The historic CHT Peace Treaty has been experiencing the brunt of the negative aspects of our national political characteristic. We have achieved this agreement through a lot of hard work, but have done little to turn it into a meaningful accomplishment. It's disheartening that in most cases, we fail to deliver on our promises without really feeling any regret.
The Sheikh Hasina-led government's strong political will led to the signing of the historic Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord 19 years ago. December 2, 1997, became a red letter day in the pages of history, as the Agreement was signed between the government and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS), an organisation of indigenous communities of the CHT. The peace deal took immediate effect, as PCJSS insurgents from remote jungles surrendered their arms to government authorities on that day. This put an end to more than two decades of armed struggle by the PCJSS for autonomy of CHT.
The peace agreement was an outcome of more than a decade of hectic negotiations. The process began in 1985 during the government-led by General Ershad, when they held six meetings with the PCJSS to resolve the crisis. After the fall of the autocratic Ershad regime, the democratically elected government led by Khaleda Zia also kept the negotiating process with the PCJSS alive, and held 13 meetings with them in this regard. Finally, the Hasina government succeeded in striking the deal after holding seven meetings with PCJSS leaders.
Instead of giving them autonomy, the treaty offers them a new arrangement. It gives preference to the CHT people in the new administration. It lays the way for land that was illegally occupied by outsiders to be returned to the CHT people. It sets out the future administration for the CHT, and envisages three district councils with sweeping powers to raise taxes and impose law and order.
As political solutions to any armed conflict is always welcomed and lauded, the CHT Peace Accord was no exception. It was lauded by the international community and Sheikh Hasina was honoured with the UNESCO Peace Prize in 1998 for her "remarkable contribution to bringing peace through ending the long conflict in CHT regions with political courage and statesmanship."
After 19 years, indigenous people and rights activists are not happy with the slow pace of the implementation of the treaty. The PCJSS leadership has been accusing the government of having a sense of uncertainty regarding the implementation of the process. President of PCJSS, Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, who signed the treaty on behalf of the CHT people in last August, lamented: “We have been seeing the reflection of the government's lack of interest in implementing the Peace Accord over the last 19 years.” He also accused the government of "initiating different activities one after another that go against the Peace Accord and interest of the indigenous people.” The actions, which were supposed to be implemented by the PSJSS, he said, have already been completed on time, But the government, in most cases, has not performed its due responsibility in implementing the Peace Accord."
Government policymakers have kept assuring the CHT people of implementing the treaty in its entirety. They have also claimed that a majority of the treaty has already been implemented. But ahead of the 19th anniversary of the peace treaty, the PCJSS leader in a press conference on Wednesday said: "The government claims that it has implemented 48 out of 72 Sections of the CHT Accord. But in reality, the number is only 25. Publicising such false information proves that the government is not interested in fully implementing the Agreement."
The situation in CHT areas also testifies non-implementation of some major clauses of the peace treaty. Land dispute, which is one of the most important issues, still remains unresolved, and progress has been slow in the last 19 years.
In such a situation, the peace which has been expected by the treaty still remains a distant cry. Many human rights activists and indigenous leaders fear that non-implementation of the peace treaty could reignite unrest in the CHT region. Since the last few years, the PCJSS leaders have been threatening to wage agitation to put pressure on the government to fully implement the peace deal.
On the eve of the formation of the Constitution of Bangladesh, a delegation of hill people headed by Manabendra Narayan Larma formally placed before Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman their demands for autonomy towards maintaining the cultural and linguistic identity of the hill people. The failure of the government to accommodate the demands of the hill people led Larma to form the PCJSS in March 1973, with the aim of safeguarding the interest of the hill people. Subsequently, an armed wing called the Shanti Bahini (Peace Forces) was added to it. The 1997 peace agreement ended the armed conflict, leading to the honour conferred upon Sheikh Hasina by the UNESCO. However, we can state with absolute certainty that we have failed in establishing a peaceful state in the CHT region even after 19 years of signing the peace agreement.
Let us take an example how political agreement ends armed conflict and bring peace.
There are several examples in world history of how political agreement can play an instrumental role in ending armed conflict and bringing peace in countries and regions. One of the most notable of those is the Belfast Agreement. US Senator George J. Mitchell, who was Special Advisor to US President Bill Clinton on the Ireland crisis, was awarded the UNESCO Peace Prize, alongside PM Sheikh Hasina, for getting the main players in the Irish crisis to sign the Good Friday Agreement. Also known as the Belfast Agreement signed in April 1998 only a few months after the CHT Peace Accord, the Good Friday Agreement brought 30 years of sectarian conflict (popular as 'The Troubles') in Northern Ireland to an end. The British government had taken quick steps to implement the deal, which also contained the proposal for a Northern Ireland Assembly with a power-sharing executive. The UK government has set a fine example by implementing the political agreement.
Our government could also have set an example by properly implementing the CHT Peace Accord had they not neglected their duties to deliver on the promises made in the peace agreement. For proper implementation of the Accord, the strong political will of the government, which is what led to the signing of the Accord 19 years ago, is a necessity. Political rhetoric alone cannot solve the problem.
The writer is a Special Correspondent, The Daily Star.