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Letters from India
Southeastern Bangladesh Erupts in Violence
By Nava Thakuria
Special Correspondent
Ethnic people in Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT)
Bangladesh often hits media headlines for various human tragedies, and the latest such tragedy also echoed a similar episode of ethno-political violence. The poverty-stricken South Asian country reported another round of ethnic violence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) during the second half of February 2010. The CHT comprising three districts — Khagrachari, Rangamati and Bandarban — has been witnessing violence between the indigenous groups and Bengali settlers time to time since when a peace accord was signed by the Government in Dhaka.

The violence has tempted voices of concern from local civil society groups to international fora, including the United Nations, which hope ‘that all will unite to help Bangladesh get rid of the tragedy in a spirit of peace for the greater interest of the nation’.

Local sources confirmed that the Bangladesh Army had torched hundreds of houses, a Buddhist temple and a church during its crackdown in the south-eastern Bangladesh. Talking to this writer from Dhaka, a Bangladeshi rights activist (who wanted anonymity) claimed that at least six indigenous people were killed during the ten-day carnage in the CHT. He identified the tribals killed in the arson and communal riots in Chittagong as Laxmi Bijoy Chakma, Litan Chakma, Buddhabati Chakma, Bharat Chakma, Shantashil Chakma and Natunjoy Chakma. A Bengali settler named Anwar Hossain was also killed in the hostility.

Quoting Rangamati Deputy Commissioner S Chakravarty, the local newspapers reported “the tension mounted in an otherwise quiet remote area of CHT following a land dispute between hill people and Bengali settlers. At least 50 houses and shops belonging to both the communities were set afire, and finally a gunfight erupted when the Army rushed to restore order”.

The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) claimed that at least seven persons, including six Chakmas, were killed during firing by the Bangladesh Army and the communal violence. The carnage in February 19-20 left many injured when the clash between the indigenous tribal people and Bengali settlers erupted. Of course, the Bangladesh Government did not make any official statement on the death toll in the violence till the second week of March.

The New Delhi-based rights body also alleged that the Bangladesh armed force personnel had been involved in the burning down of over 500 tribal houses with a Buddhist temple and church on the night of February 19. The carnage had left thousands of indigenous people homeless.

Suhas Chakma, the director of ACHR, while talking to this writer from New Delhi, said that his centre had already sought ‘intervention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, with the Bangladesh Government for initiating appropriate actions against the culprits’. “The Bangladesh Army and illegal plain settlers had arrived in the locality on the night of February 19 and went on burning the tribal villages and indiscriminate killing of indigenous Jumma people there,” he said.

Survival International, a London-based organization supporting the tribal people’s rights around the globe, also came out with a statement that at least six Jumma (largely Buddhists and Christians minorities) people were killed and hundreds of houses burnt in the attack by Bangladesh soldiers and settlers on tribal villages in the Sajek region of the hill tracts. Its director Stephen Corry said in an interview that the “horrific incident is just the latest in a long line of brutal attacks on Jumma tribal people.”

“They have been killed, tortured and raped, and their lands grabbed. We call on the Government of Bangladesh to put an end to army violence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and to withdraw the army camps, as promised in the peace accord. Those responsible for this atrocity must be brought to justice,” added Stephen Corry.

The Bangladesh Army personnel, who were on duty in the hill areas, reportedly erected barricades and prevented public leaders, civil officials and journalists from visiting the affected areas in south Bangladesh during the violence.

The ACHR director, strongly reacting to it, alleged: “In order to prevent the truth from coming out, the Bangladesh Army personnel prevented all independent observers, including journalists and human rights activists, from visiting the violence-affected areas.”

Different socio-political organizations of the country also expressed grave concern over the incidents where indigenous people became target of atrocities of armed forces. They also called on the government to immediately provide relief and rehabilitation facilities to the affected families.

The violence tempted the main Opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to express serious concern and condemn the inaction of the Awami League-led Government in Dhaka. Facing the heat, Bangladesh Minister of State for CHT Affairs Dipankar Talukdar visited the area on February 21 and assured the local people of a probe and stern action against the guilty.

The government also transferred Khagrachari Sadar police chief Shahriar Khan holding him responsible for the inefficient handling of the ethnic violence. Similarly, Khagrachari Mayor Zainal Abedin was suspended by the Local Government and Rural Development of Bangladesh.

Dhaka had earlier sent 100 tonnes of rice, 100 bundles of iron sheet and cash for the violence victims. Bangladesh Home Minister Sahara Khatun, however, blamed the anti-CHT peace accord campaigners for the violence in the hill districts.

Meanwhile, a statement from the International Committee of Red Cross stated that the apex humanitarian body associated with the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was engaged in providing humanitarian aid to the victim families.

“The ICRC and BDRCS distributed relief materials to some 600 displaced families representing some 3,500 beneficiaries of affected Bengali and indigenous communities. Each kit of distribution consisted of 5 kg of dal, 2 litres of soyabean oil, 1 kg of salt, a family cooking set, a hygiene kit, a tarpaulin, 2 jerry cans, 2 mosquito nets and 2 blankets,” added the statement quoting Christoph Vogt, head of the ICRC Mission in Dhaka.

Since January this year, illegal plain settlers with the support of Bangladesh Army personnel, posted at Baghaihat zone under Rangamati district, started expansion of their illegal settlement into the villages of Chakma people. A number of houses have already been erected by the illegal plain settlers by forcibly occupying Jumma villagers’ lands.

The Jumma villagers under the banner of Sajek Bhumi Rakkha Committee (Sajek Land Rights Protection Committee) submitted a memorandum to the local authority on January 10 with an ultimatum of January 16 to return them their lands. As the deadline expired without any fruitful result, Jumma villagers started their agitation from January 18. It finally ended with the killings, burning down of villages and subsequent imposition of Section 144 CrPC and curfew in the violence-affected areas.

Amnesty International, another London-based rights organization, stated in an earlier release that the predominantly Buddhist tribal people of Chittagong had ‘for over two decades been the targets of massacres, arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial executions.'

The international rights body on February 26 called on Dhaka ‘to carry out a prompt, independent and impartial investigation into the death’ of Jumma indigenous residents of Chittagong areas.

“More than 100 Jumma indigenous people are believed to be in detention, and over 1,500 Jumma people fled their homes only to live under open skies in the dense forest, with no shelter and little access to food. The injured are reportedly afraid of going to hospitals as they run the risk of being arrested,” an AI statement added.

Meanwhile, a protest demonstration against the Bangladeshi military atrocities in CHT had been staged in New Delhi on February 25. Led by VK Mahathero, president of Peace Camping Group, and S Chakma, director of Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network, the protest meet was attended by over 1,000 Chakmas and non-Chakma human rights and peace activists. The meet concluded with the demand for a judicial inquiry into the killings and destruction of property in CHT to be completed within 90 days, prosecuting the culprits, providing proper resettlement and rehabilitation to the victims.

It also appealed to the Bangladesh Government to fully implement the peace accord of 1997 within a specific time-frame. Protest demonstrations were also organized in Dhaka, Kolkata, Bangkok, Tokyo, New York and London, where the protesters demanded a credible inquiry into the incident of Chittagong violence.

Even a group of visiting European Union parliamentarians expressed its concern over the recent attacks on leaders of the indigenous communities in the CHT and demanded a high-level probe into the incidents. Talking to mediapersons in Dhaka on February 20, the leader of the delegation, Jean Lambert, stated the developments ‘show that anti-peace accord groups are still active in the country.’

Later the EU, in a statement from Brussels, urged the Bangladesh Government to ensure that the perpetrators of the violence were brought to justice. It reiterated the call for an independent investigation and swift implementation of the Chittagong peace accord.

The Bangladesh Government had recently initiated implementation of the 1997 CHT peace accord that finally raised tension between the indigenous communities and the Bengali settlers in the locality. The government has withdrawn many military camps from CHT.

The EU had already provided around Euros 130 million for the CHT peace treaty. Earlier the EU parliamentarians met Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Speaker of the Jatiya Sangsad, Bangladesh Foreign Minister and some high-level government officials.

Of course, the Bangladesh Government rejected the observation of the EU on the recent developments in CHT. The government handed over a protest note against the EU for their ‘baseless statement’ summoning the Dhaka-based EU delegation head.

The United Nations continued to monitor the situation in CHT after the violence broke out there. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed his worries at the CHT arsons. Talking to mediapersons at the UN headquarters on March 3, the spokesman of the Secretary General said that UN was ready to extend its support to Dhaka in its efforts to restore peace in the region.

Meanwhile, the situation in CHT returned to almost normalcy by the first week of March. Quoting the local administration, a Dhaka-based newspapers recently reported that ‘the people of all walks of life from both tribal and Bengali communities had started leading their normal lives and attending to their day-to-day affairs’ in the violence-affected localities.

Political observers and analysts believe that conflict started with the construction of Kaptai dam in Chittagong in Sixties (then under the Pakistan authority). Thousands of acres of land had been acquired for the project, which was cultivated by the tribal people (mostly Chakmas). Hundreds thousand Chakma people lost their livelihood because of the project and the compensation packages were inadequate. Nearly 40,000 Chakmas migrated to India and they are still living in many parts of the Northeast, mostly in Arunachal Pradesh bordering Tibet.

The Chittagong Hill Tract in southeastern Bangladesh has an area of around 14,200 sq km, which is nearly 10 percent of the country’s land areas.

Enriched with natural resources like hydrocarbon, uranium, timber, bamboo and fruits, the region is adjacent to India and Myanmar.

Tribes predominantly Chakma, Lushai, Marma, Murong, Tanchangya, Bhowm, Tripura, Pangkho, Khumi, Kukis, Chak, Kaiang live in CHT peacefully.

The areas are also used, as Indian intelligence report claims with conviction, by India’s Northeast militant outfits as their hide-outs.

They also reportedly run their training camps in the hilly terrain of Chittagong. Though the region is a Buddhist-majority area, it was included in East Pakistan after the division of India in 1947. Of course, Chittagong used to enjoy a kind of self-governance during the Colonial rule. But the rulers of Pakistan did not respect the autonomy structure of Chittagong. Rather migration of non-tribals (mostly Bengalis) were encouraged by the government with an aim to reduce the population pressure in the plains. It finally increased more tensions between the indigenous tribal people and the Bengali settlers.

After Bangladesh had got independence from Pakistan rulers in 1971, the region raised the demand for lost autonomy from the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman-led Awami League Government in Dhaka. The tribal delegation from Chittagong met the then Bangladesh Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman for their demands from autonomy to self-government.

They also insisted on preventing the Bengali influx to the hills districts.

But not all of their demands were fulfilled. One can say, the Father of Bangladesh nation, Mujibur Rahman, could not meet the expectation of the tribal people of Chittagong. Angered with the government’s response, the tribals formed Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti as their solidarity group in Chittagong (later came to know as the United People’s Democratic Front). Even their armed wing named Shanti Bahini came to existence in 1972.

The Government in Dhaka launched a massive anti-insurgency operation against the Shanti Bahini cadres in 1980. The counter-insurgency operation resulted in the killing of thousands of people (insurgents, soldiers and civilians) in the locality. Then came the theory of recognizing three district councils — Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban — with limited autonomy.

After many up and down, the region witnessed a peace agreement of those rebellion tribals with the government. In her first term as the Prime Minister, the present head of the government, Sheikh Hasina Wajed inked a peace accord for the benefit of the tribal people of Chittagong. The accord, signed in 1997, helped formation of Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council to look after various issues related to the three hill districts with limited political power. One of the important resolutions in the accord was to withdraw armed personnel from these districts.

Sheikh Hasina earned recognition from international leaders for her initiatives. The Indian Government had also honoured Hasina with Indira Gandhi Peace Award for various contributions, including her initiatives for promoting peace by resolving a long-standing insurgency (problem) in Bangladesh by concluding the CHT peace accord.
But not every one was happy with the accord. Not to speak of the mainstream Bengalis, the accord was opposed by a number of hill people’s organizations. Sheikh Hasina’s successor (also the predecessor) Begum Khaleda Zia also did not pay much respect to those tribals and hence the Khaleda-led BNP organized protest rallies against the accord. The party, which run the previous government in Dhaka, still argues that the accord, if implemented fully, will impede only its sovereignty (to India). The party, which is sympathetic to the settlers (Bengali Muslim) in Chittagong, still maintains that the Army is essential in the hill districts to maintain the law-and-order situation.

BNP leader Fakhrul Islam Alamgiral said in a recent media interaction that the decision to pull out Army (by the Awami League-led government) from the locality was a mistake. He even demanded that the Chittagong peace accord should be re-evaluated before proper implementation.

The ACHR urged international donors to immediately suspend UNDPs confidence and development support in CHT until inquiry was made to find out the truth with regard to the killings and burning down of the houses of indigenous Jumma people there. The development support initiative has been supported with various schemes by the European Commission, Denmark, Norway, USA, Canada, Australia and Japan.

Terming the incidence of Bangladesh Army-backed massacres of indigenous Jumma people in many villages under Rangamati and Khagrachari during February 19-24 as disturbing, ACHR director Suhas Chakma argued that the latest incidents of violence raised legitimate questions about the commitment of Dhaka towards the CHT peace accord.

He concluded saying, “UNDP is bound to uphold international norms. The UN’s silence even after being forced to temporarily close down its offices in Khagrachari district is of serious concern. UNDP cannot credibly continue to operate a confidence-building project amidst State-backed massacres. To continue support, until the facts are independently determined, will risk collusion with grave human rights violations.”

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Nava Thakuria, who serves as a special correspondent for The Seoul Times, is based in Guwahati of Northeast India. He also contributes articles for many media outlets based in different parts of the glove, and can be contacted at






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