WHEN the Shanti Bahini ended their years of insurgency and surrendered arms to the prime minister at a packed stadium in the sleepy valley town of Khagrachari 16 years ago, I was one of the witnesses. That December 2 in 1997 heralded a new chapter in the insurgency-wracked Chittagong Hill Tracts, a resource-rich region comprising three hill districts -- Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban. That was the day when the tribal men, women and children poured into the stadium to celebrate a peace accord the then Awami League government had signed to end the insurgency that claimed thousands of lives of both civilians and military personnel.
Colourful banners, festoons and flags fluttered in the early winter morning as the hill region burst into a festival. That happened during the first term of Sheikh Hasina as the prime minister. She received accolades for the peace treaty from home and abroad. Her supporters had been so excited that they thought the treaty should have brought her the Nobel Prize for peace.
In its immediate outcome the treaty stopped bloodshed in the hills. More than 50,000 indigenous people who were displaced by the conflict returned home from their shelter in neighbouring India. Night-time curfew that was a common phenomenon in the region was lifted. Guards at military checkpoints looked more relaxed. Foreigners who were earlier totally banned from entering the hill towns were allowed to go in with prior permission of local civilian administration.
Most importantly, the treaty led to the disbanding of the Shanti Bahini, the military wing of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS), led by the rebel-leader-turned-politician Santu Larma. The treaty also saw the formation of a Regional Council comprising local government councils of the three hill districts. The council is being headed by Santu Larma since its formation.
The council's responsibilities, according to the Peace Treaty, should have covered the following: Law and order, land and land management, forest and environment, social justice, trial laws, overseeing general administration, coordinating disaster and relief management, issuing licenses for heavy industries and overseeing other development projects. The treaty calls for transfer of at least 33 fields of authority and responsibilities to the special status-enjoying CHT Regional Council. So far, about 20 subjects have been transferred. But it has not been much effective for lack of financing.
The treaty also saw the winding-up of some small military camps from the remote areas deep in the forests. In a major move in implementing a provision in the treaty the government decided to withdraw one full Brigade of troops and 35 temporary camps from the CHT areas. (The Daily Star: July 30, 2009). This was supposed to be the single largest troops pull-out from the area. The move was designed to build confidence among the tribal people. The details of the implementation of the decision are still sketchy.
The post-Peace Accord period witnessed a wave of development work in the hill districts. Foreign funds, especially from the UNDP, European Union and Asian Development Bank, helped build roads, schools, health and sanitary facilities and creation of jobs. The government too has been implementing a number of development works seeking to improve the living standard of the indigenous people. A ban on the use of mobile phones in the CHT has been lifted, bringing the region and hills and forests in the communication network with the rest of the country.
Yet, the tribal people seem to be far from happy. As the nation celebrates the 16th anniversary of the signing of the CHT Peace Treaty the atmosphere in the hills is one of gloom and complaints. A major source of discontent is the long-standing disputes over land between the indigenous people and the Bengali-speaking settlers who were encouraged to go there mainly during the rule of Ziaur Rahman.
Despite repeated promises Sheikh Hasina, even during her second term in the government, has failed to make any headway in resolving the land disputes, much of which is related to communal violence that occurred especially during the insurgency.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act 2001 has yet to be amended to make it consistent with the Peace Treaty of 1997. A draft of the amendment was approved by the cabinet on June 3 this year. On June 16 it was placed before the parliament and then sent to the Standing Committee on land ministry. The standing committee held several hearings, but it never returned to the House for passage.
Raja Debashish Roy, in his book, The Land Question and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord, quoted an unnamed Chakma leader as having once said that in the CHT “the land problem is the main problem.” Roy argued that peace in the region largely depends on the resolution of the land issue.
He is right.
The writer is a former Bureau Chief, AP.