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Law and Order

Turf War in the Hills

Although both JSS and UPDF claim to have focused on fighting the oppression of the Jumma people, there is no denying that, in recent years, these two rival groups have been engaged in a bitter turf war among themselves

Shudeepto Ariquzzaman

On December 2, 1997, the insurgency waged by the Shanti Bahini for two decades formally drew to an end with the signing of the peace accord and the stage was supposedly set for peace in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

But as happens so often in third world countries, winning peace proves to be an arduous task. More than 13 years later, almost no aspect of the accord has been implemented and tensions between Bengali settlers and the indigenous population remain as high as ever.

Heavy handed tactics employed by security forces, before and after the signing of the peace treaty have done little to win the 'hearts and minds' of the indigenous people and have done much to derail the peace process that ultimately risks plunging the nation into chaos.

Another issue, a highly sensitive one, poses a major obstacle to the implementation of the Peace Accord.

The root of the problem of internal strife goes back to 1997 when the peace treaty was signed. Up to 1997, the Pahari ( Jumma) community was represented militarily by Shanti Bahini, and politically by JSS (Jana Sanghati Samity). As the accord was being signed, a section of the guerilla army and the political movement criticised the Accord, particularly because it failed to provide constitutional recognition for the indigenous populace. The new party was to be known as UPDF (United People's Democratic Front). The party was formed on December 26, 1998.

Although both JSS and UPDF claim to have focused on fighting the oppression of the Jumma people, there is no denying that, in recent years, these two rival groups have been engaged in a bitter turf war among themselves.

Will they see peace in their lifetime?

On January 21, 2011 at least five people were killed in a gunfight between the two rival factions in remote Fakirachhara Bastipara of the district's Juraichhari upazila. Local sources have informed The Daily Star that four of them were JSS activists – Kalachan Chakma, Santosh Kumar Chakma, Niranjan Chakma and Jiban Tangchangya. Another of the deceased Lulongkar Chakma was an UPDF activist. The gunfight erupted at around 4.00 am.

“Our supporters have been murdered by UPDF terrorists,” says Mongol Kumar Chakma, publicity secretary of the JSS. He says that their activists were fast asleep when UPDF terrorists came and killed them. He has dismissed any scope for a future understanding with the UPDF. JSS leaders have frequently called for the UPDF to be outlawed. The UPDF leadership was unavailable for comment. However, there are numerous occasions on which the UPDF leaders have denied their involvement in any terrorist activities.

According to the Rangamati Police Superintendent Masood-ul-Hasan, “Armed groups of both PJSS and UPDF have become desperate to control hill areas and collect toll from the general people. They are involved in killing, abduction and extortion; they are trying to overthrow each other.”

Mongol Kumar dismisses allegations of extortion and toll collection outright. “Ours is a democratic party and we do not extort from the people.” Other JSS activists allege that such statements are made by the administration only to undermine the party and derail the implementation of the peace accord.

However, it should be mentioned that one of the persons killed in the gunfight was a UPDF activist and had the JSS activists been unarmed they would not have been able to kill one of their rivals.

Other JSS activists have also dismissed accusations of wrongdoing and point out that the country's two mainstream political parties are involved in tender manipulation and other corrupt activities.

On the same day these killings took place in remote Fakirachhara Bastipara, a shoot out between the JSS and the newly formed JSS-reformist faction left a student Ronal Chakma bullet-hit at Adarokchhara, Khagracharri. Ronal is a class 9 student at Khagrachhari Technical School and College.

Dipon Chakma, father of the injured student has told The Daily Star that his son was caught in the line of fire as the two rival JSS groups fought for supremacy over the area.

JSS-reformist was formed on April 10, 2010. They accuse Shantu Larma of being a dictator who in violation of the party constitution, expelled hundreds of party workers and six veteran party leaders whom they believe had sacrificed much for the rights of the Jumma people. Reports say that although not allied to each other, there is a ceasefire agreement between UPDF and the JSS-reformists currently in place.

According to Associate Professor Obaidul Haque, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, extortion is an accepted part of life in the Chitagong Hill Tracts, especially in remote areas such as Fakirachhara Bastipara where the gunfights resulting in the death of five activists have taken place. “Both the JSS and UPDF are involved in a turf war and toll collection, and both the Bengalis and the indigenous people residing in remote areas have to pay. Even in Rangamati city, shopkeepers have to pay tolls to either of the groups.”

Haque says that the two groups are engaged in a bitter turf war. “The more land that comes under their influence, the more tolls they can collect. They collect different amounts from different people depending on their ability to pay.” For example, a poor household has to pay much less than a more affluent household.

Haque cites three reasons for which they collect tolls. He says that there is a lot of money involved in politics, the elections that take place being the most notable.

“Arms procurement needs money. The fighters of the political groups have to leave their families for the armed struggle and cannot earn a normal livelihood. So the party has to pay them for their families.”

He says that currently UPDF is the one gaining on the turf war. “They have made huge gains in Khagrachari and Rangamati.”

He says that there is a feeling among security forces that the internal strife between the Jumma populace is beneficial for them. Haque believes that they are wrong. “I fear whether the intelligence agencies and the security forces are aware of the ground realities.” He says that it is against the interest of both the army and the nation that there should be violence between the JSS and UPDF.

In many international seminars and other discussions, those opposed to the Peace Accords have cited the discord between Jumma political groups as an excuse that delays the peace process. The 'divide and rule' policy has been advocated in certain quarters to enact barriers for peace. For those Bengalis wanting to block the Accord, a common and convenient excuse is – how can we reach a settlement with them when they are fighting with each other? Be that as it may, as long as the JSS and the UPDF are at loggerheads, it will be detrimental not only to the interests of the indigenous community in CHT but to the entire nation.


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