In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, clashes between Bangladeshi military and Shanti Bahini continued for more than two decades. The armed struggle ended through the signing of an agreement (known as CHT Accord) between Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) and the Bangladesh government on December 2, 1997. As a result, it has been widely known as “Peace Accord”.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina signed the agreement with great courage and prudence. The agreement was signed in accordance with the constitution of Bangladesh by the undisputed leader of the hill people, Jyotirindra Bodipriya Larma (Santu Larma), on behalf of the indigenous Jumma people, and Abul Hasnat Abdullah, MP and Convener of the National Committee, on behalf of the Bangladesh government. The agreement promised to bring stability in the region. But even after 22 years of its signing, the Accord has yet to bear fruit. CHT is still the most unstable region in the country and resentment among the indigenous Jumma people is increasing day by day due to delays in the full implementation of the Accord.
The government and the Jana Samhati Samiti give a statement every year on the occasion of the anniversary of the CHT Accord. The government says almost all the provisions of the Accord have been implemented—and the rest too will eventually be implemented. But the Jana Samhati Samiti claims that none of the fundamental issues of the CHT Accord have yet been implemented. And the language of political discourse in the CHT is becoming more and more restless.
The signing of the Peace Accord kindled a glimmer of hope among the Jumma people that they will eventually live in peace and with dignity. But their hope has not materialised in the last 22 years. Violent clashes between Jumma and Bengali people over land rights are still a regular affair in the region. The Jumma people expected that the present government of Sheikh Hasina—whose first government signed the Accord—would take steps toward the full implementation of the Accord. But this has not happened even after two decades of its signing.
Successive governments implemented a few provisions, including enactment of laws as per the CHT Accord. Among them, the passing of CHT Regional Council Act 1998, three Hill District Council Act 1998 and CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act 2001 (amended in 2016) in parliament; establishment of CHT Affairs Ministry and CHT Regional Council; reconstitution of interim Hill District Councils and transfer of 7 subjects and 7 offices to these councils; repatriation of Jumma refugees from the Indian State of Tripura, withdrawal of around 100 temporary camps, formation of CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission, Task Force and CHT Accord Implementation Monitoring Committee; rehabilitation of ex-combatants, etc., are the most remarkable.
But even if all the provisions of the CHT Accord are implemented, without a solution to the “land problems”, everything else will become meaningless. Land problems are the main issues in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. As a result, the situation must be considered with great care, before talking about the implementation of the Accord.
Consider the position of a child who was born in 1997, he or she is now a 22-year-old adult. In 1997, the guerrillas who returned to normal life after surrendering their arms were 35 or 40 years old, now they are 57 or 67 years old. Some might be even older. Before joining the Shanti Bahini, all of them had their own houses and land for cultivation. But now most of them do not have anything. According to the Accord, they were supposed to have been given back their homes and land. But that did not happen.
The houses and land of the hill people have been occupied by the state-sponsored Bengali settlers who were taken from the plain land after 1971. According to the CHT Accord, one of the major priorities was to resolve the land problems in the Chittagong Hill Tracts—the hills areas which are occupied by the Bengali settlers should be given back to the indigenous Jumma peoples. In the last 22 years, nothing has happened.
Without solving the land problems, government agencies have undertaken various “development” activities by acquiring thousands of acres of land in different areas of the CHT. Though it is said that the “development” is for the hill people, in reality, it has spelt disaster for the indigenous Jumma people.
On the other hand, the government is still following the previous policy of rehabilitating Bengali settlers in CHT, identifying them as IDP (internally displaced persons) which is contradictory to the CHT Accord. As a result, the rehabilitation process of the indigenous IDPs has ended in a standstill.
Unreliable data is being brought forward without taking the proper initiative to implement the basic provisions of the CHT Accord. It is said that 48 out of 72 provisions have been implemented. But, only 25 were implemented and 34 clauses remain totally unimplemented, while 13 have been partially implemented.
Besides, the core issues, such as legal and administrative measures for preservation of tribal-inhabited characteristics of CHT; transfer of powers and functions including general administration, law and order, police (local), land and land management, forest and environment, communication system and so on to the CHT Regional Council and Hill District Councils and holding elections of these councils; returning of dispossessed land to the indigenous owners in resolving disputes through Land Commission; rehabilitation of the returnee refugees and internally displaced indigenous families; withdrawal of all temporary camps including Operation Uttoron (Operation Upliftment); cancellation of land leases given to non-residents; etc., have either been left unimplemented or have been partially implemented.
The agreement was signed to establish peace in the region, but peace is still elusive due to the political unwillingness to resolve the problems of the indigenous Jumma people of CHT. The government should not forget that the problem of Chittagong Hill Tracts was not solved through military means; the solution was initiated by political means in 1997. I would like to say now is the right time for the Bangladesh government to rebuild the nation in an inclusive, productive and prosperous manner, ensuring the safety of all.
The present situation in the CHT proves that the CHT Accord has failed to bring peace in the region. The state’s failure to implement all the provisions of the Accord in a timely manner is leading to an increasing sense of frustration and disillusionment among the Jumma people, which is enhancing the possibility of renewed unrest and possible revival of the old situation in the region, the effect of which will be devastating. Therefore, in the interest of the overall peace and security of the country, the present government should consider the matter as a critical national security issue and endeavour to build a nationwide consensus in favour of the treaty, and implement at least the provisions of resolution of land dispute, rehabilitation of internally displaced persons and demilitarisation, in the remaining period of its tenure.
John Tripura is associated with the Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defender.