Panic, condemnation after killings in Bangladeshi hills

Archbishop blames government inaction after seven die in Chittagong Hill Tracts violence
Panic, condemnation after killings in Bangladeshi hills

An indigenous woman returns home with her child after collecting drinking water from a hilly stream in Bandarban district of Chittagong Hill Tracts in January. At least 35 people have been killed on the hills in the past six months due to gun violence between rival indigenous groups. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)

People in Bangladesh's southeast hill region remain panic-stricken after two gun attacks left seven locals dead, with condemnation for the merciless killings coming from various quarters including the church.

Six members of the United People's Democratic Front (UPDF), an indigenous political party, were killed after unidentified gunmen opened fire in a marketplace in Khagrachhari district town on Aug. 18. The next day, another member of the group died after gunmen fired on a protest rally condemning the killings.

A similar attack left six indigenous political party members dead in May.

At least 35 people have been killed in the past six months, mostly in gun violence between rival political parties in the restive Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), The Daily Star reported on Aug. 19.

The CHT bordering India and Myanmar is composed of three hilly forested districts — Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari — and is Bangladesh's only mountainous region.

M.M. Salauddin, an additional police superintendent in Khagrachhari, said law enforcers have taken control of the area.

"Police, military and border guards are on patrol and conducting raids to arrest the killers. We suspect the killings are the result of long-standing rivalry between armed indigenous groups. We are also conducting a drive to seize illegal arms in the area," Salauddin told ucanews.com. 

Holy Cross Archbishop Moses M. Costa of Chittagong said the unrest is a result of the lack of implementation of the 1997 Peace Accord that ended a deadly bush war in the CHT.

"At least 60 percent of the accord remains unimplemented, and it causes uproar and bloodshed on the hills. Some people opposed the treaty and the government didn't do enough to diminish their grievances," Archbishop Costa told ucanews.com.

The British colonial policy of "divide and rule" and widespread human rights violations persist on the hills, he said.

"The government needs to take the issue more seriously, listen to locals and find an acceptable way to tackle conflicts," Archbishop Costa said.

Nirupa Chakma, president of the Hill Women's Federation, an indigenous rights group, accused the government and law enforcers of indirectly fueling violence to eliminate indigenous leadership from the hills.

"The killings took place in broad daylight close to police and border guard headquarters in the district. Even 45 minutes after the attackers carried out indiscriminate killings, no law enforcers came out to resist or nab the gunmen. Law enforcers seemed not just to fail to stop anarchy but to turn a blind eye," Chakma told ucanews.com.

"This means the government wants to see indigenous leadership erased. However, it continues to blame rivalry between indigenous groups for violence for vested interests."

Home to over 25 ethnic indigenous groups, mostly Buddhists, the CHT has seen conflict since the 1980s when state-sponsored migration of Bengali Muslim settlers led to land disputes and sectarian violence.

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To resist the settlers, angry indigenous people formed a militia and waged a bush war against government forces. In response, the government militarized the CHT, which continues today.

The insurgency ended with the 1997 Peace Accord between the government and indigenous leaders amid opposition from a group of indigenous peoples. Sectarian violence between indigenous peoples and Muslims, as well as bloodletting rivalry between indigenous groups, is rife in the CHT.

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