Over the last eight months, a division among political groups based in ethnic communities in the hill districts has escalated to violent conflict. The Dhaka Tribune’s Ashif Islam Shaon and Nuruchsafa Manik explore how ethnic politics has devolved into gang wars over control of territories and vote banks. This is the first part of a three-part series
Violent conflicts among ethnic political parties in the three hill districts of the country have now become a constant.
Murders, assault, forced displacement and abductions have become commonplace. The objective is control over territories and neighbourhoods of the ethnic communities.
Insiders say the conflicts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts will prevail at least till the national polls scheduled for the end of this year. Post-polls there is likely to be a whole new political polarization in the area.
Since November last year, there has been a series of brutal murders in Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban. In the last seven months more than 20 men have been shot dead by rival groups.
The most prominent of these murders was the killing of an Upazila Parishad chairman of PCJSS (MN Larma), Shaktimaan Chakma, in broad daylight in Rangamati, followed by the murder of five of his political allies allegedly by the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) men in the first week of May this year.
Within the last one week, two political activists were killed; one from the two groups each.
In another incident, three UPDF activists were shot dead in Rangamati’s Baghaichari upazila’s Korollya Charri village on May 28, where their rivals PCJSS (MN Larma) allegedly opened fire on a UPDF hideout.
Sources told the Dhaka Tribune that the desperate attack was part of attempts to establish supremacy in that area, as Baghaichari is an important place for both parties.
The hill-based parties are relentless in trying to establish dominance over areas in the three districts. These areas serve as sources of ‘funds,’ money extracted from local ethnic minority inhabitants, and most importantly, votes.
With the national election in the horizon, all the groups are trying to secure areas in which they will be able to dictate all the votes.
The Dhaka Tribune found that most known political activists had gone into hiding.
Since November, political activists have gradually moved into ‘safe areas’ and hideouts and are rarely seen in the open. A few senior party leaders who still live a public life do not want to talk to the press.
The four ethnic parties currently operating in the hills are - Santu Larma-led Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS), which along with its military wing the Shanti Bahini signed a peace accord with the government in 1997; the United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF) which broke away opposing the accord; PCJSS (MN Larma) that came into being in 2010, and UPDF Ganatantrik, which broke away from UPDF in November last year.
The MN Larma and Ganatantrik groups are supporting each other.
MN Larma had an understanding with UPDF over the 2014 general election. But starting in late 2015, their relationship went downhill as the MN Larma group began sheltering UPDF dissenters.
At present, PCJSS and UPDF have mutual understanding over operations and elections, while PCJSS (MN Larma) and UPDF Ganatantrik have formed an alliance.
The vote bank wars
UPDF insiders said that the latest murders were a continuation of ongoing conflicts among the factions and also an effort to grab fresh areas of control ahead of the election.
Aongay Marma, president of Ganotantrik Juba Forum, which is a youth wing of UPDF, said between 2006 and 2009 they controlled parts of Rangamati including Naniarchar, Kaukhali, Juraichhari and Borkol.
Their former ally MN Larma group had strongholds in Mohalchhari of Khagrachhari, Mirissha of Rangamati and Dighinala and Panchhari of Khagrachhari.
Together the two tried to curb the strength of their parent party PCJSS.
But things changed when MN Larma helped a breakaway faction of UPDF to form a separate party named UPDF Ganotantrik on November 15 last year.
UPDF started strengthening ties with PCJSS and took part in a number of local elections with them, while the other two parties moved together.
Now UPDF thinks that ties with the MN Larma group in the past were a mistake.
“We cannot have an understanding anymore. We held a number of meetings to stop the conflict and decided not to attack each other, but they did not hold,” Aongay Marma said.
One source within UPDF alleged that a part of the MN Larma group “secretly went for a negotiation with the government” and tried to implement some agendas over the years.
Sources said that currently UPDF has no conflict with PCJSS. The fighting stopped following several years’ effort. In the upcoming days they may pitch candidates for elections jointly.
In the upcoming national polls, UPDF will have no candidate in Rangamati, which is a PCJSS stronghold. But they may pitch a candidate for Khagrachhari constituency, sources said.
PCJSS and UPDF insiders said that they will fight the Awami League candidate jointly. BNP supporters could not vote in the last election as BNP boycotted the polls. This time, the two parties will request the local BNP to ask their voters to support them. However, they are yet to talk to local BNP formally.
But party activists said they have somewhat of a good understanding with the local BNP. UPDF backed their candidate in a recent local government election in Guimara upazila of Kharachhari.
In all kinds of elections in the hills, political parties either pitch candidates or extend support to one. Normally, the parties have their own areas of dominance depending on the presence of their men and dens.
Ordinary ethnic community members who live there have no choice but to vote for the candidate the dominating party is backing. As a result, occupying areas is a big factor in winning elections, insiders said.
JSS MN Larma group for example, casts most of the votes in Mohalchhari, Dighinala, Khagracchari and Baghaichhari. They used to get a healthy number of votes in the Guimara upazila and Matiranga too but lost that territory recently.
The four parties, especially the UPDF want their candidates to win election in Khagrachhari at any cost. One source said MN Larma group and the UPDF Ganotantrik had extended their support to local Awami League there to tackle UPDF.
Ordinary people are the victims
Apart from the killings of political activists, the parties have adopted another strategy to punish rivals – evicting the families of rival group members from their homes.
At least 77 families of UPDF party members were thrown out of their homes, while 107 families whose members support PCJSS MN Larma and UPDF Ganatantrik were displaced in Khagrachari and Rangamati since March this year.
These incidents have been taking place in Dighinala, Mohalchhari, Itchhari, Komolchhari, Panchhari and Guimara of Khagrachhari and Marishya and Baghaichari of Rangamati.
A UPDF leader who requested anonymity told the Dhaka Tribune that the groups realize that the infighting will never bring any good for the ethnic communities.
“There is no benefit in throwing people out of their homes. But we need to corner the bad people with bad methods. If their family members are left undisturbed, they will not stop chasing us,” he said.
The leader claimed that ousting families had forced many activists from both sides to leave their party or to ‘surrender’.
JSS MN Larma President Sudha Sindhu Khisa, Political Affairs Secretary Bibhu Ranjan Chakma and Information and Publicity secretary Sudhakor Tripura all refused to comment on the conflict.