By S. Chandrasekharan.
The CHT Accord entered into between the Bangladesh Government and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity ( PCJSS) on 2nd December 1997 recognised the special status of the hill people occupying the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). There was a provision for a regional council. Setting up of a separate ministry of tribal affairs under a tribal, return of land to the owners once the rights have been ascertained were other features and what is most important, all the provisional temporary security camps over 500 in number were to be gradually withdrawn.
On July 28, 2011, the foreign minister of Bangladesh made a strange statement that the Bangladesh hill people of the Chittagong area are not “indigenous” but only ethnic minorities. This resulted in a quick challenge from the former Chakma leader Devarish Roy who said that the hill tribes in the Chittagong hill tracts are indeed indigenous people who were the descendants of pre colonial and pre conquest societies.
The official line appears to be that the hill tribes should be described as upajathis though the term adibashis is being used frequently in Bangladesh to describe them.
The Foreign minister was probably irked by the adverse observations made by the Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues of the Economic and Social Council in their tenth session on the status of implementation of the CHT Accord of 1997 made on 18 February 2011. But the substantive complaints made in the report need the attention of the government and cannot be swept aside on the ground that the “Hill People” are not indigenous!
The UN report had observed that the “continuing failure to adequately implement all the provisions of the CHT Accord in a timely manner and to address developments that lead to further marginalization of the indigenous peoples is likely to enhance the prospects of renewed political instability and ethnic conflict in the region.”
It is not a question whether the hill tribes who have settled in the CHT are indigenous or not. No one can deny that they were the original inhabitants in the hill tracts before the Bengali settlers moved in. There was a commitment made in 1997 in the Accord which gave them a special status.
In the election manifesto of the Awami league of 2008 on which basis the Awami League came to power with a sweeping and unprecedented success did commit itself to the full implementation of the CHT Accord and promised to make efforts with programmes on a priority basis to “secure their rights and to preserve their language, literature, culture and unique life styles.”
The report has made a strong indictment of the lack of progress in almost all areas, be it the land, demimilitarization, repatriation and rehabilitation of displaced persons etc and have also touched on the gross human rights violations in the region.
The recommendations in the report include a declaration of a time line for implementation of all provisions of the accord, facilitate expedient settlement of land disputes, transfer the functions normally performed by the civilian agencies but now undertaken by the military, hand over all the agreed subjects and functions as specified in the accord with immediate effect to the Hill District Councils and most importantly the gradual withdrawal of the temporary military camps in order to reduce the extent of undue military control and resultant tensions.”
While these recommendations are doable, it looks that the UN Report “over reached” in recommending to the peace keeping operations secretariat to “develop a mechanism to strictly monitor and screen the human rights records of national army personnel prior to allowing them to participate in the peace keeping operations under the auspices of the United Nations.”
Though the recommendation is couched in generalities, it is clear from a reading of the report that it refers to the personnel of Bangladesh Army.
It is not the case that the present regime is not sincere in implementing the provisions of the accord but it looks that Sheikh Hasina is not getting sufficient cooperation from her own colleagues to implement the accord both in letter and spirit. After all, it was due to the persistent efforts despite opposition from many quarters that she got the bill through in 1997 and the Shanthi Bahini fighters laid down their arms in pursuance of the accord.
It was also known that subsequent dispensations in Bangladesh who were to exploit the ‘Bengali Nationalism’ deliberately ignored most of the commitments made in the accord.
Sheikh Hasina has recently in December 2011 once again reiterated her commitment to the full implementation of the accord.
A new element that went against the accord was the judgement of High Court of Bangladesh on 13 April 2010 that said that the CHT Regional Council Act of 1998 was unconstitutional and illegal in that it violated the sanctity of the unitary state. The present government has gone on appeal and as a result, the decision and judgement was stayed by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court pending hearing of the appeal.
Reports that emanate from CHT indicate that there is a sense of insecurity all round. The Accord had stipulated that all temporary army camps, para military forces and village defence parties except the Bangladesh rifles and the six specified permanent army establishments or cantonments will be withdrawn in phases from the region and that a time limit will be fixed for this process. Thirteen years have passed since then and there has hardly been any progress!
The Army has claimed recently that out of over 500 temporary camps, over 240 have been withdrawn. Local tribal leaders claim that only 70 camps have been withdrawn and rest are said to have been closed only on “paper.”
There is no doubt that a sense of “fear” pervades all over the area and people are once again arming themselves. Citing instances of clashes and rearming, the BD Army appears to resist any further closure of temporary camps. This has resulted in a vicious circle of the army continuing with the temporary posts and the people who had taken to arms earlier once again trying to protect themselves.
A new element that is said to have entered into the dynamics of the security situation in CHT is the entry of some Indian insurgents into the hills. These insurgents and their leaders who are alleged to have been sheltered in the earlier dispensation are being chased out of the plains. They need to be dealt with for which the cooperation of the locals will be needed.
If this cycle has to be breached, the only way out is to implement other provisions of the Accord with all sincerity on a priority basis, so that another round of “political instability and ethnic conflict in the region can be avoided.