An indigenous Tripura family at Bandarban district of Chittagong Hill Tracts in January. Home to some 25 ethnic hill tribes, the region has seen violence stemming mostly from land disputes between indigenous people and Bengali Muslim settlers since the 1970s. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
A bishop has blamed government policy for creating an atmosphere that has led to the recent shooting deaths of six people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of southeastern Bangladesh.
Unknown assailants gunned down Shaktiman Chakma, chairman of Naniarchar Upzila Council, a local government body in Rangamati district, in front of his office on May 3.
Chakma was vice-president of a faction of Parbatta Chattagram Jana Samhati Samity (United People's Party of Chittagong Hill Tracts), an indigenous political party active in the three hill districts — Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban — collectively called Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The next day, gunmen opened fire on a small bus carrying Chakma's supporters en route to his funeral, leaving five dead and three critically injured.
No one — including the feuding indigenous political parties of the region — has claimed responsibility for the killings.
Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, president of Bangladeshi bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, condemned violence and criticized government policy which adversely affected the lives of indigenous people — most notably state-sponsored settlement of Bengali Muslims in the region since the 1970s.
"The Chittagong Hill Tracts used to be an indigenous region but today Bengali Muslims dominate everywhere," Bishop Rozario told ucanews.com. "Indigenous people saw Muslims grab their land and properties, abuse their women, and grievances continue to simmer, resulting in violence."
In the past, many indigenous groups formed militias and waged an insurgency against state forces until a peace accord was agreed in 1997. However, the region remains volatile and heavily militarized.
Sectarian violence between Bengali Muslim settlers and indigenous people continues to occur, plus fighting between indigenous political parties, resulting in some 600 people being killed over the past two decades.
Bishop Rozario said the government is using a "divide and rule" policy in the hills, and has not done enough to implement the main clauses of the peace accord, including resolving land disputes and empowering indigenous peoples.
"There is a power struggle among indigenous groups, and the government exploits it to keep the unrest alive and uses one group against another," said Bishop Rozario. "Unless the government has goodwill for peace and justice, the hills will continue to see violence and loss of lives."
In the past six months, 17 people, mostly activists of rival indigenous groups, have been killed in the region.
Sultana Kamal, a prominent rights activist, echoed similar sentiments to that of the bishop.
"Years have passed but the peace accord remains in limbo while Muslim dominance in the region continues," Kamal told ucanews.com. "One indigenous group is trying to wage an armed conflict to press the government, which we fear might spiral out of control. To bring peace in the hills area, justice must first prevail."
In a speech on May 6, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called for peace in Chittagong Hill Tracts.
"Whether we are Bengali or hill tribe, we must work for peace. Everyone must keep up solidarity and a favorable environment so that the rights of everyone can be ensured and sustained," Hasina said.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts borders both India and Myanmar. It is home to up to 25 ethnic indigenous groups who are mostly Buddhists and some Christians.
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