Rights groups in Bangladesh are questioning whether state forces are effectively controlling violence in Bangladesh’s southeastern Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region after a bloody month, and say renewed violence is a real threat there.
“The role the security agencies have played in controlling the violence is questionable. A thorough investigation needs to take place to determine if security forces have failed in their duty to protect civilian lives. If the findings of such an investigation show they have failed, those responsible should be brought to justice,” Madhu Malhotra, a researcher of Bangladesh’s indigenous groups at Amnesty International, told IRIN.
In July 2013 alone at least eight indigenous leaders were killed, local media reported.
While there have been historical clashes between Bengali settlers, the country’s main ethnic group, and the region’s more than one dozen indigenous groups, there has been increased infighting among indigenous communities in recent months.
In 1977, Shanti Bahini, the military wing of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS), a pro-indigenous political party, began a 20-year armed struggle in part to gain autonomy.
The conflict ended with the signing of the 1997 CHT Accord, which recognized CHT as a “tribal inhabited” region, its traditional governance system and the role of its chiefs, as well as provided building blocks for indigenous autonomy.
But major clauses of the accord have not been implemented yet, according to activists. In a January 2013 report, PCJSS noted some 400 temporary military and paramilitary camps remain in CHT despite pledges to remove them.
And while a land commission to handle disputes has been created per the peace deal, it remains inactive. One of the accord’s essential clauses - the handing over of powers, including land management and control of local administration, from central government to the regional administration - remains unmet.
“There is frustration among the indigenous people for not implementing the peace accord. This frustration leads to instability in the region. The situation will deteriorate if a peace accord is not implemented,” Mesbah Kamal, secretary-general of the National Coalition for Indigenous People based in the capital, Dhaka, told IRIN.
Gowher Rizvi, an adviser to the prime minister, has said the government is working to implement the CHT accord, with “full implementation” in a few months, without detailing any timeline.
Kamal said the region’s intractable disputes centre on indigenous groups’ lack of land tenure and their recognition in the constitution as small “ethnic” rather than indigenous groups.
While the government recently took the initiative to amend the 2001 Land Commission Act, which includes land dispute resolution guidelines, to ensure indigenous people’s land rights, the move has faced widespread protest from local Bengali settlers. In recent months, some Bengalis have organized strikes (`hartals’) that prevented any vehicles other than emergency transport from passing through the three hill districts.
According to Amnesty International, the government has remained “ineffectual” in the 16 years since the peace deal, failing to protect indigenous groups in CHT and their right to security, ancestral land, livelihoods, culture, and to participation in decisions that affect them. Authors of its recent report on CHT said almost all those interviewed - from Bengali settlers to indigenous leaders, the army and government officials - said land issues were central to problems in CHT.
“There is a lack of trust among the indigenous groups as their rights are violated,” said Hiran Mitra Chakma, manager of a local rights organization working for indigenous groups, Kapaeeng Foundation.
He said many indigenous families in the village of Naikhanchori in CHT were recently evicted from the land where they had been living for decades. “There are incidents of gross human rights violations in the region and without solving this, peace is impossible in the region.”
Meanwhile, Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir, while visiting the region recently, rejected allegations that security forces have failed to protect the people. "There is no crisis in CHT, but differences of opinions over land and land law. The government is working to resolve the differences and to protect everyone's rights," the local media quoted him as saying. He also assured Bengali settlers that they would not be evacuated from the area even if the land law is amended.
CHT is Bangladesh’s only very hilly region. Roughly 50 percent of its 1.5 million people are tribal peoples (including the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Mro, Lushai, Khumi, Chak, Khiyang, Bawm and Pangkhua). Most of these peoples are followers of Theravada Buddhism. Collectively they identify themselves as the Jumma people (Highlanders), the original inhabitants of the CHT, according to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.