'There have recently been reports of armed conflicts and skirmishes in the hill tracts area, which must be stopped'
Civil society leaders at a Dhaka seminar on Wednesday urged the government to implement the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord in a political way. Stating that the accord had not been implemented over the past 22 years, they noted that the delay in implementation had caused depression among people in the CHT and had caused the return of some armed groups to the restive hill tracts region.
The speakers were of the view that the government by its failure to restore land to tens of thousands of indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts had categorically failed to honor the agreement.
They underscored the urgency of a peaceful resolution to this protracted problem at a dialogue held at the CIRDAP auditorium in Dhaka on Wednesday. The all important event was organized by the sociation for Land Reform and Development (ALRD).
Determine the heart of the matter
Moderating the dialogue, the noted human rights advocate Sultana Kamal said: "The CHT peace accord was signed when the prime minister was in power. We believe that there is no doubt about the prime minister's commitment and determination. But where does the problem come from? That has to be identified as it warrants an immediate solution."
"There have recently been reports of armed conflicts and skirmishes in the hill tracts area, which must be stopped. The peace accord has to be fully implemented in a political way," she said.
Addressing the session, Justice Nizamul Huq, former chairman of the International Crimes Tribunal said: "Armed conflicts fell sharply after the peace accord was signed in 1997. Now-a-days, however, we have begun to hear of recurring incidents of conflicts in the region."
"The people who successfully brought about the agreement are now in power. Every year the government speaks of its intention to implement the accord, but that implementation is yet to happen," he said.
The government's commitments have not been kept and disputes over land remain unresolved, he said.
Sounding a note of warning, Justice Nizamul Huq said, "It is a dangerous trend that the number of the Bengali population has been increasing day by day in the CHT while that of the Adivasi or indigenous people has been shrinking.”
Absence of true political commitment
Devasish Roy, the current titular Chakma Raja, referred to a 2018 letter from the Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs to the district administration of Khagrachari, recommending that the latter take measures to attract Bengali-speaking people into settling in the hill tracts region and that they be provided with legal and administrative support in occupying Sonamia tila (a hill).
Criticising the attitude of the government, Devasish Roy said: "The government only cares about the Bengali people there. It gives no thought to the forcibly displaced indigenous people. Discrimination against minorities is prevalent in the hills, and sadly, the rest of the country does not know about it. The news media have failed to highlight the actual picture in the region."
"CHT has a unique soul, unique nature. Allow us to remain in our culture. How many sections or provisions of the peace accord were implemented is not a matter of concern if we fail to uphold our indigenous culture,” he said.
The government promised to undertake development for indigenous people's economic empowerment, while allowing them to maintain their cultural practices, including communal ownership of land.
Rashed Khan Menon, member of parliament, former minister and chairman of Workers Party of Bangladesh said: "Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina struck this accord. However, some vested group did not accept the accord at the time. That has been one of the reasons why the peace accord has fallen short of effective implementation till now."
Restoration of land rights
Dr. Mizanur Rahman, former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission said: “Restore land rights to the Adivasi people. Once they get the ownership of land, the rest of the peace accord's 71 sections will be fulfilled automatically."
"The government claims that some 48 sections of the accord have been implemented and 15 more provisions are now in progress. The Pahari people say that so far 24 articles have been fulfilled. The remaining articles have remained static without any progress being made. Without ensuring land rights, no other articles hold any value.”
Shamsul Huda, executive director of ALRD, delivered the keynote speech at the dialogue.
He said: "The Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission was formed in 1998, but the land commission act came into effect in 2016. However, the rules of business under this act are yet to be formulated.”
The Chittagong Hill Tracts region of Bangladesh, which shares borders with India and Myanmar, spans just over 13,000 sq km (5,000 sq miles), and is home to about half a million Paharis from nearly a dozen indigenous groups.
The region has been the site of violent ethnic conflict for decades, displacing tens of thousands of indigenous people. The lands they vacated were occupied by Bengali settlers.
Following a protracted armed conflict, the Bangladesh government agreed to the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord in December 1997 that promised a measure of autonomy to the Pahari people, through giving them economic, social and political rights.