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Hundreds of ethnic Chakma, a Buddhist tribal group indigenous to Chittagong Hill Tracts, lost their homes in February
BAGHAICHHARI, Bangladesh — Bangladesh's southeastern hills are again simmering with ethnic tension, raising concerns that a fragile peace reached 13 years ago will collapse.
Hundreds of ethnic Chakma, a Buddhist tribal group indigenous to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, lost their homes in February when violence broke out between them and Muslim Bengali settlers, prompting a harsh army crackdown.
"With the assistance of the army, the settlers came here to attack us," said Joshna Chakma, who lost her house and says her village has been plagued by violence since Bengali settlers and an army post arrived around two years ago.
"Last year, there were 78 houses burned down by the settlers, helped by the army," said Joshna, who is a member of the local council in the remote Baghaichhari district.
"This year, it was the same: the Bengali settlers came into our village chanting slogans. We know that the chant is a signal, so we ran into the forests, and when we got back the houses were all burned down," she said.
The three-day bout of arson, violence and arrests left three dead and scores injured in the impoverished area, while Joshna said 410 houses and several pagodas were torched.
Two tribal people were killed when the army opened fire on villagers protesting the arson attacks. A Bengali settler from a nearby village was killed in clashes with tribals two days later.
It was the worst violence since a peace deal was signed in 1997, ending the tribal groups' slow-burning insurgency, which official figures say has claimed more than 2,500 lives since the early 1980s.
Villagers say the episode and how it was handled by the Bengali-dominated army, with bullets and mass arrests, is proof tribal people are second-class citizens in Bangladesh.
"The army tell us: if you have courage, live here, if you do not then run away, as for us to kill you is like a tree losing its leaves in the winter," said Ganandu Chakma, who is leader of a land committee in the area.
Joshna's account of settler-led, army-backed violence was supported by Pornomas Bhikkha, a Buddhist monk, who said he was forced to flee when his temple was attacked by 35 settlers with help from around 50 soldiers.
"I could see the settlers, they had sticks, knives and other weapons. The army was just behind them. I went out and they tried to attack me, so I ran away and they broke into the temple and burned it to the ground," he said.
The army had come back after the incident to cut down the teak trees on the grounds of the pagoda, he said.
Villagers say the settlers encroach on tribal land, including ancient burial grounds and fields which are periodically left fallow, and view the arson and army brutality as an attempt to drive the tribal community away for good.
"Where are our rights? Why does the state only respect the Bengali settlers not us?" asked Joshna, lowering her voice to point out the gun-toting army patrols that inspect the dusty, burned-out village on a daily basis.
Bangladesh's sprawling hills and their ethnic inhabitants have for decades been a source of tension in this majority-Muslim nation of 144 million, which is one of the most densely populated countries on earth.
Since the early 1980s, successive governments pursued policies of Bengali settlement in the area, moving poor, landless farmers like Mohammad Abu Hamid, 47, to the hill tracts and giving them five hectares (12.4 acres) of land to farm.
"This land was given to me by the government but the ethnics demand it, saying it was their forefathers' land. But I have documents, they have none, and I have farmed this land for decades," Hamid told AFP.
Such policies meant that by 1991 49.5 percent of the local population was "non-tribal", up from just 2.0 percent in 1947. No figures were given in the 2001 census, but tribal leaders say Bengalis are now likely the majority.
The hundreds of thousands of settlers have been "used by the Bangladesh state as political pawns," said Bhumitra Chakma, a tribal academic who teaches politics at England's Hull University.
The militarisation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Bengali settlement policy means "ethnic cleansing is going on and in a way which is rather indirect and gradual, but effective," he said.
The February violence was a textbook example of the type of army-backed settler-led violence that has for decades underpinned all land grabs in the region, and which goes ignored by central and local authorities, he said.
The key provisions of the 1997 peace deal were to resolve land disputes and dismantle major army camps, but both have faltered, and violence like that seen in February makes implementation harder, tribal leaders say.
The Awami League government, which does not support new settlements and negotiated the 1997 deal, condemned the February attacks and hinted anti-accord elements of the Islamist-allied opposition may be involved.
"There is no question of anything like ethnic cleansing or anyone driving the tribal people off the land -- that's not possible," said Abdus Sobhan Sikder, the most senior official at Bangladesh's home ministry.
"The tribes have been living there with the Bengalis for years and the government is trying to make the region more peaceful," he added.
The government provided rice and construction materials to help the victims of February's violence.
Local police chief, Mohammad Abu Kalam Siddiq, who was moved to his post shortly after the violence as part of a "routine rotation", said that his brief was to attempt to get the community to live in harmony.
"As far as land goes, it is a national problem and it is a problem for policymakers to solve," he said.
Other local officials such as Rangamati's deputy district administrator, Viswajit Bharttagharya, called the fires "an accident, an act of god, like an earthquake".
"Most of the victims are anyway living on land that should not be theirs," he said, adding that it was illegal to live on or own Forestry Administration land.
For Hull University's Bhumitra, who has carried out extensive field work in the hill tract area, the result of such mixed messages and government inaction will be a new insurgency.
"Many (young tribal people) vowed to take up arms again. It is highly likely that violence will become more intense in the coming years," he said.
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