By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On December 13, 2021, Police recovered the body of Pu Shoi Thoai Marma (38), General Secretary of the Sadar Upazila (sub-District) committee of the Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma aka Santu Larma faction of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS-Santu Larma) from the hilly area near Krao Amtalipara in the Bandarban District of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). He was abducted by armed members from his house on December 12.
On November 30, 2021, Abishkar Chakma (40), an ‘area commander’ of PCJSS-Santu Larma faction was shot dead in the Sadar Upazila of Rangamati District. The victim was fired upon as he emerged from a house in Kizing village, where he had spent the night.
On September 17, 2021, Suresh Kanti Chakma alias Dinesh (55), a member of the PCJSS-Santu Larma faction was shot dead by assailants in Rangamati District. Tridip Chakma, a leader of the PCJSS-Santu Larma faction blamed the rival PCJSS-M. N. Larma faction for the murder.
On July 18, 2021, Kholo Kumar Tripura alias Sagor (29), a former member of the Prasit Bikash Khisa faction of the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF-Prasit Khisa) was shot dead in the Panchhari Upazila of Khagrachhari District. Aongay Marma, the spokesperson of UPDF-Prasit Khisa, stated, “Kholo was our former member.”
On June 27, 2021, Amor Jibon Chakma (40), a former member of the UPDF-Prasit Khisa faction, was taken from his home and stabbed to death in Dighinala Upazila of Khagrachhari District.
On March 31, 2021, Bishwamitra Chakma (35), a member of Jubo Samity, the youth wing of PCJSS -M. N. Larma faction, was shot dead in his sleep in the Baghaichhari Upazila of Rangamati District.
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, 623 people have been killed in CHT in such fratricidal clashes since the signing of the CHT Peace Accord in 1997 (data till December 19, 2021). These include 318 members of UPDF-Prasit Khisa, 203 members of PCJSS-Santu Larma, 86 members of the PCJSS-M. N. Larma, 10 members of UPDF-Democratic, and six members of PCJSS-Reformation. 10 of these fatalities were reported in 2021. These included six members of UPDF-Prasit Khisa, three members of PCJSS-Santu Larma and one member of PCJSS-M. N. Larma.
Meanwhile, providing the ethnic identities of those killed, a December 2, 2021, report stated that, according to law enforcement agencies, since the signing of the Peace Accord 670 people, including 480 ethnic minority people and 190 Bengalis have been killed. Moreover, during the period, 660 people of small ethnic groups and 650 Bengalis were injured and 910 ethnic minority people and 384 Bengalis were abducted. The report added, further, that since the signing of the Peace Accord, the armed groups had attacked and killed 16 members of the Security Forces (SFs). Besides, SFs have recovered more than 3,000 firearms and about 250,000 rounds of ammunition in drives between 2005 to 2021.
Some of the prominent incidents of arms recovery in 2021 included:
November 26: Army recovered one AK-47, a pistol, magazines and ammunition, from a UPDF-Prasit Khisa hideout in Tripurachhara area in Rangamati District.
September 12: In an operation at a UPDF-Prasit Khisa hideout in Jarulchhari area of Khagrachhari District, the Army recovered two AK-47 rifles and 13 rounds of ammunition.
May 11: During a raid in Ruma Upazila of Bandarban District, the Army recovered two Sub Machine Guns (SMGs), 12 rounds of SMG ammunition, three magazines, and three rounds of pistol ammunition.
April 28, 2021: The Army conducted a raid at a PCJSS-Santu Larma hideout in Roangchhari Upazila of Bandarban District and recovered a 9mm pistol loaded with magazines, an AK-47 magazine, sharp domestic weapons, a knife, a large quantity of ammunition, a communication device (walkie-talkie), solar charger, various types of electronics, 13 cell phones, PCJSS books, diaries, multiple olive-coloured uniforms and records of extortion.
CHT is spread across 13,189 square kilometres 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 Santu Larma, violence in the region continued due to rivalry between splinter groups of PCJSS and UPDF.
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-M. N. 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 alias Borma alias 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 and Parbattya Bangalee Chattra Parishad.
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 generate about BDT 3-4 billion in extortion yearly 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.
Meanwhile, criticising the CHT Peace Accord while speaking at a discussion organised to mark the 24th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accord on December 2, 2021, Santu Larma observed,
The entire government and state machineries are against the implementation of the accord. The government is actively involved in activities aimed at eliminating Jumma people, comprising ethnicities living in the hills. The rift among the Jumma people that often leads to violent, fatal clashes is the result of the government conspiracy in which bureaucrats, police and the military are also involved.
Jumma people is a collective term used for 11 ethnic groups including Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Mro, Lushai, Khumi, Chak, Khiyang, Bawm and Pangkhua. The name Jumma is derived from Jhum cultivation or slash-and-burn hill farming. They identify themselves as the first people of the CHT.
A central leader of PCJSS-Santu Larma further claimed that cases have been filed against at least 1,000 leaders and activists of his party and alleged that the ruling party files these cases using the administration to harass the tribal groups. At least 3,500 leaders and activists are still hiding due to such harassment and cases. The leader who provided this information is also in hiding. 25 of the 35 members in the central committee of the PCJSS-Santu Larma have left the area due to harassment.
Earlier, in the Annual Report on Human Rights Situation in CHT in 2020, published by PCJSS-Santu Larma on January 5, 2021, it was asserted that, due to lack of proper and full implementation of the CHT Peace Accord, the human rights situation in CHT had reached a critical stage in 2020. According to the report, there were 139 human rights violations by the Army, Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and Police in 2020. The report also added that three people were extrajudicially killed, 50 were arrested illegally, 49 were detained, 54 were beaten and harassed and six of them were seriously injured, 104 houses were searched and 25 houses and 20 temporary shops were vandalized in these incidents.
According to reports, among the 72 articles of the Peace Accord, 48 have already been implemented fully and 15 partially, while nine were in the process of implementation.
24 years on, the major issues of the Peace Accord, including making the CHT Land Commission functional, demilitarisation and the rehabilitation of internally displaced people, remain unsettled.
Land disputes are the main cause of conflict 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. They allege 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 in CHT. According to the CHT Peace Accord, the land occupied by the Bengali settlers was to be given back to the indigenous Jumma people.
On an immediate basis, it is necessary to control the armed factions to contain violence and restore peace to CHT. However, if peace is to be restored in CHT, there is no alternative to full implementation of the Accord. Unless the issues of land disputes and the full implementation of the 1997 Accord are addressed, the tensions and resentment of the indigenous people are likely to translate into periodic surges in violence.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management