By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On October 20, 2020, Ratan Chakma (24), a member of the MN Larma faction of the Parbatya Chattogram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS–MN Larma) was shot dead by unidentified assailants in the Babupara area of Baghaichari Upazila (Sub-District) in Rangamati District of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). PCJSS-MN Larma blamed the members of the Santu Larma faction of the PCJSS (PCJSS-Santu Larma) for the murder.
On October 15, 2020, Sa U Pru Marma, a former Union Parishad (Local Government Body) member, was shot dead in the Rowangchhari Upazila of Bandarban District in CHT. He was a supporter of the PCJSS–MN Larma. Locals said that he might have been a victim of long-standing factional clashes between the PCJSS–MN Larma and PCJSS-Santu Larma.
On October 10, 2020, Bachmong Marma (45), an activist of PCJSS–MN Larma, was shot dead at a tea stall at Jamchhari Bazar under Sadar Upazila in Bandarban District. Locals said that the victim was pulled out of the tea stall and shot dead at point blank range in front of the local people.
CHT is spread across 13,189 square kilometers and consists of three Districts – Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban. The region experienced two decades of insurgency, between 1977 and 1997, over the ethnic tribals’ demand for autonomy and land rights. More than 6,000 Government soldiers and rebels, as well as 2,500 civilians, were killed during the conflict. Though the insurgency terminated with the signing of the CHT Peace Accord on December 2, 1997, between the Government and the undivided PCJSS led by Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larmaaka Santu Larma, violence in the region continued due to rivalry between splinter groups of PCJSS.
According to reports, till June 2020, more than 600 people have been killed in CHT in such clashes, since the signing of the Peace Accord in 1997. These include over 200 members of PCJSS-Santu Larma, 312 members of parent United People’s Democratic Force (UPDF), 85 members of the PCJSS–MN Larma, and 10 members of UPDF-Democratic.
After the signing of the Accord in 1997, factionalism became rampant in PCJSS ranks and the group witnessed multiple splits. The first split came in 1997 itself, when Prasit Bikash Khisa formed UPDF-Prasit Khisa, after leaving PCJSS in protest against the Accord. The second split occurred in 2007, when a faction led by Sudha Sindho Khisa formed PCJSS-Reformation. The parent group split again, into PCJSS-MN Larma and PCJSS-Santu Larma, in 2010. In the meantime, UPDF-Prasit Khisa also suffered a split with the formation of UPDF-Democratic, led by Tapan Jyoti Chakma aka Borma aka Jalwa in November 2017. All these splinter groups are currently working as regional political parties. The other regional political parties active in CHT are Somo Adhikar Andolon (SAA) and Parbattya Bangalee Chattra Parishad (PBCP).
Meanwhile, according to locals of the region, all factions are involved in extortion from the wood trade, kitchen markets, cattle markets, transport and others. Intelligence sources indicate that these groups are collecting millions of BDT from people from all walks of life in CHT and are buying weapons with part of this money. According to law enforcement and intelligence sources, all factions have special armed wings, with sophisticated arms like rocket launchers, automatic sniper rifles and heavy machineguns.
On October 13, 2020, two members of the Prasit Khisa faction of the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF-Prasit Khisa) were killed and a Bangladesh Army soldier was injured in a gunfight in Rangamati District’s Naniarchar upazila. The incident took place in the Burighat area of the Upazila, when an Army patrol went to the spot to arrest some armed extortionists of UPDF-Prasit Khisa.
Meanwhile, these regional parties are gradually losing control over CHT politics. In the last General Elections held on December 30, 2018, the Awami League won all three constituencies in the CHT. The Awami League-backed candidates also won the majority of the chairman and vice-chairman seats during the Upazila Elections held in five phases on March 10, March 18, March 24, March 31 and June 18, 2019. In the earlier General Elections held on January 5, 2014, PCJSS senior leader Ushatan Talukdar defeated the Awami League-nominated Dipankar Talukder in the Rangmati Hills, though the Awami League bagged the Bandarban and the Khagrachhari seats.
In another sign of their weakening political status, the UPDF-Democratic and PCJSS–MN Larma formed an alliance with the Awami League on December 16, 2018. This created a sense of panic among the other factions of the PCJSS, as they feared losing their long-standing political influence in the area, apprehending that Awami League’s increasing influence would further diminish their long-standing sway in CHT. These developments have made the various factions jittery, contributing to escalating tensions and violence between the splinters.
However, Dhaka’s failure to implement the 1997 Accord in a timely manner has also provided these groups with the grounds to ‘justify’ their actions. On December 1, 2019, Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma aka Santu Larma, President of PCJSS-Santu Larma, at a press briefing on occasion of the 22nd anniversary of signing the CHT Peace Accord alleged,
Although the government is claiming that they have implemented 48 articles of the accord, the truth is that they have so far implemented 24 articles, with 15 others partially implemented. Some 34 articles are yet to be touched.
There are 72 articles in the CHT Peace Accord.
Echoing similar sentiments, on August 6, 2020, Bangladesh Adivasi Forum General Secretary Sanjeeb Drong asserted,
Awami League in their election manifesto for the 2008 national polls, promised the country’s ethnic groups that they will form a land commission to protect the rights of the indigenous people living on plain lands. Even in the manifesto for the last general elections, the ruling party said they will continue their efforts to establish the promised land commission. But nothing official has yet been done regarding the issue.
Land disputes are the main issue in CHT. Even if all the provisions of the CHT Peace Accord are implemented, without a solution to the land disputes, the locals insist, everything else would be meaningless.
The core issue is that Bengali settlers have grabbed land of the indigenous Jumma people. According to the Census of 2011, CHT has a population of around 1.6 million, including around 845 thousand indigenous Jumma people and 752 thousand Bengali Muslim settlers. In 1947, the Jumma population was 98 per cent and Bengali population was around two percent of the total population of CHT. According to the CHT Peace Accord, the land occupied by the Bengali settlers was to be given back to the indigenous Jumma people.
Strong action by the Security Forces against the armed factions is, of course, necessary to contain their violence and restore peace to CHT. However, unless the issues of land disputes and the full implementation of the 1997 Accord are addressed, the tensions and resentment of the indigenous people is likely to translate into periodic upsurges and violence. Dhaka’s fulfilment of its promises to the tribal people of CHT is a necessary condition for an enduring peace.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management