THE CHITTAGONG HILL TRACTS PEACE PROCESS IS STALLED
- October 09 1998
In his 46 years in Bangladesh, Holy Cross Father Richard Timm has worked in education at Notre Dame College in Dhaka and in relief and development at Caritas Bangladesh.
The American missioner has been associated with the Bangladesh bishops´ Justice and Peace Commission, of which he is executive secretary, for 24 years.
He wrote the following commentary on the troubled situation among tribals in southern Bangladesh for the Oct. 2 issue of ASIA FOCUS.
A peace treaty was signed on Dec. 2, 1997, between the government of Bangladesh and the Parbatto Chattogram Jono Shanghati Samity (PCJSS, Chittagong Hill Tracts people´s integration society), the political wing of the Shanti Bahini (peace battalion), which has been waging guerrilla warfare in the Hill Tracts for more than two decades.
It provides for a regional council and three district councils on which tribespeople have greater representation than Bengalis. A tribal chairperson heads each council.
The leading opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), immediately protested that the treaty was unconstitutional and that it sold out the sovereignty of one-tenth of the country to India.
The BNP never raised a legal challenge in the High Court but took to the streets together with six supporting parties, holding strikes and demonstrations and a "long march" (by vehicle) to the Hill Tracts to attempt to derail the treaty and the government. The treaty was popular, however, and there has not been strong support for abrogating it.
Four bills to regularize the administrative changes embodied in the peace accord were later passed in Parliament. After objecting to some provisions of the draft bills the PCJSS was consulted, though belatedly, as required by the treaty.
However, the government party added insult to injury by adding some last-minute amendments before the vote was taken that had not been submitted to the PCJSS for approval. One amendment defined "resident" in such a way as to include any Bengali who moves to the Hill Tracts. The PCJSS was assured that necessary changes would be made after the vote and before June 1, but by August the amendments had still not been changed.
The last tribal refugees returned from India´s Tripura state by the end of February 1998. But a land survey that was obligingly held up awaiting their return and that is so important for settling land claims has yet to begin.
Many other refugees, especially from Rangamati and Banderban districts, also fled to India but did not stay in the official camps in Tripura. After the peace accord they also returned to their home areas but did not receive any government help. They are in need of food and health care. Many have died of hunger and cholera in Ruma, Thanchi and Alikadam in Banderban district.
On Feb. 10, 739 guerrilla fighters of the Shanti Bahini ceremonially surrendered and turned their arms over to the prime minister. Two other group surrenders ending March 2 brought the total to 1,933.
Not only did they receive total amnesty, but they were awarded 50,000 taka (US$1,100) each for rehabilitation. All legal cases against them were supposed to have been dropped, but so far no cases have been withdrawn.
Formation of an interim regional council to prepare for elections to the 22-member council has been delayed week after week due to disagreement over names proposed by either side.
The treaty also provides that the army is to be restricted to six main cantonments, but until August none of the smaller camps had been shut down. The huge army presence in the Hill Tracts, rather than the presence of Bengali settlers forcibly imposed on them, has always been the main irritant for the tribespeople.
Development programs for the Hill Tracts, for which there has been a generous response from foreign donors, have been sanctioned but have been held up because the peace process is stalled.
The same holds true for programs of non-governmental organizations, some of which might be more sympathetic than government officials to tribal people´s needs.
Of the four large towns in the Hill Tracts, Kaptai has become fully a Bengali town since the opening of Kaptai Dam in 1962. Rangamati is 80 percent Bengali, Banderban 60 percent and Khagrachhari, experiencing the most rapid growth, is already half Bengali.
Even more significant for the future, but not widely realized, is that all shops, businesses and commerce are completely controlled by Bengalis. They are the middlemen for the sale of hill people´s agricultural products, which are their main means of support.
The other main moneymaking activity for the hill people is the sale of wood from their property. But the government has banned the sale of wood from the Hill Tracts to control rampant smuggling, which has been going on for several months with the help of forest officials.
Bengali businessmen, who have their own legitimate forest plots and wood businesses, have complained to the government about the ban, but for the hill people it is a matter of survival.
As far back as 1980 I wrote that "there is not much hope for the future. The hill people will gradually be pushed back as the hill lands become economically more valuable. Their lands will be taken on one pretext or another, and their culture will be preserved only in the tribal museums which have been established by the tribal ´development´ boards. Tribal girls may continue to dance for government cultural functions -- if they can be spared from their jobs as servants in Bengali homes."
This pessimistic assessment may have to be revived if the problems of development of the Hill Tracts cannot be settled peacefully and equitably.