Several armed groups allegedly affiliated with regional political parties in the hill tracts are extorting money from businessmen and contractors, locals said.
Two businessmen in Rangamati said the armed groups are affiliated with factions of Parbatya Chattogram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS) and United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF) in Khagrachhari, Rangamati and Bandarban.
They added that the victims rarely lodge complaints with law enforcement agencies fearing backlash.
Belayet Hossain Bhuyan, president of Rangamati Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said, “Extortion in the districts has become a common practice. There is no point in lodging any compliant against the extortionists. After we started protesting, some drives are being conducted now.”
Belayet is also the chief of Peshajibi Swamannay Parishad, a platform that he characterises as anti-extortion.
During a recent visit to Rangamati, this correspondent spoke to a 20-year-old man who claimed that he once worked as a toll collector for the PCJSS.
“I used to collect a fixed amount annually from timber traders ... The amount depended on the quality of timber,” said the man who said he had shunned the path a year ago.
Moreover, Tk 70 to Tk 80 was collected from each boat or truck carrying the timber, he added.
“Refusal to pay would lead to abduction or even death,” he said.
He added that he used to collect Tk 10 lakh to Tk 12 lakh every month and deposited the money with the finance division of the PCJSS. He was paid between Tk 8,000 and Tk 10,000 a month.
“Whatever business you do, you will have to pay the toll,” he said, adding that there were 10 to 12 men like him in Rangamati who collected the money.
A timber trader in Rangamati, requesting anonymity, said he alone paid around Tk 2 lakh a year and added that there were about 150 traders like him in the district.
“We cannot complain to the police, administration or any other forces in fear of severe consequences,” the trader said.
Sudhakar Tripura, information and publicity affairs secretary of PCJSS (MN-Larma), said allegations of extortions in the hills were true, but his party was not involved.
“Money is needed to run a political party but we never force anyone to pay.”
He said his party often receives a small percentage of development funds and businessmen sometimes give them a small portion of their profit as contribution to the party.
UPDF spokesperson Mikel Chakma said the allegations were not true. “We do not know who are extorting from whom.”
Alamgir Kabir, superintendent of police in Rangamati, said law and order has improved a lot in the district and police do not get complaints of extortion.