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Horace In The Hills

By       Message Iftekhar Sayeed     Permalink
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The Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh is a troubled region. A great deal of international attention has lately been lavished on the place. The issue is one of the violation of the rights of the indigenous people - there are 11 tribes which are non-Muslim and mostly Mongoloid and largely Buddhist.

At the heart of the problem lies nationalism. In 1971, Bangladesh was born after a bloody civil war as a Bengali nation. Bengali nationalism was largely a spurious one - the majority of the people of Bangladesh are totally unaware of any Bengali identity. The creation of Bangladesh was purely an elite phenomenon.

Nevertheless, the Chakma leaders of the Hill Tracts took fright at our nationalism - understandably so. One nationalism begets another (one is reminded of how French nationalism begot German nationalism). They wanted autonomy, which they were denied.

They resorted to armed insurrection, aided and abetted by India . In 1980, General Zia   pressganged Bengalis from the streets of the cities and settled them in the Hill Tracts. Each 'settler' was given 5 acres of khas - government - land. Now, the indigenous people had been using these lands for slash and burn cultivation for generations. However, they have no title deeds, so the areas were deemed to be 'government land'.

Both sides committed appalling atrocities (the atrocities of the army and Bengali settlers are heavily documented, that of the indigenous people's army - the Shanti Bahini - hardly receives mention.) Despite military protection, the Shanti Bahini killed 1054 settlers; reprisals followed.

A peace treaty was finally signed between the JSS (the political arm of the Bahini) and the Awami League government in 1997. It was hailed by the League, the JSS   and the international donor community. As one western observer commented: "The accord, by and large, has been accepted by the peoples of the region and by the donor community as well."

Certainly, the peace accord - or treaty, as it is called -- has been accepted with enthusiasm by the donors. The people of the Hill Tracts have no illusions about the fact that a gigantic hoax has been played on them. I have been there several times, and have spoken with the hill people.

The Shanti Bahini has split into two factions. The other faction - the United People's Democratic Front - rejects the peace treaty and both sides are involved in killing and kidnapping each other's members. Things are so bad that the Chakma people I spoke to are terrified of going into new territory in their own hills! According to the Daily Star ( December 1, 2011 ), hundreds of families of murdered UPDF members congregated in Shanirbar to protest the murders. They claimed that the PCJSS have killed at least 228 UPDF men since the signing of the peace treaty in 1997. The placards read: ''try my husband's killers', 'I want justice for my son's killing', 'stop fratricide in CHT,' 'we want peace'".

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The hill people are also aware that neither the UPDF nor the JSS care for the fate of those they claim to represent. Both sides are involved in money-making activity: extortion, kidnapping for ransom....

For instance, the road from Khagrachari to Panchari is 24 kilometers long. Five years ago, the first 15 kilometers were smooth -- then the potholes and ruts began. Why? Well, when the road-building project was undertaken by the contractor, it was agreed with the UPDF and JSS that they would each get 600,000 takas (around $10,000) from him as protection money. Work began. Then the two sides came round demanding double the original figure. Work stopped.

Income per head is declining at Khagrachari, one of the three hill districts and still the most volatile. Extortion is discouraging big businessmen from investing in the region, so there's less money to go around.

The UPDF and the JSS are now nothing but criminal organisations. The JSS is part of the government, so receives money from local and foreign sources. My sources claim that the JSS commands very little loyalty - what following it has, has been bought with cash. On the other hand, the UPDF - this may sound bizarre - receives assistance from the national army! Openly, it claims to be against the government and against the peace treaty. It is, however, very popular, and receives plenty of cash from local hill people. (Their leader, however, prefers to live in the relative safety of the national capital!)

That the UPDF is in cahoots is obvious from the fact that their graffiti are to be found all over Khagrachari - while there are no graffiti of the JSS. But it's the location of the graffiti that's a dead giveaway. These words are painted in red on the wall of the stadium: GIVE US BACK OUR LANDS/STOP VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN CHT. Inflammatory slogans, but for the fact that the stadium is right next to the cantonment entrance which is heavily guarded 24 hours a day!

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The donors seem blissfully oblivious of the fact that they have helped trigger a near-civil-war in the region. It was they who pushed for the treaty, and the Awami League gained kudos for signing it.

What the three groups of actors appear to have had in mind was a peace-that-is-no-peace, to use George Orwell's expression. They calculated that the average hill man and hill woman would go along with whatever arrangements were made. What they didn't reckon on was the emergence of the UPDF and the civil-war-like situation.

The parties to the peace treaty knew all along that the treaty could never be implemented, both on legal as well as practical grounds. The treaty calls for a Land Commission which will be the highest court for land disputes in the hill districts. This runs counter to the constitutional provision that the highest court in the land is the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court - to which every citizen has right of access. To take away the right is to unleash corruption and intimidation on the part of the ruling elite among the hill people who will try to acquire land illegally - in addition to being a violation of fundamental rights. Further, the provision that requires the army to be withdrawn will never be accepted by the army for the simple reason that if the army left, the settlers would be killed en masse.

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)

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