Militarization in Bangladesh CHT and lack of a democratic solution

The article “Conflict & People of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh” by A.K. Zaman, published on September 19, 2009, drew 02 responses published below the original post. Author of the first article A.K. Zaman has opted to raise consern again, after the 02 responses on the subject and especially of the Bengalis in CHT. He sees withdrawal of State security from the CHT area as a serious concern, not only for the Bengali people in the CHT but for national security as well.

BangladeshBRThis is a classic case, where, as in Sri Lanka, some voices in society accept and also call for the military as a necessary factor in solving political issues in a democratic society.

SouthAsiaSpeaks” which is a platform for democracy in the region, provides space to the following response from Zaman to the 02 previous responses, in order to further provoke the discussion in finding democratic political solutions to such socio-political conflicts through demilitarising of society which provides people the space to take charge of their fate as equals, in multi cultural societies.

Editorial – SAS

The region, sans military presence could well become playing fields (or killing fields?)

Recent development(s) in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) are giving rise to questions about the sensitive region and concern for the very sovereignty of Bangladesh as an independent nation.

Peace had long been a far cry in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Insurgency, clashes between the hill people and Bengalis and other acts of violence and lawlessness have continuously disrupted peace in the lush green hills. However, the peace accord signed in December 1997, brought a beam of hope to the region. Even the hardest of cynics had hoped that this accord, despite its shortcomings and flaws, would perhaps change the scenario to some extent and sow the seeds for future peace and harmony in the region.

Now, however, things look different. Moves are on for an implementation of the CHT peace accord in a manner that could well change the demographic makeup of the region. Various local and international forums are using the accord as leverage to remove the Bengali population from the hill districts and relocate them elsewhere in the country. CHT, which makes up 10% of the country’s total land mass, would then be populated only by certain ethnic groups, including elements long involved in separationist movement. The Bengalis would be pushed into the already overpopulated districts of the plains.

In the latest developments, the withdrawal of military from the region had been stepped up and accelerated in an unprecedented manner. Previously military camps had been sporadically withdrawn from the area, but now with the withdrawal of an entire brigade, questions of security are looming large in the national psyche. For the first time the withdrawal of the army is so visible and the area is thus more vulnerable from a security perspective.

Indications that all is not well have already surfaced. Recently a huge arms haul was recovered in the region. Similar incidence of a breakdown in law and order are appearing on the scene at regular intervals. The tension is tangible.

Under the circumstances, say security experts, it would not be unlikely for vested quarters to swoop down and take full advantage of this sensitive area’s vulnerability.

The region, sans military presence could well become playing fields (or killing fields?) for terrorists – Islamic or otherwise. “Anything can develop there,” says a political analyst on a somewhat ominous note.

Security analysts also take into cognizance the presence of India’s volatile “seven-sister” states, brewing with insurgency and rebellion. Instability in CHT can pose the area as tempting camping grounds for these insurgents and the same applies to the Rohingya rebels of Arakan in Myanmar.

Experts on the area see distinct possibilities of the area emerging on lines parallel to that of FATA on Pakistan’s troubled northwest border. This terrain has little or no administrative control. Just as Talibans of Afghanistan seep thorough the porous border of Pakistan, Bangladesh too could see osmosis of insurgents into CHT with lessened military presence. As it is, BDR has been weakened considerably, leaving the borders lacking in adequate security. Such a scenario would be suicidal where Bangladesh’s sovereignty is concerned.

In addition to the overt and official peace accord signed between the government and the hill organisation PCJSS, there is acknowledged presence of an “unwritten” peace accord. This is even mentioned by Raja Devasish Roy in his paper “The Discordant Accord: Challenges Towards Implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997”. Here he speaks of an unwritten agreement for the repatriation of the Bengali settlers, often referred to by the hill organisations as “Muslim settlers”. This is endorsed by the western quarters such as the European Union and UNDP as well as others, who are even willing to dish out funds to relocate the Bengalis from the hill to plain lands around the country.

Sources say that the government and PCJSS reached an unwritten agreement that “Muslim settlers” would be transferred to other districts and would be rehabilitated there. In this connection, on the day of the accord in December 1997, PCJSS Chairman Jyotindra Bodhipriya Larma and other PCJSS leaders met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at her office. It is reported that a certain government official at the meeting spoke of tranferring the “Muslim settlers” to other plain districts of the country and pressure would be created on them to move by dismantling the cluster villages and stopping their ration supply.

The Bengalis who have long set up home and hearth in CHT are bound to find themselves defenceless, at the mercy of the hill people who have a propensity to view them as settlers, intruders even. There is a long history of resentment and simmering hatred in the area and once the national security forces are removed, the hill people will naturally take security into their own hands. This evokes a sense of apprehension where the security of the Bengali populace is concerned and an inevitable backlash could spell massacre.

So far a balance has been maintained in the area, with the civil and military administration undertaking programmes to promote ethnic harmony. There are cluster villages, rations, security installations and so on to ensure peace is maintained. Once that goes, the Bengali settles will be open to vengeance. In that scenario, the government won’t even have to bother about measures to relocate and rehabilitate the Bengalis. They will be driven out forcibly.

Law and order is also a matter of concern. It is no secret that PCJSS and UPDF have been carrying out unabated extortion in the region. This will only multiply if they gain full control of running the region as they aspire.

The area is already a sort of free-for-all with Christian and Muslim missionaries running conversion operations in full force. NGOs have their brand of development schemes in the hills and foreign missions too have their own agendas for the region. UNDP’s development programmes blatantly address the needs of the hill people, turning a cold shoulder to the poverty-stricken Bengali people there.

Analysts even see shades of East Timor emerging. Raja Devasish Roy and other leaders of CHT are calling for international intervention in the issue, to oversee the implementation of the peace accord. Similar foreign intervention by foreign quarters led to the independence of East Timor. This is brought home all the more strongly by the recent visit of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, which was reconstituted in May last year in Copenhagen, led by Lord Avenbury. During a press conference of the CHTC in Dhaka recently, it was said that one of the main tenets of the peace accord was that lands would be returned to owners once their land titles were confirmed through a survey.

However, solving the land issue is easier said than done. While the hill people call for their land rights, there are no legal documents to ascertain their claims. Settling this issue is bound to be tedious and long-winded, not to mention contentious too.

Even the Regional Council of the area is under question. Leader Shantu Larma in actuality is unelected. The Constitution has to be changed to accommodate this. This was stated in no uncertain terms by the Chief Election Commissioner himself.

Coming to the matter of the “unwritten” accord, while the government denies the existence of such an accord, PCJSS and UPDF point out that while in the official peace accord there is no specific mention of removing Bengali settlers from the area, this has very clearly stated in the unwritten accord. This was been mentioned again by Raja Devasish Roy. The European Union and other western missions also uphold ousting Bengalis from the region, the 13,000 sq km area rich with resources and having a sensitive geo-political positioning.

All eyes are riveted on CHT now. No one intends to deny the rights of the hill people. They are citizens of Bangladesh and have all the rights designated to them by the Constitution. But the same applies to the Bengalis there. What right has anyone to drive them from there homes in their own homeland? CHT is a part of Bangladesh. Live and let live can be the only acceptable mantra, says a political analyst, commenting on the issue.

A K Zaman
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One thought on “Militarization in Bangladesh CHT and lack of a democratic solution

  1. India’s involvement in Chittagong Hill Tracts : Some admiisions

    1. “The Chakma guerrillas had closely assisted RAW operatives. They were assisted during and after the liberation War. The Chakmas, after the change of govt in 1975, contacted the RAW. The Chakmas offered to infiltrate among the Mizo rebels and pass on information to the Indian govt in lieu of assylum. This offer was accepted “(Inside RAW : The Story of India’s Secret Service, Asoka Raina, Vikas Publishers, New Delhi, 1981, pp.86-87).

    2. “In 1975, the RAW was instructed to assist the Chakma rebels with arms, supplies , bases and training. Training was conducted in the border camps in Tripura but specialized training was imparted at Chakrata near Dehra Doon. Shantu Larma’s Shanti Bahini members were flown to Chakrata and then sent back to Tripura to infiltrate into Chittagong Hill Tracts.

    A RAW office and its operatives at Agartala monitored the progress of the trainees. In 1976, the Shanti Bahini launched its first attack on the Bangladesh force. A new insurgency had been born and India’s secret war in the hills of Bangladesh had begun ” (South Asia’s Fractured Frontier, Binalaksmi Nepram, Mittal Pablishers, New Delhi, 2002, pp-153).

    3. “The RAW was involved in training rebels of Chakma tribes and Shanti Bahini to carry out subversive activities in Bangladesh” (RAW’s role in Furthering India’s Foreign Policy, The New Nation, Dhaka, 31 August 1994).

    4. “The Indian intelligence had collaborated the armed rebels of Chittagong Hill Tracts to destabilise the region” ( Indo-Bangladesh Relation, Motiur Rahman, daily Prothom Alo, 10 December 2002).

    Mohammad Zainal Abedin

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