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Friday, December 03, 2010

Peacebuilding in Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh: Processes and Realities

1.0 INTRODUCTION THE CHITTAGONG Hill Tracts (CHT) in the south-east of Bangladesh had been conflict torn for about three decades from 1970s to 1990s. Historically the CHT region is a home to eleven indigenous peoples, who are ethnically and culturally different from the Bengalis. Once the CHT region was independently administered by the traditional rajas (kings), but their authority had been curtailed through the arrival of the British colonial rulers (Larma, 2003; Roy, 2004). However, indigenous peoples of CHT always had the right to maintain own self-rule system. But in the aftermath of independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the Bengali ruling elites did not accept the indigenous people’s self-rules system and identities in the constitution (Chakma, 2005).

On this backdrop, indigenous leaders in 1972 came up with a demand of autonomy for CHT to safeguard their rights, but this demand was categorically rejected by the newly independent Bangladesh. Under these circumstances, an indigenous political party PCJSS was formed under the leadership of MN Larma, then only indigenous MP, to achieve autonomy for indigenous peoples in CHT. As the PCJSS persisted with autonomy, the state responded to it through the repressive measures, which ultimately served the purpose of ‘ethnic cleansing’ against the indigenous peoples in CHT (Chakma, 2010a). In response to the state’s repressive measures, the PCJSS took up arms against the government since 1976 onwards. Since then it continued a guerrilla war against the government of Bangladesh (GoB) until 2 December 1997, when an agreement, popularly known as the CHT Peace Accord (PA) was reached between the government of Bangladesh (GoB) and the PCJSS, by ending the long-standing armed conflict and bloodshed in CHT.

According to Jeong (2005:5) in the post-conflict situation “implementation of the peace agreements may not necessarily be linear or orderly, and may not even guarantee an expected outcome”. This is true with the case of the PA of CHT, which is now beset with many problems. Since singing the PA, more than one decade has passed away without much progress in implementation of the PA. The PCJSS, a party to the PA blames the GoB for lack of its sincerity to implement the peace deal (Larma, 2003). Along with non-implementation of the PA, serious human rights violations on indigenous people such as communal attacks, land grabbing, killing and rapes have been reported by the PCJSS in the post-accord period. The recent violent attack added to the list of human rights violation was the Baghaihat communal attack jointly committed by the Bengali settlers and the military forces upon the indigenous villages last February 2010 in Rangamati, one of the three hill districts in CHT. In that conflict, six people got killed, and 25 injured (ACHR, 2010). Following this incident, Chakma (2010 b:19) comments that the recent violent conflict in Baghaihat is not an “isolated event” rather the latest development of the long-running saga of violence, and such kind of violent attacks on indigenous peoples will occur in the days to come until the structural roots of violent conflict remain unresolved.
In the aforementioned context, it is relevant to ask questions: how the conflicts have been resolved to establish peace in CHT, Bangladesh? To what extent the PA has been able to address the roots of structural violence? In order to answer these questions, I shall examine a) the root-causes of the violent conflicts; b) how the peace process was initiated and which actors were involved in the said process; and c) what were priorities of the PA towards establishing peace.

In this paper, I shall argue that the PA has ended the long-standing armed conflict, but it fails to bring lasting peace in CHT. The failures substantially result from two factors: lack of political commitment of the government to implement the PA; and absence of appropriate mechanisms within the framework of the PA to address the roots of structural violence in CHT.

2.0 HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT IN CHTThere are multiple factors behind the conflict of CHT, Bangladesh. However, the roots cause of conflict in CHT could be attributed to the continual denial of indigenous self-rule system by the successive regimes. But the violent conflict came to the surface in the aftermath of independence in 1971, when the new Bengali ruling elites completely ignored the indigenous rights and distinct identities during the state building process of Bangladesh.
The political history of CHT has a bearing on the CHT conflict. Before the colonial rules, the traditional rajas (kings) ruled CHT region without external interference (Larma, 2003; Roy, 2004). With the annexation of CHT with the British colony the traditional rajas lost their freedom; however the colonial rulers maintained autonomous administrative status of CHT through legislative measures. For instance, in 1900 the British regime enacted a regulation called the ‘Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation I of 1900’ exclusively for the administration of CHT. Under this regulation, CHT was given a status of ‘Excluded Area’, by which the colonial rulers restricted outsiders from buying land and settling down permanently in CHT in order to protect indigenous peoples from economic exploitation. At the same time, they did not interfere with the internal affairs of indigenous peoples till their departure from the Indian sub-continent in 1947 (Roy, 2000).

Following the partition in 1947, CHT was ceded to Pakistan, despite it was a non-Muslim area. From the very beginning the Pakistani regime considered the CHT people as the “hostile elements and pro-Indians” (Uttaran, 1985:36). Consequently, the Pakistan regime adopted various anti-indigenous policies. First, it amended the legal instruments pertaining to CHT. In 1962, the administrative status of CHT was changed from ‘Excluded Area’ to ‘Tribal Inhabited Area’. Then in 1964, the Pakistan government totally scrapped off the ‘‘Tribal Inhabited Area’ from the Pakistan constitution to open CHT for the Bengali settlers (Adnan, 2004). Second, the Pakistan government appropriated natural resources through construction of a large hydroelectric dam at Kaptai in 1961 (ibid). By that dam, 54% of the total amount of arable lands in CHT went under water and more than hundred thousands of indigenous peoples were displaced from their ancestral lands (Chakma, 2005). Under these circumstances, a group of educated indigenous activists already started mobilising indigenous people, especially students and youth against the Pakistani discriminatory policies.

Immediately after independence in 1971, the Bengali ruling elites declared Bangladesh a ‘mono-national and mono-cultural’ state based on Bengali nationalism (Chakma, 2010a:287). By the first constitution of 1972, all citizens of Bangladesh were made ‘Bangalis’, regardless of ethnic identities, religion and culture of indigenous peoples (article 6(2) of the constitution). Moreover, article 3 of the constitution has declared ‘Bengali’ as the state language subsuming the indigenous people’s languages and culture; while article 1 has declared Bangladesh a ‘unitary’ republic that implies that no separate legislature or autonomy is possible for CHT (Islam, 2003). Thus constitutionally no rights and distinct identities of indigenous peoples have been recognised in the new constitution of Bangladesh in the name of ‘national integration’ (Islam, 1981; Zaman, 1982; Ahsan and Chakma, 1989).

Being worried about the future of indigenous peoples, MN Larma, MP, in the house of parliament demanded autonomy for CHT with constitutional guarantee of the indigenous rights and identities. But his demand was categorically rejected by the house.

Consequently PCJSS was formed in 1972 under the leadership of M.N Larma with an objective to achieve autonomy for CHT. When all democratic avenues failed to draw the attention of the State, PCJSS launched an armed struggle against the GoB since 1976 onwards (Jimi, 1985 and Uttaran, 1985).
On the other hand, to suppress the autonomy movement, the GoB adopted two radical measures: militarisation; and minorisation of indigenous people through transferring the Bengali settlers from the plains into CHT. The government increased the number of military forces across the whole CHT. Although no exact figure was available, it was estimated that two-third of the Bangladesh army was deployed in CHT (Uddin, 2008:17). While the CHT Commission (1991:35) reported, one military force for every ten indigenous persons had been deployed during the period from 1982 to 1990.

The other objective of the government was to minoritise indigenous peoples through changing the demographic composition. To this effect, the government brought 400,000 Bengali settlers into CHT during 1978 to 1984 (CHTC, 1991). The government promised those Bengali settlers to provide with land grants, cash and rations, but the suitable amount of land was already scarce in the hilly CHT. Hence, fully backed by the Bangladesh army and civil administration, the Bengali settlers started grabbing lands from indigenous villagers. Simultaneously, the Bengali settlers and the military forces jointly carried out systematic massacres and communal attacks on indigenous people across the whole CHT. PCJSS (2005) and Chakma (2010b) report more one dozen of massacres that took place from 1971 to 1993 in CHT. No exact figure was available, however, it was estimated that 30,000 people lost lives, and 80000 indigenous people crossed the Indian border to take refuge in Tripura state of India (Feeny, 2001).

Alongside the armed fighting between the military forces and PCJSS’ guerrillas, the systematic massacres, killings and rapes of indigenous villagers and women by the Bengali settlers continued unabated until the PA in 1997. Signing the PA puts an end to the armed conflict, but still now the violent conflicts erupt off and on between the indigenous villagers and the Bengali settlers in the post-PA period.
The peace processes in CHT, Bangladesh could be analysed in two aspects. First, the dialogues initiated by the military-backed autocratic regimes from 1976 to 1990, and second, the initiatives of peace process under the democratically elected governments from 1991 to 1997.

From 1976 to 1990, Bangladesh was ruled by the military backed governments – Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jatiya Party (JP). The BNP government led by President Ziaur Rahman (1976 to 1981) was reluctant to negotiate with the indigenous guerrillas; rather it wanted to a military solution. Following a military coup in 1981 president Ziaur Rahman got killed and then Lt. General Hussain Md. Ershad took over the power of the country. The Ershad government (1981 to 1990) first felt the need to solve the CHT problem through a political means. To this effect, a 3-member CHT Liaison Committee headed by Upendra Lal Chakma, MP, was formed in 1984 (Larma, 2003). The Ershad government held 6 rounds of talks with the PCJSS, but no tangible outcome achieved.

Following a mass upsurge across the country in 1990, the Ershad government toppled down. Then through a national election in 1991, the BNP led by Khaleda Zia was elected to form a government. The transition from military rules to democracy brought in a new hope to the PCJSS, which, as a good gesture to the BNP government, declared a unilateral ceasefire on 10 August 1992 (Larma, 2003). In response to it, the BNP government formed a Parliamentary Committee on CHT issue with Col. (Rtd.) Oli Ahmed, Communication Minister in the chair. The Parliamentary Committee held 13 rounds of talks with the PCJSS from 1992 to 1995, but no substantial progress could be achieved due to lack of strong political commitment of the BNP government (CHTC, 1997; Larma, 2003).

In 1996, following a national election the Awami League (AL), which led the Bangladesh liberation war, came to the power after 21 years since 1975. To attract the newly formed AL government’s attention, the PCJSS extended the ceasefire unilaterally. The AL government also responded to it positively by forming an 11-member National Committee on Chittagong Hill Tracts (NCCHT) on 1 October 1996 with Chief Whip, Abul Hasnat Abdullah (CHTC, 1997). To assist the NCCHT, the government also formed a 10-member Advisory Committee to co-opt the former army officials and civil society members. Following the six rounds of talks, both parties the NCCHT and the PCJSS agreed to a peace agreement, which was signed on 2 December 1997 in Dhaka.

Here, it is notable that no third party was involved in the peace negotiation process. However, some authors such as Mohsin (2003) and Islam (2003) stated that a few international factors had been instrumental to bring the PCJSS to the negotiation. First, the AL historically had good relations with India; second, it was often alleged by the GoB that the PCJSS guerrillas used the Indian territory as their hinterland, for which India now was no longer interested to support the PCJSS; and third, international pressure, especially from human rights bodies and donor agencies on the GoB to settle the CHT problem peacefully. Fourth, the PCJSS’ readiness to seek political solution following revival of democracy during 1990s in Bangladesh (Husain, 1997). Although no international mediator was involved in the peace process, the PA gained international acclamation, for which Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, received the UNESCO Peace Prize in 1999 (Jamil, and Panday, 2008).
In order to get a pragmatic solution, Paris (2005:768) suggests that peace building should focus on the “prevention of large-scale violence” in the post-conflict settings. But there are different views on the peace building priorities. According to David (1999: 27) the three elements are central to peace building: security transition; democratic transition and socio-economic transition. By drawing on David, this section examines the peace building priorities of the PA in the post-conflict settings in CHT.

One of the objectives of security transition is to prevent resumption of violence. To achieve this objective a few measures have been included in the PA.

4.1.1 Disarmament and reintegration of the combatants
It is notable here that the conflict in CHT was between the PCJSS’ guerrillas and the regular government military forces. Hence, one of the provisions included in the PA was to disarm the combatants. As per the provisions (sections 12 & 13 of Part D of the PA) the PCJSS was required to submit the list of arms and ammunition including the number of combatants to the government within the 45 days since after signing the PA. Then the government and the PCJSS jointly decided the phases of depositing arms and bringing the combatants’ family members to normal life. All combatants were granted amnesty.

In order reintegrate the ex-combatants and their families to society, the PA included a package of facilities that include: i) a lump sum cash payment for re-establishment; ii) remission of loan, if any; iii) reinstatement of combatants to their previous positions, if any; iv) recruitment to various government services according to their qualifications; v) bank loans for self-employment; and vi) educational facilities for children.

As per the provisions of the PA, PCJSS deposited arms and ammunition to the government. Of some 1900 ex-combatants, 682 were recruited in the police force, and 64 were reinstated to their previous services. But no measure has been taken to generate self-employment opportunities for the ex-combatants or their family members (PCJSS, 2003).

4.1.2 Repatriation of the refugees
The PA included a provision for repatriation of indigenous refugees who crossed the Indian border. The government offered a package of facilities for the returnee refugees. Of these, the major ones included were a lump sum cash payment; food ration; materials for construction of houses; returning lands to the families, who lost their lands to outsiders; remission of agricultural loans, and cash payment for purchase of plough cattle and so on. According to the PCJSS report (2003) some 70,000 refugees took shelter in India. Of them, 64000 people repatriated home following the PA.

4.1.3 Rehabilitation of internally displaced persons
During the conflict period, thousands of people internally was displaced within CHT. To rehabilitate those internally displaced persons (IDPs), the PA (section 1 of Part D) provides for a Task Force. Immediately after the PA, the Task Force was formed with an indigenous MP from the ruling party, in the chair. The first task of the Task Force was to determine the criteria of and identify the IDPs. Unfortunately that Task Force could not advance its activities as then chair of the Task Force unilaterally included the Bengali settlers in the list of IDPs (PCJSS, 2003). Claiming this decision as “anti-peace Accord”, the PCJSS opposed the inclusion of the Bengali settlers in the IDPs’ list. Until now, the Task Force could not make any progress for rehabilitation of IDPs.

4.1.4 Demilitarisation and mixed police force
Militarisation has been a serious threat to human rights protection in CHT. Across the whole CHT, there are more than 500 military camps. Therefore, to assist demilitarisation and improve law and order situation in CHT, the PA stipulates: i) all temporary camps of security forces would be withdrawn except six major cantonments in CHT (section 17 (a) of Part D of the PA); and ii) local police force with local indigenous persons.

So far, no actual figure is available about the status of withdrawal of military camps. Instead the government imposed a new military rules, called Operation Uttoran (upliftment), by which the military forces are allowed to control civil administration, law and order including implementation of certain development programs such as “Shantakaran” (pacification) and “Ashrayan” (shelter) projects for the Bengali settlers in the post-accord period (PCJSS, 2005).


4.2.1 Political participation
To ensure political representation of indigenous peoples in state affairs, three special governance structures have been set up. These are: i) a ministry exclusively for CHT; ii) a regional council over three hill districts of CHT; and iii) hill district council (HDC) in each district of CHT.

The Ministry of CHT Affairs (MoCHTA) is headed by an indigenous person. Its main role is to supervise and coordinate overall development matters and administrative activities of CHT region. At the national level, the MoCHTA is mandated to uphold the interest of the CHT people by coordinating with other line ministries, and providing advisory support to the central government with regards to CHT affairs.

Over three hill district, the CHT Regional Council (CHTRC) also has been established with 22 members under the leadership of Jyotirindra Bodhipriya (Santu) Larma, head of the former guerrilla force. Two-third seats have been reserved for indigenous persons including the position of chair. The CHTRC has a mandate to coordinate and supervise all activities of three HDCs, general civil administration and law and order, and all other development activities/programs undertaken by the local authorities in CHT. It also may advise the central government before making any laws concerning CHT at the national level (Article 53 of CHTRC Act 1998).

For each district of CHT, a Hill District Council (HDC) has been established under the leadership of indigenous person. Proportional representation from all communities has been ensured in the HDCs. As per the PA, 33 subjects of public services of the central government would be delegated to the HDCs to ensure economic, social and cultural development. Of which, the major ones are education, (primary and secondary); health; agriculture and forestry; livestock; fisheries; cooperatives; commerce and industries; social welfare; culture; land and land management; indigenous custom, tradition and social justice system and so forth.

4.2.2 Election of the Hill Councils
As per the PA, the HDCs will be constituted with elected representatives. Then the CHTRC will be formed through the votes of the HDCs members. Due to lack of subsidiary legislation on the election procedures, the elections of the HDCs could not be held yet. So, the interim Councils are running functions now.

This aspect relates to the reconstruction of economic and social services in the post conflict settings. It depends on the following issues, which the PA has tried to address.

4.3.1 Delegation of authority to the Hill Councils
As discussed in section 4.2.1, the CHTRC and the HDCs are expected to be powerful institutions to carry out development programs and to provide basic services to the people in CHT. But due to lack of subsidiary legislation and lack of political support, the CHTRC is yet to be able to fully exercise its power to coordinate and supervise overall development activities, general administration and law and order in CHT (Larma, 2003).

Similarly, the HDCs have not been empowered to function properly for the economic, social and cultural development of the people in CHT. In 13 years of the signing the PA, the central government delegated only 12 out of 33 transferable subjects to the HDCs (PCJSS, 2010).

As such, the effectiveness of these Hill Councils to contribute to the reconstruction of the conflict affected society substantially has remained unutilised, as the central government did not delegate authorities to them.

4.3.2 Resolution of Land Disputes
Due to government-sponsored population transmigration program, the conflict over the land ownership between the Bengali settlers and indigenous people is now at the centre of conflict in CHT. To resolve all disputes related to lands in CHT, the PA stipulates a Commission on land.

Simultaneously, the HDCs have the authority to control all types of lands, except the lands of the public institutions in CHT. Without prior approval of the HDCs, no lands could be transferred to others (article 64 of HDC Act 1998).

In reality, in 13 years of the PA, the Land Commission could not function due to inconsistencies between commission’s law and the PA. To remove those inconsistencies, the Hill Councils, especially the CHTRC put recommendations to the government, but so far no government has taken any effective measures to this effect (PCJSS, 2005).

The PA could be critiqued from different perspectives. However, the following issues, that are central to the roots of structural violence in CHT, have not been addressed in the PA.

i) Withdrawal of Bengali settlers: Under the government sponsorship approximately 400000 Bengali settlers had been brought into CHT (see section 2.0). To grab lands, these Bengali settlers backed by the army carried out system massacres and killings on indigenous people. But the PA directly did not address the withdrawal of the Bengali settlers. Even in the post-Accord period, infiltration of the Bengali settlers into CHT continues unabated.

ii) Justice and reconciliation: During the conflict between the Bengali settlers and indigenous villagers, and between the government forces and guerrillas, many people lost lives and beloved ones. Many indigenous women have been victimised of rapes by the Bengali settlers and military forces. The PA has remained silent about the massacres, and justice and reconciliation of the affected people.

iii) Non-recognition of identities: One of the roots of the conflict was non-recognition of distinct identities of indigenous peoples in the constitution. The PA did not address the identity question. Instead, it used the term ‘tribal’, which is derogatory. By denying indigenous identities, the government tends to renege upon the indigenous rights to autonomy. Moreover, the PA has not been safeguarded constitutionally, for which any government may repeal it with a simple majority in the parliament.

iv) No roadmap for implementation: There is no clear roadmap for implementation of the provisions of the PA. This loophole leaves a room for the government to dillydally implementation of its obligations.

The conflict emerged from non-recognition of ethnic identities of indigenous peoples during the state building process of nation state. In that sense, the conflict in CHT, Bangladesh is between the nation state and indigenous peoples, where the latter want recognition of their rights and identities in the state system; while the former denies accepting it.

As indigenous peoples were persisting with the demand for autonomy, the state took resort to the two radical measures – militarisation and minoritisation of indigenous people. As part of the minoritisation policy, the state sponsored importing Bengali settlers from the plains into the indigenous inhabited CHT region. Consequently there had been competition over lands and resources in CHT, where the state (the army) took side with the Bengali settlers against the indigenous people. Thus the state camouflaged its role in the conflict by unleashing the Bengali settlers from behind against the non-Bengalis (indigenous people).

The CHT peace process has had several distinct features such as: i) no external mediation was involved; ii) military intervention i.e. military-backed governments could not achieve success; iii) effective dialogue was possible following a transition from autocratic rules to democracy in the country; and iv) political commitment of both parties (the GoB and the PCJSS) to solve the conflict. To increase confidence of the guerrillas, the GoB established a parliamentary body, which negotiated with the PCJSS for a peaceful and political solution and that resulted in a peace accord.

The PA has set out a wide range of priorities, which could be divided into several categories such as i) political representation; ii) disarmament and rehabilitation; iii) resolution of land disputes; and iv) demilitarisation. Disarmament and reintegration of the ex-combatants and repartition of refugees have taken place substantially. But of the ‘other priorities’, some have remained partially addressed and some completely unaddressed since signing the PA. Of these priorities, resolution of land disputes and rehabilitation of IDPs, and election of the hill councils have remained untouched upon.

On top of all these issues, the PA is silent about the roots of violent conflicts such as withdrawal of the Bengali settlers, and constitutional recognition of indigenous identities, including the issues of justice and reconciliation. To protect the Bengali settlers, the army still has maintained not only its high physical presence, but also interference in civil matters in CHT. As long as the withdrawal of the settlers and military rules will go unattended, the violent conflicts tend to continue in CHT intermittently (Chakma, 2010b).

Finally, it can be said that the PA itself cannot bring lasting peace unless the parties to the PA do have mutual respect, trust and commitment to each other. The same thing happened in the case of the CHT peace process. Non-implementation of the peace building priorities in CHT does not relate to the limitation of the PA itself; rather it ensues from the absence of the political commitment of the government. #

First published in blog Community Development Cafe', December 2, 2010

ASHOK K. CHAKMA is Master student of Development Practice in Planning for Social Development at the University of Queensland, Australia. His areas of interests are community planning, engagement and governance, environment, indigenous rights and development. He is presently living in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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