CHT Problem – History of crisis and attempts to resolve

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The problem arises with the intrusion of plain land people and taking over lands ethnic minority in Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT). The ethnicity, cultural, linguistic, and religious distinctiveness of the indigenous people of CHT was also disturbed by the plain land Bangalis. The governments of the last few centuries also gradually curtail the autonomy of the region.

Historically the CHT had always enjoyed an autonomous or quasi-autonomous status under the Mughals, British, and Pakistan periods. Under the British, the region was kept apart from both the provinces of Bengal and Assam and ruled indirectly by the Governor-General Council through the Deputy Commissioner, administrative head of the district. In 1860, the British Government introduced a direct rule in CHT and declared it an administrative district, naming it the ‘Chittagong Hill tracts’, by Act XXII of 1860. In 1990, the British enacted the CHT Regulation and the region has been administered until 1989. After the annexation of the Hill Tracts, the British gradually whittled away the power of the Chakma and Marrma kings and introduced a form of diarchy whereby the authority of the hill rajas and their officials was permitted to be exercised within the overall supervisory control of the British Raj. Despite the fact that the CHT regulation drastically limited the power of the local administration, it contained a number of provisions that were essential safeguards for the hill people’s political and economic integrity.

In 1972, at the initial stage of independent Bangladesh, Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS) had been formed to realize the demands of the tribal communities of the CHT and they demanded four points under the leadership of Mr. Manindra Narayan Larma. Their demands were (Shelly, 1992):

  • i. Autonomy for the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the establishment of a special legislative body;
  • Retention of Regulation, 1900, in the new constitution of Bangladesh;
  • Continuation of the office of the Tribal Chiefs; and
  • A constitutional provision restricting the amendment of the Regulation of 1900 and imposing a ban on Bengali settlement in CHT.

At that time the then government was not prepared to listen to the demand of PCJSS due to over Burdon of with re-establishing the administration, reconstructing the war-ravaged economy, managing the counter-revolutionary turbulent activities of the anti-liberation armed groups, withdrawal of Indian armed forces, achieving recognition of the country and so on; Most importantly, involvement of some groups of the ethnic minorities in the anti-liberation activities in 1971. The Chakma King was involved in anti-Bangladesh activist. He has left Bangladesh for West Pakistan and became Minister of the Pakistan government. Finally, the constitution of Bangladesh did not recognize the special status of ethnic minorities. It was reported that in 1973, the arms wing of PCJSS under name of ‘Shanti Bahini’ formed for arms struggle to achieve their demands.

The next military government did not understand the political deepness of the problem and looked at this issue from the development aspect rather than the political aspect. As a consequence, Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board (CHTDB) was set up under an army general in 1976 to retrieve the region from the years of neglect and underdevelopment (Rahman, 2009: 24). Later, in July of 1977, a Tribal Convention was formed to find a political solution to the problem which held talks with the tribal insurgents during 1977-78 (Shelly, 1992: 133). But these four discussions had a fruitless outcome.

The next government tried to find out a political solution in 1982 and formed a Liaison Committee headed by Mr. Upendra Lal Chakma. With the help of the Liaison Committee, the first dialogue between the government of Bangladesh and PCJSS held in 1985. As a result, two years of negotiation and talks between PCJSS and a National Committee (NC) was formed in 1987, headed by the then Planning Minister. The only outcome of the first dialogue was the recognition that the CHT problem was a political problem (Rahman, 2009). At the time of the second dialogue in 1987 with the government of Bangladesh, PCJSS put forward five-point demands. The remarkable portions of the five points are:

  • Autonomy for CHT with its legislature and recognition of Jumma nation’s right of self-determination which included provincial status to CHT and naming CHT as Jummaland;
  • Retention of the Regulation of 1900 and a constitutional provision for restricting amendment of this regulation;
  • Removal of non-tribal who had entered the CHT since August 17, 1947;
  • Creation of circumstances favorable for a peaceful and political resolution of the CHT problems; and
  • Unconditional release of all Jumma people who were given punishment, under trial, and in the custody of armed forces.

These demands are for complete autonomy of CHT except control over all subjects except defense, foreign affairs, currency, and heavy industries. They also demanded the withdrawal of military camps from CHTs areas. Later, Upendra Lal Chakma presented seven-point demands, which may be considered complementary for the five-point demands of PCJSS. The government of Bangladesh did not accept these demands citing the reason for the Unitary Constitutional System of Bangladesh. The NC alternately presented a nine-point proposal to give out a solution to this unresolved problem. Some important points of this proposal were:

  • Identification of CHT districts as a special area;
  • Establishment of directly elected strong local bodies named ‘Zila Parishad’ in the three hill districts of Rangamati, Khagrachhari, and Bandarban;
  • Division of subjects among national government, District Level and Local level government institutions;
  • Re-delimitation of boundaries for the unification of boundaries of districts and Tribal Circles etc.

The outcome of this 9 point was remarkable in the solution process of the problem. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between NC and 48 tribal leaders of Rangamati, Khagrachhari, and Bandarban between August 29 and October 18 of 1988.

But the agreement was not acceptable to all tribes and leaders of ethnic minorities and in December 1988, PCJSS came out with a modified proposal for ‘regional autonomy’ in place of ‘provincial autonomy’. BCJSS could not accept the counter proposal and the proposed dialogue of February 1989 between NC and PCJSS could not be held in 1989. By this time, the government passed a bill to create three Hill District Local Government Council in February 1989. On 25 June 1989, the election to the LGCs held peacefully instead of resistance from ‘Shanti Bahini’ with torturing, killing, and terrorist activities in the bordering areas. This election weakened the support of PCJSS in their own people. But there was no more local government after the tenure of LGCs expired due to the opposition of Shanti Bahini proposed meeting between the NC and the PCJSS.

In 1990, the government has been changed and peace negotiations were re-initiated by the new government in 1991. The then government formed a Parliamentary Committee (PC) headed by the then Communication Minister in July 1992 to solve the problem through constitutional means. The regime also formed a parliamentary Sub-Committee (SC) led by a senior member of the Parliament. On November 5, 1992, the PC for the first time met with PCJSS led by Shantu Larma. Both parties reached an agreement of cease-fire which was extended routinely every three months rounds from August 1, 1992, until December 1997 (UNDP, 2005). In December 1992, at the time second round of talks with PC, the PCJSS revised its charter and modified its demands which consist of five points as follows:

  • Regional autonomy for the CHT with a regional council recognized by the Constitution;
  • Restoration of land rights to the tribal people with a ban on the allocation of land to the Bengalis from the plains;
  • Withdrawal of the military from the CHT;
  • Constitutional recognition of ethnic minorities and a guarantee that their rights would not be altered without their consent; and
  • Withdrawal of Bengalis settled in the Hills since August 17, 1947.

PCJSS also demanded that the Constitutional change recognize the CHT as a special administrative unit with regional autonomy. The PC did not accept some of the demands, but the negotiations continued in the spirit of compromise and met with the Shanti Bahini seven times. PC made significant progress in political dialogue and confidence-building; some kind of mutual respect and understanding was seen to be developing from the process.

Again next new government installed in 1996, the newly-elected government set up a new National Committee (NC) on CHT in October 1996 to solve the long-lasting conflict, The then chief whip of Parliament nominated the convener of the NC. The first meeting between the 12 member committee and the PCJSS led by new leader J. B. Larma was held in December of that year and followed by subsequent meetings through December 1997. After the seven rounds of talks on December 2, 1997, the historic Peace Treaty namely CHT Peace Accord, was signed between the NC and the PCJSS with the presence of the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which ended twenty-two years old problem of misunderstanding and mistrust. This historical treaty consists of four main parts:

  • Part A, namely “General”, recognizes the Chittagong Hill Tracts as a tribal inhabited region; forming of new rules and regulations according to law and establishment of an implementation committee to supervise the implementation of the Accord;
  • Part B, under the heading “Chittagong Hill Tracts Local Government Council/CHT Zila Parishad”, deals with legal amendments of the Acts relating to CHT to strengthen the existing powers of the Zila Parishad and to extend their jurisdiction to include new subjects;
  • Part C, titled “CHT regional Council”, includes the formation of a regional council in coordination with three LGCs, where chairperson and two-thirds of the seats are to be reserved for tribal people; and
  • Part D, entitled “Rehabilitation, General amnesty, and other subjects”, addresses a wide range of issues, including the rehabilitation of the tribal refugees, granting of amnesty to the members of PCJSS, the establishment of the land commission for land settlement, etc.

After the agreement, a historic arms surrender was held on 19th February 1998. During the surrender ceremony, Shanti Bahini, mostly from the Hill Peoples’ Council (HPC), Hill Students’ Council (HSC), and Hill Women’s Federation (HWF), openly demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the Accord and declared that they would continue the struggle for ‘full autonomy’. They waved black flags in the stadium where the ceremony was being held, chanted slogans, and displayed banners denouncing the Peace Accord and the arms surrender (CHTC, 2000). On 26 December 1998, the Tribal activists who had declared they would continue the struggle for ‘full autonomy’ launched a new political party, the United Peoples’ Democratic Front (UPDF) (CHTC, 2000). They did so during a two days conference organized jointly by the HPC, HSC, and HWF, and attended by a few hundred ethnic minorities. Even before the Peace Accord was signed, The Hill Watch Human Rights Forum denied the agreement and concluded that whilst the key issues; i.e. regional autonomy, withdrawal of the military and the settlers, guaranteed land rights for the tribal and constitutional recognition of the Jumma (tribal) people remained unresolved peace could not be restored in the CHT, and that as long as the main demands of the Jumma peoples were unfulfilled, no agreement would be acceptable to them.

Again after a short period of the signing of the Accord, first, the HPC, HSC, and later HWF split in two, one faction supporting the PCJSS and the Peace Accord, the other declaring that the Accord was inadequate and that they would continue the struggle for ‘full autonomy’. The students’ faction supporting the PCJSS now calls itself the Greater Chittagong Hill Tracts Students’ Council (GCHTSC). After the formation of the UPDF, The Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC) has received reports from both the JSS and the UPDF, accusing each other of attacks, death threats, kidnappings, killings.

The problem of ethnic minorities is yet to resolve and their struggle is going on.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. M. S. Siddiqui

    Dear Daniel,

    Thanks for observations. I fully agree with you that the past rulers had never given due attention to the issue and had their own agenda. The foreign interested group gains more from the un-resolved situation and possibility of their support to peace initiative is very low.

    The problem needs caring evaluation and attention to resolve the issue of culture, right over land, development issue and presence of Army.

    The internal disputes between members of the ethnic group should be resolved in their own mediation and arbitration.

  2. Daniel Erdmann

    Dear Mohammad,

    thank you for your insights and critical analysis. It is difficult for me to suggest what can or could be done in order to make the land, region, and community grow together. I can identify many different parties with specific interests, cultural backgrounds, and visions for this area. Additionally, the CHT were governed by various foreign powers and we might further have difficulties to clearly identify a clear cultural identity of the local people. I imagine that possibly nowadays all previously ruling powers somehow feel themselves being personally connected to this area, and that the ‘local people’ more likely turn out being a conglomerate of all of them. Maybe you, being culturally much closer than I am, can suggest what can be done. Would you say, it is an educational question, or a question of building a local identity? Would you say that it is possible to bring all interests to a table and create a major plan that satisfies all of them?

    Best regards, Daniel Erdmann

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