The CHT Problem and the Role of Army
Recently I had an opportunity to listen to a heated debate on the problem of Chittagong Hill Tracts - particularly on the role of Bangladesh Army. The issue was raised in a paper on "State, sub-State Nationalism and sub-Regionalism: A Retrieve from Beyond the Mask," by Dr Amena Mohsin at a seminar on 'South Asian Growth Quadrangle: Bangladesh Perspectives' organised by International Studies Association, Bangladesh. She was critical of 'militarisation' of Chittagong Hill Tracts, and, particularly of a scheme of taking selected intellectuals - academics and journalists - in groups on a 'conducted tour' to Chittagong Hill Tracts at public cost. Professor Shahiduzzaman the designated discussant on the paper contested many of the points raised. There was participation also from the floor. The discussion, however, was cut short due to time constraint.
As a participant of one of the above 'conducted tours' to Chittagong Hill Tracts at public cost, I think, I have a moral responsibility to share my experiences with the people at large. Why were such conducted tours organised at all? To provide the intellectuals an opportunity to acquire first-hand knowledge about the problem and also to observe the role of army from close quarters. Although the problem of insurgency by Shantibahini and counter-insurgency operations by security forces in Chittagong Hill Tracts has been a national issue for almost quarter of a century evading all attempts at solution, there exists a dearth of reliable information and objective analysis of the problem. As the problem of insurgency has been successfully contained within the region thanks to Bangladesh army with no ripples reaching even the Chittagong city, not to speak of Dhaka, the capital, the national press and electronic media had, for a long time, ignored the problem. Whatever information that reached the nation or got disseminated abroad, were either through writings of a limited number of intellectuals based primarily on secondary materials, books and journals published mainly from abroad, and reports of Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, national and international, or through programmes broadcast/telecast by BBC which took special interests in the area. PCJSS and Shantibahini through its front organisations, e.g. PCP, PGP and HWF, maintained regular contact with intellectuals sympathetic to their cause; organised literary meets/cultural festivals in the Chittagong Hill Tracts where leading playwrights, litterateurs and cultural workers were invited; maintained liaison with embassies/NGOs at home and abroad; and participated in specially convened seminars abroad which provided them a number of avenues for airing their partisan views on the problem with their own interpretation of historical events. The Bangladesh Army, however, had no such opportunity. Because of long direct or quasi-military rule in Bangladesh which was rightly opposed by the intellectuals in general, even after transition to democracy in 1991, the scope for formal contact between the army and the intellectuals is extremely limited. All military matters, including those relating to Chittagong Hill Tracts were regarded as state secrets, and very little information other than a few press releases through ISPR were divulged to the press and the electronic media. The army as an institution cannot maintain contact/liaison with foreign embassies, and had very little scope for participation at national and international seminars, other than those organised by Bangladesh Institute for International and Strategic Studies on relevant issues, to air their views or interpretation of events that took place. Thus whatever information that was generally available on the problem of Chittagong Hill Tracts basically reflected one side of the story. To give intellectuals access to the other side of the story and for promoting transparency with respect to operations of security forces in Chittagong Hill Tracts, the above 'conducted' tours were organised by Bangladesh army, of course, at public cost, as the army had no other source of funding, with approval of the Defence Ministry which is headed by Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister herself.
Were the tours really 'conducted tours'? In a sense, yes. The programme was fixed by the army. We were escorted to different places in Chittagong Hill Tracts as decided by the army, where we met the army officers engaged in counter-insurgency operations, government officials, leading local leaders, academics and journalists both tribals and Bengalis all of whom were selected and invited by the army. The programme included briefings by GOC, Chittagong Division, Regional Commanders of Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban Regions, Zonal Commander, Rangamati Zone and Commander of an army camp near Rangamati, on insurgency and counter-insurgency operations in their respective areas. We visited a number of refugee rehabilitation centres near Dighinala and were free to exchange views with Chakmas rehabilitated there. The local leaders whom we met included prominent tribal leaders like the Bohmong chief KS Prue of Bandarban, Hansadhaj Chakma and Jyotindra Lal Tripura of Khagrachhari and leading Bengali leaders of respective areas. It is true that Bengalis participated in larger numbers compared to the tribals, but in the discussion that took place conflicting views were freely expressed. We were told that we could visit any place and meet anybody we liked, but of course under security cover provided by the army for obvious reasons. Thus, although the above tours were organised by the army, they were not strictly 'conducted' and the deliberations at the meetings were absolutely free reflecting all shades of opinion.
Let us concentrate on the role of Bangladesh Army in Chittagong Hill Tracts. The problem was not created by the Bangladesh Army. A look at history reveals that none of the major tribes, the Chakmas, the Marmas and the Tripuras were Chittagong Hill Tracts' indigenous people. Driven from other areas, over the last few centuries, they came and settled in Chittagong Hill Tracts along with Bengalis who went there to pursue trading and farming activities in the valleys. To ensure that the Bengali revolutionaries, who were quite active in Chittagong, did not get a sanctuary in the area, the British government declared Chittagong Hill Tracts an 'excluded' area in 1900 which put a break on natural migration of Bengalis to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Had not the British pursued the above exclusionary policy; had the British treated this area and its people at par with other areas and people of British India; through natural processes, the area and its people would have got well-integrated with the rest of British India particularly with East Bengal. In 1947, when the British India was partitioned into independent states of India and Pakistan, considering her economic linkages with East Bengal, Chittagong Hill Tracts was awarded to Pakistan by Radcliffe Commission. The pseudo-colonial government of Pakistan also pursued the same exclusionary policy for obvious reasons which discouraged natural integration of Chittagong Hill Tracts with the rest of the country. The construction of Kaptai Hydro-Electric Project without adequate consideration for its socio-economic impacts dealt a serious blow to the prospects of national integration. Loss of most of their fertile land under the reservoir not adequately compensated for and displacement of about 100,000 people without adequate measures for their rehabilitation caused immense sufferings and economic hardship for the Chakmas in particular - many of whom migrated to India, those remaining simmering in discontent. The Liberation War of 1971 essentially being a struggle for self-determination by the Bengalis, most of the tribals remained aloof from; some participated in the Liberation War while a sizeable number including the Chakma and Bohmong chiefs actively collaborated with the Pakistan army. The reprisals, particularly on collaborators, following achievement of independence, caused further discontent amongst those affected. The final blow came in 1972 when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh rejected their claim for regional autonomy, and in a public meeting held in Rangamati urged the tribals to become Bengali forgetting their separate tribal identities. PCJSS was formed in 1972 with its military wing Shantibahini emerging in 1973 to carry out insurgency operations in Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Bangladesh Army was called in essentially to carry out counter-insurgency operations in aid of civil authorities under existing legal framework. The Chittagong Hill Tracts has common borders with India (Tripura and Mizoram) and Myanmar. In the absence of roads in the border belt, regular patrolling of the borders is not possible. As a result, the insurgents can freely move across the border to carry out any insurgency operation and escape when chased by the army. Since the option of sealing out the border and pursuing a combing operation to weed out the insurgents remaining inside was not available, the Bangladesh Army had no other option but to fan out throughout the region and maintain their physical presence by establishing army camps all over Chittagong Hill Tracts. Due to relative inaccessibility of some areas, a number of army camps are heli-supported i.e., dry ration and other supplies are delivered to these camps by helicopters once a month.
To enhance security of the isolated army camps which also had to procure their supplies of fresh food from the neighbouring tribal villages development of a friendly neighbourhood was essential. In the absence of different organs and personnel of civil administration, the army took the responsibility of providing basic services, and also got involved in development functions which, under normal circumstances would have been carried out by the civil administration. The above strategy endeared them to tribal people. The road network and the waterways also needed to be regularly patrolled to ensure security of their users and maintain supplies of necessities throughout the region. At present, roughly one-third of the entire Bangladesh Army are engaged in carrying out counter-insurgency operations and other functions mentioned above in Chittagong Hill Tracts. The above overwhelming presence of the army in Chittagong Hill Tracts has possibly led many to conclude that Chittagong Hill Tracts has been 'militarised', but did any other option really exist?
At the initial stage of counter insurgency operations in Chittagong Hill Tracts, due to lack of experience, a number of incidents involving possibly violation of human rights occurred but as the army gained maturity, such incidents have become a thing of the past. Despite provocation by Shantibahini which has been able to re-organise itself taking advantage of ceasefire since 1992, the army showed great restraint. An ordinary tribal no longer looks at the army with fear. While I visited a refugee rehabilitation centre at Dighinala, in presence of the Regional Commander Brigadier Ashfaq, an ordinary tribal narrated to me, absolutely freely, how he was arrested while farming, and detained for two weeks on suspicion of being a member of the Shantibahini. Peace and security has generally been restored at least at the district headquarters. We enjoyed in the evening of 7th July, 1997, a largely attended cultural function organised by Kachi Kanchar Mela at Khagrachhari and were happy to see both tribals and Bengalis participating at and enjoying the programme.
The army has definitely succeeded in controlling insurgency in Chittagong Hill Tracts to limit it within acceptable level besides protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. Total number killed in counter-insurgency operations over the last twenty-two years has been 173 only for the army, and 343, when all security forces are included (up to June 30, 1997). As mentioned earlier, the army had demonstrated great restraint despite 1076 cases of violation of ceasefire by Shantibahini over August 1992-June 1997. The presence of the army in Chittagong Hill Tracts has also contributed to minimising ethnic conflicts. I had the opportunity of visiting an army camp not far from Rangamati. On the way, I saw the jawans in uniform, with arms, patrolling the road in the rain. I climbed up a hill to reach the camp and gasped for breath. For security reasons most of the camps had to be set up on top of the hills. Carrying water to hill tops, and procuring fresh food from the neighbourhood is a big problem. I inspected the barrack, a thatched cottage built by the army personnel themselves where in sub-human condition the jawans resided. I saw two patients suffering from malaria. Some were taking rest, inside mosquito net even during day time, to protect themselves from insect bite. A single officer who was commanding the army camp was indeed a lonely man. The plight of those serving in more remote areas can easily be imagined. Malaria is a menace. Since 1980, 160 security personnel including 68 army personnel lost their lives suffering from malaria.
On return to Dhaka, I was narrating my experience to a leading intellectual of the country, highlighting the life of army personnel in Chittagong Hill Tracts. I was told, "Well, they are performing their duty." Surely we all have our respective duties to perform. Had we all performed our duties sincerely, at least as the army had been doing in CHT, much of the Golden Bengal, by now would have been a reality.
The writer is Professor of Economics Jahangirnagar University.