chakma, whose home was burnt down in the violence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in late February. Lalita, a widow, tailors for a living. On the night of the violence, she had to flee her home with her three-year-old granddaughter, not knowing where to go, not knowing if she would face even more violence across the river. Her son, who she hoped would get an education, a job and look after her in her old age, could not sit for his SSC exams due to the violence. "Who will look after me now?" she asks.

Lalita's story is only one of many written during the recent violence in the CHT, which left three people dead and 70 injured. Five hundred and sixty-three homes were set on fire, of which 434 homes in Baghaichhari and 63 homes in Khagrachhari belonged to adibashis. Similar violence occurred in the same area in Sajek, Rangamati less than two years ago. To many, the violence comes as no surprise. For many, fears of more violence in the future remain.

The devastation wrought by the recent violence in Sajek.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997 was expected to bring peace to the region, which had suffered from insurgency and armed violence since the independence of Bangladesh. Yet stories of violence continue, with a sense of insecurity on the part of the indigenous communities, and hostility between them and the Bangalis, growing.

"The Peace Accord may have been signed almost 13 years ago, but measures have not been taken to make it a reality," says Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka. "In this situation, I'm surprised that the conflict did not occur earlier."

"If a conflict remains unresolved, it will keep erupting," says Sultana Kamal, advocate of the Supreme Court, former advisor to the caretaker government and co-chairperson of the International CHT Commission.

The conflict in the CHT centres around land, its ownership and occupation, says Kamal. There are competitive claims on the land with two parties claiming the same piece of land as their own.

"Bangali settlers have been encouraged to think that it is government land, without actually determining whether the land was khas land. Land in the CHT was given away without consulting those who lived there -- this is against any law, convention, etc." says Kamal.

According to Kamal, the conflict over land has not been seriously addressed. "The conflict has increased in recent times as both parties are going through a nervous state thinking about who the land will go to."

"We also cannot dismiss doubts about the work of vested interest groups in the CHT and that they may have played a role in the conflict," says Kamal. "This includes businesses, civil society, NGOs and the army."

The traditional industries of the indigenous communities should be promoted. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

The Chairman of CHT Regional Council and former Commander of the insurgent group Shanti Bahini, Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, better known as Shantu Larma, in an interview with Pinaki Roy, senior reporter of The Daily Star, claimed that the recent violence was not an isolated event. "It has been State policy since the Pakistan era to turn non-Muslim majority populated areas into Muslim-majority populated areas. The recent violence was a part of this continuous process, as was the army-backed settlement of four lakh Bangalis in the CHT during the reign of President Ziaur Rahman," says Larma. "Neither the Paharis nor Bangalis are to blame, it is the State which has brought them to a level of confrontation. If the government was truly sincere, these incidents would not have occurred. There is no security for the Jumma people in the CHT, no one knows when the next attack will occur."

The latest violence is not only an outburst of intolerance and impatience on the part of both communities but is also an expression of appeal to the government to address the problem, says Major General (Retd.) Ibrahim, who served in the CHT and has authored a book on the issue. "The Peace Accord has not been implemented and I do not see sufficient momentum in implementation."

ver 12 years into its signing, why has the CHT Accord not been implemented? Experts believe that there are problems within the Accord itself, which first need to be resolved.

Amena Mohsin, Professor, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, believes that there are "seeds of discord" in the Accord.

"Many critical issues have not been addressed, such as the settler issue," says Mohsin. "To begin with, the settlement programme was a mistake. But at the time it was taken as a counter-insurgency measure. Now, between 48 and 50 percent of the population in the CHT is Bangali. You cannot just withdraw them. You have to resettle them, whether in a different part of the CHT or elsewhere. This is a politically sensitive issue but dialogue must be opened because without addressing this issue the Accord cannot be fully implemented. It is a national issue and must be dealt with as such, with both the government and opposition engaging in dialogue."

Ownership and occupation of land is seen as the root cause of conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

According to Major General Ibrahim, the Peace Accord has a number of shortcomings. "Firstly, it does not represent national political consensus. Secondly, it does not boldly clarify the position of settled Bangali population. Thirdly, it does not answer the question of distribution of land. About land, the crucial point is, there has never been a survey and no government has been able to establish the principle of ownership of land in the CHT because not only in the CHT but in ethnic populated areas elsewhere in the world too the principles are a little different."

"Neither the minority groups, nor the Bangali population are convinced that the government is interested in lasting peace," says Ibrahim. "An appraisal must be made of the Accord. If necessary, it should be improved and then implemented. The CHT is lacking direction and this must come from the political forces."

According to Sultana Kamal, the indecisive position of the government is problematic. "There are provisions in the Accord which will not be appreciated by Bangalis, there are also provisions that have not been whole-heartedly accepted by the indigenous people. But a compromise was being reached. Due to the delays, the unification between the indigenous groups too is fizzling out. The government has to be firm in starting the process of implementation of the Peace Accord," says Kamal. "It must be transparent and visibly taking steps for implementation so that people can take it into confidence. The atmosphere of insecurity in the CHT demands particular and urgent attention. We urge the government to solve the problem in the CHT by deciding on ways that are generally acceptable to all."

Ironically, much of the sense of insecurity in the CHT has been attributed to the role of the security forces, which has been widely debated for failing to protect the indigenous communities in the region.

"The military is the last resort you take when conflict occurs," says Professor Imtiaz Ahmed. "To send it first thing to counter a conflict is an overkill. The current government is a political one, it has supporters from both Bangali and Pahari communities, it could have sent a voluntary force comprising members from both communities to help the security forces handle the conflict."

Prior to 2007, there were no Bangalis within the Sajek union except in the Bazar areas. Since then, there have been consistent allegations that the settling of Bangalis on roadside areas near Baghaihat has been backed by the army.

"The government should clarify this matter," says Raja Devaisish Roy, Chief of the Chakma Circle. "If the allegation is not true, it should be made clear once and for all and have the name of the army cleared. If it is true, then it must be dealt with. The army cannot have its own policy separately from the government, and as far as the government is concerned, the CHT Accord is part of government policy, which must be abided by. The Accord does not allow such settlements."

"An army cannot run a society on a day-to-day basis," says Sultana Kamal. "It has a role along the borders, not inside the territory."

Born after the signing of the Peace Accord, these children are yet to see peace. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

According to Major General (Retd.) Ibrahim, however, the army makes the presence of the government of Bangladesh felt in the CHT, which has a history of insurgency.

The CHT is a strategic area for Bangladesh and the permanent cantonments will remain, but the temporary camps should be withdrawn as per the Accord, says Professor Amena Mohsin. "The Paharis do not look upon the army as their protectors, whereas the Bangalis do. The role of the army should not be made controversial; this is not good for the country, the military is an institution, or the common people. Rather, we can have peacekeeping forces which include indigenous people, which work for community building and maintaining peace in the CHT."

In the opinion of Raja Devasish Roy, the army is not trained, oriented or sensitised to deal with land disputes. "Also, we cannot forget the ethnic and religious affiliations behind the uniforms," says Roy. "Since all members of the army and police in the region are Bangalis, and there is Pahari-Bangali tension, there is a big risk of bias. What is needed is an ethnically mixed police force with special training, if necessary, to handle law and order problems. In areas with racial or communal tension, mixed police have been the best way to handle law and order, such as in neighbouring Tripura state, India, New York and Eastern Europe. It is not the job of the army to handle law and order, except, of course where organised and large-scale violence is targeted against the state and its citizens, which is not the case in the CHT, at least from the early 1990s to today."

The Land Commission's recent announcement about conducting a land survey in the CHT, too, has given rise to misgivings, especially among the adibashis. The land survey is supposed to be carried out by the Land Survey Office under the Land Ministry; the job of the Commission is to resolve disputes, they claim. Also, a cadastral survey as declared by the Land Commission would record a piece of land as belonging to the person who holds a title deed. Adibashis, many of whom do not possess such documents, are afraid of losing their land. Shantu Larma, expressing his suspicion about such measures, claims the survey is simply a means of handing over the land to outsiders.

“According to the Accord, the ownership of land in the CHT must first be determined before a land survey is carried out. This is not being done," says Ranglai Mro, organising secretary of the Movement for the Protection of Forest and Land Rights in the CHT. "Even if it is, the adibashis fear that they may lose ownership of land as they do not all have documents to prove it. Those who fled from Khagrachhari and Rangamati to India during the insurgency have also not got back their land which was taken by Bangali settlers in their absence. Many adibashis are illiterate, others simply did not understand the significance of documents to prove ownership. We have traditional ownership of land based on trust. This must be recognised by the Land Commission."

Still waiting for peace . . . Photo: Zahedul I Khan

"We are not clear about what the Land Commission is doing," says Sudotto Bikash Tchanchangya, general secretary of the Movement for the Protection of Forest and Land Rights in the CHT. "The Commission is a part of the Accord, not independent of it. It must function according to the provisions in the Accord. Nineteen recommendations were made suggesting amendments to the CHT Land Dispute Settlement Commission Act 2001 in accordance with the Accord. These have not been implemented. "

According to Justice Khademul Islam Chowdhury, Chairman, CHT Land Dispute Settlement Commission, however, it is not within the jurisdiction of the Commission to make the amendments. "It is a legal process and we are following it in accordance with the law."

The tribal leaders who are members of the Commission, however, will not attend the meetings unless the 19 amendments are made, claiming that the Act is not in line with the Accord without those amendments.

As far as the land survey is concerned, there are certain misconceptions which may be giving rise to apprehension among different groups, says Chowdhury. "The survey will be conducted to get an idea of the situation as it currently stands. The survey records will not be conclusive or binding. The Commission will decide ownership based on evidence, and of course the traditional and customary rights of the indigenous people will be taken into consideration."

The important thing is to move the process forward, believes Chowdhury. "The other members of the Commission must attend the meetings. If they have concerns, that is the place to raise them. The tribal leaders comprise the majority of the Commission, without them, it will not work. Only if they attend and participate can a consensus be reached. Criticism of the Commission and its actions are only delaying the process to the point of making it unworkable, we are moving away from the solution."

The objective of the Commission is the quick resolution of land disputes, says Chowdhury. "Delays will not serve anyone's purpose, rather, the main stakeholders will lose out. Everyone says the CHT is a complex issue, but I don't find it to be as complex. I am hopeful that we can resolve the land issue in one or one and a half years."

In terms of the distribution of land, Professor Imtiaz Ahmed suggests vertical expansion, which would house more of the population on less land, as opposed to horizontal expansion, which is difficult in the CHT due to the limited land. "An eight-storey building can house several families," says Ahmed.

"The government may not have enough funds for this sort of planning but private-public partnership is possible. The international community has often shown interest. Vertical development is a possible solution to the land problem."

The recent violence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts left hundreds homeless.

Land, though crucial, is not the only problem in the CHT. Not only in Bangladesh but the world over, indigenous people face serious threats to their basic existence due to systematic government policies by the government which are being addressed by international conventions. In an effort to counter threats to the indigenous communities in Bangladesh, the CHT Accord of 1997 recognises the CHT as a 'tribal inhabited region', the overall development of which must be attained and its characteristics protected. Development of the region has been slow, however, and the attitude of the majority population towards protecting, preserving and promoting the rights of minority groups leaves much to be desired. A case, claiming that the CHT Accord itself is unconstitutional, is currently pending in the courts.

With regards to the special status given to the CHT, as a Tribal Area, by the first Constitution of Pakistan in 1956 which was revoked in 1964, Raja Devasish Roy says that special status does not mean special rights. "It is only to ensure equality through some procedural differences. The Accord should not be seen as contradictory to the Constitution. The historical injustice suffered by the indigenous people must be undone."

"Due to the lack of basic healthcare and schools in the remoter parts of the CHT, the indigenous communities are deprived, resulting in de facto discrimination by the State," continues Roy. "The modern state must take measures to protect the indigenous people, who have been suffering from colonisation, exclusion and discrimination, sometimes by design and sometimes by default."

Secularism was one of the fundamental principles of the 1972 Constitution. But secularism is not only about religion, it can be extended to language, culture, Roy points out. "We must take a deeper look at the Constitution and make it more multicultural."

In order to prevent conflict in any society, the civil society has a crucial role to play, says Professor Imtiaz Ahmed. "In the CHT, the whole social structure is based on a political society, based on rules, regulations, the security forces; there is no civil society. There is no university, which is essential for the preservation and development of language and culture, rights which the Paharis are deprived of. There are no recreational facilities which would bring the two communities together to build consent, to make them feel like they need each other. Social development is essential for lasting peace."

Indigenous people make up less than one percent of our population. It is our duty to preserve their culture and our diversity. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Reducing dependence on land and focusing on income-generating activities in the CHT may solve many of the problems there, notes Professor Amena Mohsin. "The culture of the indigenous people must be preserved and protected. Their traditional industries should be promoted. This is not to say that they will not be involved in modern industry, but they must be given the confidence that they will not lose their identity if they do. Development will take place but it must be participatory. Also, we lack understanding about the situation of the indigenous communities. I think it should be included in our academic curriculum, in the form of cultural studies at the school level, in order to help us understand each other's cultures. It must be constitutionally recognised."

Self-determination of peoples, including indigenous peoples, is a basic tenet of international human rights law, as recognised, among others, in the Human Rights Covenants of 1966, to which Bangladesh is a party, says Raja Devasish Roy. "Self-determination does not necessarily mean independence. Of course it has to be exercised by respecting the territorial integrity of states."

"We want to be united with the rest of the country, not isolated, but the unity must not threaten our cultural identity and integrity," says Roy.

If anyone has anything to lose in the CHT, it is the indigenous people, who make up less than one percent of the population of Bangladesh. While the destruction of their homes and occupation of their land are the visible manifestations of the conflict, the greater, unseen danger lies in the loss of their cultural identity, and, in the case of the mainstream population, of the only cultural diversity that Bangladesh has.



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