Five years after the Chittagong Hill Tracts treaty was signed in 1997, its non-implementation threatens to throw this region of Bangladesh back into turmoil. Shantu Larma, the Chakma leader who signed the accord with the government, already thinks it as a mistake.
The Chakmas have several grievances against the Bangladesh government. They want autonomy and the accord promised this through a regional council. It also promised to return land to the original inhabitants and reduce presence of the army in the region. But the absence of a formal written record has made this impossible. A land commission was supposed to solve this problem, but it has not become operational so far. A large number of temporary army camps still exist. The government seems to have no desire to remove them.
The most contentious issue is the problem of Bengali settlers from the plains. These outsiders have cultural, religious and ethnic differences with the original inhabitants. Moreover, they have been settled there in large numbers on purpose. Chakma leaders see this as a ploy to Islamize Chittagong Hill Tracts which has a strong Buddhist tradition.
The accord faces opposition from various quarters, including the Chakmas themselves. The Shanti Bahini, which led the insurgency in the region, is now divided between pro- and anti-peace accord groups. The strong rivalry between the two, often manifesting in killings and abductions, has further complicated the issue.
The most prominent group opposing the peace accord is the United People’s Democratic Front, which wants full autonomy. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which was in opposition when the accord was signed, now wants its revision because it feels that the accord discriminates against the Bengali settlers. The BNP’s main support base is among the Muslim population. This political compulsion is also behind the non-implementation of the accord. But the most important reason is the lack of political will in both the major parties. Though the Awami League bought peace with the Chakmas by signing the accord, it did not make it fully functional.
Frustrated, the Chakmas now want to restart the war. In November, Parbattya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti held its seventh conference in Khagrachari, pledging itself to the implementation of the accord. Shantu Larma has urged Chakmas to continue with the struggle for upholding their separate Jhum identity.
The gravity of the problem became apparent on the fifth anniversary of the accord, when all the major parties of the region held separate rallies to pursue their conflicting programmes. While the PCJSS leaders reiterated their desire to launch a fresh struggle, the Parbattya Gano Parishad, a non-Chakma group opposed to the accord, accused PCJSS of killing 30,000 non-tribals in the region.
The Awami League blamed the government for delaying the accord and mismanaging the law and order situation. The Pahari Chhatra Parishad and Hill Women’s Federation observed the day as “Hatred Day”, rebuking Larma for his shortsightedness.
The slow implementation of the accord raises questions about the commitment of the government. To improve conditions, Larma has demanded that the government rehabilitate Chakma refugees, waive their loans, conduct large-scale land survey at Rangamati, Khagrachari and Banderban and give preferential appointment to Juma (hill) people in government jobs.
But given the opposition within the ruling party itself against the accord, the demands are likely to remain unfulfilled. The cabinet committee has even declared that it is satisfied with the prevailing law and order situation in the region. But it fails to see the growing discontent. If nothing is done to address the grievances of the Chakmas, the present policy of convenient neglect is bound to backfire, forcing the tribesmen to resort to arms after five years.