Unity through diversity | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 06, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 06, 2010

Unity through diversity

Neighbourhood on fire.

IT was painful watching the photograph of a Pahari woman gathering burnt rice from the ground where her house used to be in Sathaiyapara, Khagrachari before inter-community violence made her homeless. Such photographs also appeared with regard to Bangalee settlers who have lost their homes through arson in other villages in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The Preamble of our Constitution states that Bangladesh, as a state, will have as its fundamental aim the realization of the democratic process and a society free from exploitation -- based on the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice -- political, economic and social -- or all its citizens. This assertion connotes social and economic justice which has been re-affirmed in Article 8, Part II of the Constitution. Respect for the dignity and the worth of the human person has been stressed in Article 11. These principles pre-suppose not only equality of opportunity but also equality in treatment and protection as citizens of the state.
It does appear that the authorities responsible for protecting the different communities living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts have failed to perform their responsibilities satisfactorily.
This has happened despite clear aspirations and directives regarding this region as articulated on several occasions by the Prime Minister. This government, in the past (during its tenure from 1996-2001), as well as in the present, have always tried to stress that unity needs to exist in Bangladesh within the matrix of diversity of ethnic cultures, religious faiths and traditions. This has created a high moral standard and a benchmark of tolerance that does not permit any form of discrimination. This approach is also consistent with us gaining international recognition for our sacrifices undertaken with regard to the spirit and ethos associated with Ekushey.
Consequently, the recent violence in our Hill Tracts should give the whole nation a sense of pause. We need to take a step back, reflect and ask ourselves whether we are performing as we should. Reports that the violence was orchestrated by certain agent-provocateurs from outside the Hill Districts render the situation even worse.
It has been clear for sometime that a section of the settler community, supported by their political friends and with greed for land, have been opposing the government's decision to withdraw military camps from that area. This same group had earlier opposed the creation of the three Hill Districts in the late Eighties and then again the Hill Tracts Peace Accord signed on 2 December, 1997. It was also their xenophobia and chauvinism that prompted the two governments in power between 2001 and 2008 not to take effective steps towards the meaningful implementation of the provisions of the CHT agreement. This had a direct influence on the functioning of the Land Commission for the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The current government, aware of the sensitivities involved, has been trying to adopt a pro-active approach towards guaranteeing the comprehensive implementation of the CHT agreement. Several capacity building measures have been initiated. This has included the appointment of a Commissioner for Land Administration, withdrawal of temporary army camps located near tribal habitation, strengthening of the executive and judicial framework in the three Hill Districts and the devolution of the administrative process. There has also been mainstreaming of economic opportunity for the population in general and the tribal population in particular.
Efforts have been taken in this regard within the ambits of tourism development, non-traditional agriculture and cottage industry. The transport network and the telecommunications facilities have also been expanded. Measures related to primary education and healthcare have also received special focus, thanks partly to our development partners.
Nevertheless, there are still some facets of the 1997 agreement that have not yet been totally addressed. The principal among them is the question of land disputes. We have yet to complete cadastral land survey for the entire region. This has led to non-resolution of disputes and emergence of fresh contention. Various political groups have unfortunately used this to foment trouble. This has in turn created instability. The latest flare-up originated in the remote and rugged Sajek valley over a land dispute that the Upazilla administration was trying to resolve through negotiation.
The other unresolved factor is the creation of necessary bye-laws and implementing regulatory regime pertaining to maintenance and disbursal processes regarding revenue generated from village markets.
Certain issues have still not been fully resolved but one wishes that the European Union authorities would have exercised some restraint before making their allegations about what has happened in the Hill Tracts. Criticism needs to be constructive and could have come after discussion with the authorities concerned. This would have greatly encouraged future steps with regard to relief and rehabilitation efforts in the three Hill Districts.
I also take this opportunity to commend the proposals suggested by the Parliamentary Group responsible for monitoring conditions within the Hill Tracts. In addition to urging the speedy implementation of the CHT Accord, they have reiterated the need to restore confidence among the tribal community. This will enhance the credibility of the government. They have also underscored the need for the initiation of a judicial inquiry to ascertain the causes and to identify those responsible for the criminal acts and to include more persons of tribal origin in the police force employed in the Hill Tracts. All these are worthwhile and deserve serious consideration.
The immediate threat has diminished and clam of sorts has returned to the scene. Nevertheless, on a parallel track, intensive efforts need to be undertaken by the authorities concerned to positively engage with the followers of the United Peoples of Democratic Front (UPDF) who oppose the CHT Accord and those amongst tribals involved in cross border smuggling.
We also have to impress on the tribal population that they are inhabitants of Bangladesh, where they must co-exist with the rest of the country and share their latent economic opportunities with others. This includes the services sector associated with the hospitality industry. A classical example is the manner in which inhabitants of every region in Thailand are cooperating with each other to derive maximum gain for all stakeholders.
It might also be useful to arrange the visit to the Chittagong Hill Tracts of a parliamentary team composed of representatives from all the parties present in the Jatiya Sangsad and the re-activation of the CHT Refugee Affairs Task Force to ensure the identification of the internally displaced persons for their eventual rehabilitation.
We have a difficult task ahead, but all measures have to be taken to integrate our ethnic minorities within the 'national narrative'. We cannot allow any further stains on our collective conscience.
Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador and can be reached at mzamir@dhaka.net

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