Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is a military controlled area, where all the news are filtered by the military and the Bangladeshi government.CHT, where blood has shed for decades and hopes were burnt to ashes by the brutes, constitutes of people who want their voice to be heard. We are here to ensure that the voice of these unheard victims in CHT echo around the world despite the Bangladeshi government trying to suppress them in the biased state run media.
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Leaders of the hill people living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts have criticised the government’s failure to implement the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord on the 13th anniversary of its signing.
The accord between the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti, the political wing of the armed Shanti Bahini, and the government was signed by Sheikh Hasina in her first term of office as prime minister on December 2, 1997 ending 22 years of guerrilla warfare.
Two months later, the guerrillas, led by the PCJSS president, Santu Larma, put down their arms in a ceremony on February 10, 1998. A group of PCJSS supporters, later named as the United People’s Democratic Front, and the Hill Women’s Federation, however, criticised the agreement.
The Bangladeshi Nationalist Party opposed the signing of the treaty but did not rescind it after it had assumed office in October 2001.
Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, who 13 years ago signed the deal on behalf of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti, said because of successive governments’ indifference to the treaty, there had been no basic changes in the overall situation in the hill tracts.
‘Although in its election manifesto the Awami League pledged to totally implement the treaty, it has never been among the government’s list of priorities,’ said Jyotirindra, popularly known as Santu Larma. ‘All their so-called “sincere assurances” are just rhetoric.
‘Instead of implementing the deal, the government is carrying out activities contrary to its provisions such as its move to form a so-called strategic management forum which would undermine the special governance system in the hills, the announcement of a cadastral survey before settling the
land disputes and unabated acquisition of land,’ he said.
The former guerrilla leader also accused the state machinery of carrying out a divide-and-rule policy in the hills by pitting groups of ethnic communities against each other.
The High Court decision in April this year has also put the treaty implementation in further doubt. Although it found the accord constitutional, it struck down various sections of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council Act 1998 and the three Hill District Council (Amendment) Acts of 1998 — key elements in implementing the accord. This ruling is now under appeal and has been stayed by the Appellate Division.
A major component of the agreement involved the settlement of land disputes but the man appointed chairman of the Land Commission appears to have lost the confidence of the hill people.
There is significant concern that he wants to undertake a land survey before settling the disputes over ownership. The leaders of the hill people say this will be unfair as the Bengali settlers have paper work relating to their ownership of the land but the hill people have no such documentation as their land is common property.
In relation to land, the hill people leaders are also concerned that their common land had been leased out by the government to influential people, ignoring the people’s traditional land rights.
In addition, the Armed Forces are acquiring some land owned by hill people in order to expand military establishments. For example, in 2007, the military acquired more than 9,560 acres of land at Ruma in Bandarban from the Mro people and have indicated to local people that they intend to acquire some more land in the future.
The treaty required that 33 areas of government responsibility be handed over to the three district councils.
While the Chittagong Hill Tracts affairs ministry claims that the government has handed over 19 local government departments, council members say that they have only transferred 12 and have not yet handed over to them the important responsibilities for law and order, local police and land management.
The members of the regional council also told New Age although they were supposed to supervise the activities of the district councils, they could not carry out this role as the council’s mode of operation had not yet been formulated.
According to the accord, regional council and district councils were supposed to be formed through direct ballot but no election to the bodies could be held and it is claimed that successive governments have appointed partisan people.
A particular current concern of the leaders is their claim that the government plans to form a strategic management forum which they said would undermine these regional council and district councils.
A top leader of the PCJSS said although the government had not yet publicly announced the formation of the ‘strategic management forum,’ it had collected opinions from government officials and newspapers had reported on it. ‘So, we have reasons for being concerned at such a move,’ he said.
The accord also requires withdrawal of all temporary military camps and other forces but so far only 35 military camps have been pulled out and only the Kaptai brigade have been transferred out of the hill tracts.
Sudhasindhu Khisa, co-chair of the breakaway PCJSS faction, Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (MN Larma), told New Age, ‘Thirteen years have passed and we have nothing to do but to hope for better days… We have our backs pushed to the wall.’
‘Progress in implementation of the treaty is still zero. It is true that the regional council and district councils were formed in keeping with the treaty but they have no authority as stipulated in the treaty. And the High Court ruling too branded them to be violating the constitution. We do not see any goodwill from the government in implementing the deal,’ he said.
Prasit Bikash Khisha, president of the United People’s Democratic Front, said the hope triggered among people at the signing of the CHT deal had turned into sheer frustration at the passage of time. ‘It is quite clear that there is no goodwill from the government to implement it.’
Prasit, who had opposed the signing of the deal, branding it a ‘surrender document’ and said the way Santu Larma had handed over weapons to Sheikh Hasina in a feudal manner had indicated the government’s mentality and uncertainty of the deal.
He said the government should declare the Chittagong Hill Tracts a special autonomous zone in the constitution, recognise the traditional land rights of the hill people, pull out troops from hills, stop the post-treaty military operation known as Operation Uttaran and rehabilitate the Bengali settlers outside the hill tracts.
The hill people also feel they are yet to see the expected level of development following the accord.
‘There were a number of donor-driven development projects after the signing of the agreement. But we have not seen development,’ said Swarna Chakma, a bachelors student of Khagrachari Government College.
Moves to establish a land port at Thegamukh at Barkal in Rangamati and a science and technology university in the hills were not fully supported among the hill people.
All the three political parties representing the hill people expressed their reservations about the projects as they saw that such ‘development activities’ could boomerang against them as it did with the Kaptai dam in the 1960s.
The CHT affairs ministry minister, Dipankar Talukder, rejected the allegation that the government was indifferent to executing the deal. ‘It needs a unity of both the parties who signed the deal for its execution. The Awami League signed the deal but it has not had enough time to implement it. The Awami League got only four years to implement the deal. For the rest of the time, the BNP-Jamaat and non-elected governments were in office,’ Dipankar said in Rangamati on Monday.