Wind of change blowing through the hills

Published : 04 Dec 2022 08:59 PM

The silver jubilee of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Ac­cord was obser­ved in the coun­try on Friday. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her first tenure signed the CHT Peace Accord on December 2, 1997 with Parbatya Chattogram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) chief Shantu Larma. The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been working relentlessly for an unhindered growth of the country’s ethnic minorities in line with the peace accord.

Located in the south-east corner of Bangladesh, CHT has a history of a bloody conflict between its Bengali settlers and indigenous communities. After the assassination of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, the state deployed military force to maintain law and order in CHT which led to further escalation of conflicts between law enforcers and indigenous communities who have been living there since time immemorial.

However, to introduce peace and end bloody conflicts in the three hill districts, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina signed the CHT Peace Accord. As a part of the accord, the people of CHT witnessed the withdrawal of 250 army camps from the region. Also some 1,800 rebels surrendered their arms to her on February 10 in 1998 at Khagrachhari Stadium. It needs no emphasizing that the insurgents did it as the government of Sheikh Hasina could earn their confidence in the government. It was indeed a glaring example of resolving disputes peacefully. Such an instance of arms surrender is rare in human history.

For example, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a Maoist faction of the Peruvian Communist Party that began its armed struggle against the Peruvian government in 1980 did not surrender its arms under peace accord. According to the Peruvian sponsored Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as many as 70,000 Peruvians were killed throughout Shining Path insurgency.

The failure of the Northern Ireland peace process, which is often considered to cover the events leading up to the 1994 Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) ceasefire, the end of most of the violence of the Troubles, the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement of 1998 can be perceived as another blazing example of failure in peace deal among locals and the rebels. However, in these peace pacts, rebels didn't surrender all their arms after signing the treaties, but Bangladesh was an exception. A very few leaders in the world had been able to convince their indigenous rebels to surrender their arms under a peace treaty and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is one among them who could do it.

Sheikh Hasina wants to develop the whole country in a balanced and holistic way. She has been giving special attention to the development of the neglected areas of the country. Before the peace accord the ownership of the land in the CHT were determined by the British-era laws according to which people of indigenous communities were not able get land ownership. But after the accord, people of CHT enjoy the ownership of the land just as the people of other regions in the country do.

It needs no emphasizing that post 1975 military-backed governments (after the assassination of Bangabandhu) had created divisions between the Bangalee and the hill people for their self-interest instead of maintaining social stability there. Killings, tortures and injustice, grabbing of lands and wealth and misuse of the state resources had made the region more unstable. But by implementing this peace accord, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina brought an end to the long-term bloody racial skirmishes in the CHT region and established the trend of peace and development there.

However, in 2001 then BNP-Jamaat alliance government had opposed the historic peace agreement and wanted to destabilize the hilly region again. The BNP wasted time after assuming power in 2001 as it was not sincere about the implementation of the accord. Moreover, the BNP led government put in place a punitive policy that saw the arrival of the Bangladesh military, the influx of tens of thousands of settlers, and the displacement of many Jumma, some of whom fled to India.

However, over the last decade, Sheikh Hasina’s government has implemented massive development programmes in all sectors, including education, health, electricity, communications, infrastructure and mobile networks in the region.

Earlier, life in the hilly region was difficult due to lack of economic opportunities in absence of development activities. But the incumbent government over the years has changed the scenario. Now the people of the hill districts, especially in remote areas, are reaping the benefits of improved infrastructure as many locals are now running hotels and restaurants businesses in their areas.

Over the last ten years, the people of CHT have gone through a lot of development initiatives taken by the government. Road and transportation scene of CHT has drastically changed and consequently lifestyle of hill people has improved in the last decade or so.

In 1997, the Chittagong Hill Tracts had 2,800 kilometres (1,700 miles) of roads, which has increased to about 8,000 kilometres (5,000 miles). The construction of a number of asphalt roads and infrastructural development has made life easier and comfortable at CHT. Gone are the days when villagers of CHT could not move fast from one place to another as the transportation sector was poor and the region was hot bed of terror groups. Now villagers have access to Khagrachhahri, Rangamati and Bandarban towns to sell their crops such as banana, pineapple, orange and mango and other products. This has become possible because of improved road links.

Reportedly, locally made four-wheelers now ply the Chattogram-Khagracchari, Khgarachhari-Rangamati road. Locals use this mode of transportation to go to these destinations for earning a livelihood. A few years ago, Bangladesh Army built a road from Bagaichhari to Sajek, which made road communication a lot easier. Now thousands of Tribal people have come under the road network with the construction of the road from Baghaichhari to Sajek. 

Earlier it took four to five hours to reach Khagrachhari from Chattogram, but now it needs only two-and-a-half hours to travel the same distance through Hathazari-Nazirhat. Also, with the construction of new roads, there has been construction of new schools and community clinics in the area. The situation of electricity supply has also improved remarkably.

It is needless to say that all these development projects have emerged as boon for the people of CHT. We want all people of the region lead a beautiful life by becoming self-reliant and nobody lags behind. In this regard, further projects should be implemented by giving special allocations.

Before the peace accord, the number of educational institution was very limited. Earlier no medical college, even no public university was established in this region. Before the peace accord, there was no special quota system for ethnic communities to study at government medical college and public university. However, after the peace accord, each year some 325 ethnic students get chance to take admission in public medicals and universities.

We are told that some 48 out of the total 72 clauses of the CHT Peace Treaty have already been implemented while 15 others partially implemented and the remaining nine clauses are under implementation process. It is said that implementing the rest of sections may take some more time as there are some difficult issues involving land as well as legal matters to be settled. It is the duty of the Prime Minister Hasina’s government to fully implement all the sections of the peace accord as her government was the first to take noble initiatives for the welfare of the indigenous communities.

Sheikh Hasina’s government has done everything necessary for implementing the CHT Peace Accord and formed the Land Commission to solve land dispute in the region. However, hitherto land problem remains one of the most serious impediments to peace in the CHT. 

The concept of individual and community rights of the indigenous communities in the CHT is totally different from the concept of land rights in the rest of the country.

In this regard, authorities concerned must find and fix a mechanism to recognize these rights of the indigenous community by identifying those who are owners and occupiers of land on the basis of hearsay evidence since documentary evidence either did not exist in the first place or was lost when they migrated to India or elsewhere in CHT as a result of the armed struggle. Scarcity of cultivable land in the CHT is another problem. It will be necessary to make more land available for the rehabilitation of the indigenous communities affected by various development schemes. 

Handing over of land to the non indigenous community in the CHT region must be prohibited and steps should be taken to return the lands already handed over.

Sayeed Hossain Shuvro is working as Editorial Assistant at Bangladesh Post