Indigenous Struggle in Chittagong Hill Tracts


In 1972 a delegation of the indigenous people, led by the late Chakma MP Manobendra Narayan Larma, requested autonomy for the CHT, retention of the 1900 Regulation, and a ban on the influx of Bengalis. However, Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who himself had led the Bengali people in the struggle for their own Bengali identity and culture, now failed to recognize the legitimacy of a similar demand from the indigenous peoples. He told them to forget their ethnic identities and to be “Bengalis.” He also threatened to flood the area with Bengalis and military troops if the hill people insisted on sticking to their demands. Following Mujib’s denial, the indigenous people formed the Parbatya Chottogram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS, or the Chittagong Hill Tracts People’s United Party) in 1972, and a year later its armed wing, the Shanti Bahini (Peace Brigade). The PCJSS introduced the term “Jumma” as a collective name for the twelve different ethnic groups—referring to the traditional jhum (“swidden”) cultivation practiced in the hills. Misinterpreting the legitimate demands of the PCJSS for recognition of their identity and protection of their rights, the Bangladesh government accused the PCJSS of being secessionist. The militarization of the CHT and large-scale settlement of Bengalis that Mujib had threatened, however, did not take place until after Sheikh Mujib and most of his family had been killed in a coup d’etat in 1975.

After General Ziaur Rahman (“Zia”) came to power, the conflict between the indigenous people and the Bengali government turned from a democratic struggle into a low-intensity armed conflict. Zia ordered full militarization of the CHT and simultaneously development of the “backward tribal” area. Next to road construction and telecommunication, settlement programs of the indigenous population in model villages (similar to the “strategic hamlets” erected during the war in Vietnam) were carried out. The fact that the CHT Development Board, set up by Zia, was headed by the military commander in charge of the CHT illustrates that these development programs were an instrument of counterinsurgency. From 1976 the CHT became an area under military occupation and a training ground for counterinsurgency. Many army officers received training in the United States and the United Kingdom. The security forces controlled the administration, as well as all development programs.

The Indian government, worried about the military takeover in Bangladesh in 1975 (having lost its earlier influence over the Bangladesh government and fearing that the CHT might again become a hideout for insurgents from Northeast India), provided the PCJSS training and safe havens in the neighboring northeastern Indian state of Tripura. In late 1976, the Shanti Bahini carried out its first armed attack on a military outpost in the CHT. In the name of counterinsurgency against the Shanti Bahini, the Bangladesh security forces perpetrated massive human-rights violations—massacres, killings, torture, rape, arson, forced relocation, forced marriages to Bengalis, and cultural and religious oppression of the indigenous people. In April 1979 the first of a series of massacres took place in Kanungopara, where reportedly the army killed 25 indigenous people and eighty houses were burnt down. In a second massacre on 25 March 1980, indigenous people in Kalampati/Kaukhali were forced to line up and then the army opened fire. Reports about the number of indigenous people killed in Kaukhali vary between 50 and 300. Young women were held by the army for days and raped. In the 1980s, 10 percent of the indigenous population fled to neighboring India, and others fled to isolated jungle areas. More than ten major massacres have taken place between 1979 and 1993 in which an estimated 1,200 to 2,000 indigenous people have been killed. These and subsequent massacres formed part of the counterinsurgency strategy to drive out the indigenous population and settle Bengalis on their land. One of the army generals reportedly said in 1977: “We want the land, not the people.”

Another main element in the counterinsurgency strategy was the settlement of some 400,000 landless Bengalis from the plains in the CHT between 1979 and 1985 under a secret government transmigration program. This dramatically changed the composition of the population: the percentage of Bengalis in the CHT rose from 26 percent in 1974 to 41 percent in 1981. Moreover, Bengalis illegally occupied indigenous people’s land on a large scale. This further escalated the conflict. Land became one of the main sources of conflict between the indigenous people and Bengali settlers and the army. The PCJSS reacted to the militarization and Bengalisation of the CHT by stepping up its armed actions.

From 1983 the International Labour Organization (ILO) criticized the Bangladesh government annually for inadequate reporting with regard to ILO Convention 107 on Indigenous and Tribal Populations to which Bangladesh is a signatory. The CHT issue was also raised annually in the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, and the Bangladesh government was questioned in the UN Human Rights Commission and the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. In 1987, the PCJSS demanded the deployment of a UN Peace-Keeping Force and implementation of its demands for withdrawal of the security forces and the Bengali settlers under the auspices of the UN. The successive governments, however, ignored this demand. No foreigners were allowed in the CHT and news coming out of the CHT was heavily censored.

Indigenous in cht
Indigenous in cht

General Ershad who had come to power in a military coup in 1982, declared a general amnesty and a special five-year plan for the CHT after a split had occurred within the PCJSS in 1983 and Manobendra Larma, leader of the PCJSS, had been killed by the dissident faction. Manobendra’s brother Jyotirindra Bodhipriya (Santu) Larma took over the leadership of the PCJSS. A large number of dissidents surrendered between 1983 and 1985. Repression and human-rights violations by the security forces in the CHT, however, continued as before. Some of the worst massacres took place in 1984 and 1986. Repressive measures restricted, for example, the freedom of movement and the selling and buying of essentials to prevent the delivery of supplies to the Shanti Bahini. The indigenous population was forcefully relocated in “model villages” (as a so-called rehabilitation measure to stop environmentally damaging jhum cultivation, but in fact to be better able to control them). Bengalis who could not be accommodated on the land that the fleeing and relocated indigenous people had left behind were settled in “cluster villages,” usually next to a military camp where they served as a protective shield for the military. In defense of their rights and their land, the Shanti Bahini started carrying out attacks on Bengali settlers, trying to drive them out and prevent more settlers from coming to the CHT.

These rehabilitation schemes, as well as road construction and afforestation programs, were largely funded by the Asian Development Bank. A few other donors, such as UNICEF and UNDP, also funded “development” programs in the CHT. The Swedish and Australian governments pulled out of road construction and afforestation programs in the CHT in the early 1980s after the repressive government policies seeped to the outside world and it became clear that these programs were not at all in the interest of the indigenous peoples. Partly due to international pressure, negotiations between the respective governments and the PCJSS have taken place since 1985 without, however, coming to any agreement. The main demands of the PCJSS were regional autonomy and constitutional recognition of the Jumma identity; withdrawal of the army from the CHT; and removal of the Bengali settlers from the CHT.

In December 1990, General Ershad was ousted by a mass movement. In August 1992 the PCJSS unilaterally declared a cease-fire and from November 1992 several rounds of negotiations with the elected BNP government headed by Khaleda Zia were held, without any concrete results. Only in 1997 was a peace accord signed between the PCJSS and Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government that had won the national elections in 1996. Changes in the government in India were a factor in this as well. There were a few high-level meetings between the governments of Bangladesh and India, and India put pressure on the PCJSS to come to an agreement. The opposition parties led by the BNP and Bengali settlers opposed the accord as a sellout and campaigned fiercely against it.

On totally different grounds, a section of the indigenous people who had earlier supported the PCJSS rejected the accord on the grounds that the main demands of the Jumma peoples had not been fulfilled and declared their intention to continue the struggle for autonomy by democratic means. They formed the United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF) in December 1998.

In 1996, the European Parliament had adopted an amendment to earmark part of the aid to Bangladesh “for the repatriation of Bengali settlers in the CHT back to the plains.” Although the Bangladesh government had expressed its willingness to repatriate the Bengali settlers if funds were provided, according to the European Parliament, the government has so far failed to table any such proposal. The European Union and several other donor governments have made implementation of the peace accord conditional on funding development programs in the CHT.

The major part of the peace accord has yet to be implemented and the government elected in 2001 took several measures that are in violation of the accord. For instance, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia appointed herself as minister for CHT affairs and a Jumma representative only as deputy minister. The peace accord stipulates that the minister’s post should be given to an indigenous representative from the CHT. Similarly, the government unilaterally appointed a Bengali settler and BNP MP, as chairman of the CHT Development Board, bypassing the indigenous MP as specified in the accord. BNP members have also been appointed unilaterally as chairmen of the three Hill District Councils. In a country that often becomes diametrically divided along lines of political affiliation, voices of moderation are one of the most precious things to be nurtured. And most would agree that it is the failure to listen to the voice of moderation of Manabendra Larma—recognition of the specific rights of the indigenous peoples of the CHT within the constitutional framework of the country—that led to the bloodshed of the past decades. If the root causes of the conflict are not properly addressed, any fault-line conflicts always have the potential to rekindle at any moment.

The accord signified an important and bold step toward conflict resolution through negotiation and peaceful means. It also demonstrated that the political process should be allowed to function in the CHT.

Abbreviated excerpt from chapter in “Searching for Peace in Central and South Asia: An Overview of Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding Activities”, edited by Monique Mekenkamp, Paul Van Tongeren, and Hans Van De Veen; European Centre for Conflict Prevention, the Hague, 2002.

Writter:  Jenneke Arens & Kirti Nishan Chakma

Source: Between Ashes and Hopes.


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