The Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord has yet to be fully implemented, with human rights violations continuing more than a decade after it was signed in December 1997 says the UN.
The accord ended a 25-year low-intensity guerrilla war between 11 indigenous groups (Jumma) and the government and was intended to establish self-governance in this southeastern part of Bangladesh, home to half a million people.
However, a recent study by UN Rapporteur Lars-Anders Baer found an extensive military presence and ongoing land disputes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in 2010.
"When the idea of the study was presented to the UN's Economic and Social Council, the Bangladesh delegation... argued that there were no 'indigenous' people in Bangladesh. This was a surprise," he told IRIN.
Raja Devavish Roy, king of the Chakma Circle, the largest ethnic group in the Jumma, who was also appointed to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, says a widespread lack of knowledge about the area's long history of autonomy has resulted in discrimination against its inhabitants.
"In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, all Millennium Development Goals... are well below the national average," Devavish said.
The study states that "gross human rights violations" continue, including "arbitrary arrests, torture, extra-judicial killings, harassment of rights activists and sexual harassment".
It recommends that the government formally endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and that the Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh investigate alleged human rights violations.
During the insurgency, about 70,000 indigenous people fled Bangladesh and more than 100,000 were internally displaced. The study found that most international refugees had been repatriated and rehabilitated; however, "no practical steps have been taken to rehabilitate the internally displaced persons".
But State Minister Jatindra Lal Tripura MP, chairman of the Taskforce for Repatriation of Tribal Refugees and the Rehabilitation of Internally Displaced People, insisted: "The current situation is better than the past. At present, there is harmony and peace [in CHT]."
According to the report, a third of Bangladesh's army is deployed in the CHT, an area that comprises just a tenth of the country's territory.
Photo: Courtesy of Christian Erni/IWGIA
|Over the last 60 years, the Jumma have been driven from their land|
"This is an excessive amount, by any standards, especially in a country not participating in a war," the study says.
The report cites the military presence as the main reason for human rights violations against the local population and says the withdrawal of temporary military camps is "crucial for re-establishing normalcy".
But how the military factor into establishing and maintaining peace in CHT remains unclear, Baer said. "The government has been open, but a big problem has been gathering relevant information about... the military presence in CHT. The 'black hole', so to speak, in my work, is the role of the military establishment in the CHT peace process," Baer said.
According to the study, disputed land rights remain the most important issue, with forced evictions and expropriation of ancestral lands continuing at an "alarming rate".
The Bangladesh government has long seen the CHT as empty land on to which it can move poor Bengali settlers, with scant regard for the area's Jumma inhabitants, activists insist.
"The government set up the land commission [to settle land disputes] without due consideration of the opinions of the indigenous community. Therefore, indigenous people feel an unwillingness to cooperate with it," said National Human Rights Commission chairperson Mizanur Rahman.
The study recommends that the government create a timeline for implementing all remaining provisions of the accord, warning that failure to do so could lead to "renewed political instability and ethnic conflict in the region".
On 21 April, Survival International - an organization working for the rights of tribal people worldwide - reported that six indigenous Jumma villages were razed to the ground and many Jumma were attacked by Bengali settlers in the CHT.
Violence erupted when Jumma landowners discovered settlers clearing their land and building shelters. A fight ensued that resulted in the death of three settlers. Following this incident, settlers, with the support of the army, burned down more than 90 Jumma houses and at least 20 Jummas were injured, the UK-based group reported.