Background to the CHT issue

Naonori Kusakabe, Project Lecturer, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies

The Chittagong Hill Tracts make up the only hilly area in Bangladesh, taking up about 10% of the country. In the area, approximately 600,000 ethnic Mongoloids who worship Buddhism, Hinduism or native faiths live on slash-and-burn farming. They call themselves “Jumma” as their generic name, which means “people who do slash-and-burn farming” in Bengali. The Jumma consist of 11 to 13 ethnic groups, each of which has their own language.

Meanwhile, in the delta area on the plains, which takes up most of Bangladesh, the majority are the Bengali people whose mother tongue is Bengali and who make up about 99% of the population. The government as a policy lets Bengalis from the plains settle to the CHT, and disputes over land between the Bengali settlers and the Jumma have at times developed into large-scale violence.

Migration of the Bengali people to the CHT increased in the 1950s when Bangladesh was still called East Pakistan. Mainly those in poverty without their own land settled in under the government’s initiative. The government implemented an active development policy in the CHT, building a large dam for the purpose of supplying electricity to some industrial areas in the Chittagong Plain in 1957. As a result, 40% of CHT cultivated land was lost and approximately 100,000 of the Jumma had to leave where they lived. Because of this, the relationship between the Jumma and the central government deteriorated to the level of no going back.

In 1971, after the Third Indo-Pakistani War, East Pakistan gained independence as Bangladesh. After that, Jumma leaders appealed to the first president of Bangladesh, Mujibur Rahman, for autonomous rights in the CHT, but this demand was not granted. Subsequently the Jumma people formed a political group, Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, and attempted to solve the problem by sending representatives to the Parliament. Then in 1973 they established an armed group, Shanti Bahini.

The Bangladeshi government, on the other hand, promoted a policy for Bengalis from the plains to settle in the CHT, with nearly 400,000 of them settling there from 1979 to 1983. As a result, the population ratio between the Jumma and the Bengali settlers became almost 1 to 1 and conflict over land intensified. The government dispatched its army to the CHT in the name of protecting the Bengali settlers, but due to rampant corruption and frequent violent incidents, tension between the army and the Jumma increased.

Since Shanti Bahini, the Jumma’s armed group, attempted a night attack on the Bangladeshi army stationed at the CHT in 1979, the region has been in a state of conflict. In retaliation for this attack, the Bangladeshi government deployed an estimated 10,000 to 30,000-strong army, an extraordinary number, and restricted both the general public and media-related people from entering the area. In this closed CHT, the death toll has numbered thousands due to genocide and violent crimes by the Bengali settlers and the army, while nearly 60,000 Jumma people are considered to have been evacuated as refugees to the area bordering the State of Tripura in India.

In December 1997, after a long negotiation mediated by India, the PCJSS and the government of Bangladesh concluded a peace accord. It can be considered that in the backdrop to India’s promotion of concluding the accord, there lies the difficult political issue for the Indian government of friction between local people and nearly 60,000 refugees coming into India.

Among other things, the peace accord is for the Bangladeshi government to secure safe repatriation of the Jumma refugees evacuated to Indian territory, protection of internally displaced people, return of land, deportation of the Bengali settlers, the army’s withdrawal, employment of Jumma armed members, and a political regime prioritizing Jumma culture and history.

The repatriation of refugees began on January 1, 1998. As a policy to give repatriating refugees special treatment, it was suggested that their past debts be cleared and that they should be prioritized for employment in the government sector. Shanti Bahini’s disarmament started on February 10 in the same year and nearly 2,000 militants submitted within about a month. The government granted an amnesty and provided a lump sum of 50,000 takas as a resource fund to reconstruct their lives. In May, the Parliament passed a new law to launch the Hill Tracts Regional Council governing the three districts of Kagrachari, Rangamati, and Bandarban, which compose the CHT.

However, it was only up to then that the peace process went smoothly. In the end, Shanti Bahini accepted disarmament without their requests for return of land, the army’s withdrawal, and deportation of the Bengali settlers being granted. The Jumma people, forced to weaken themselves militarily and politically, had lost their means of protest against suppression by the army and the settlers.

Even today, small disputes over land between the Jumma and the Bengali settlers often lead to attacks by groups of the latter. In many cases military personnel accompany the attacks on the Jumma, and in some instances it has been reported that those military officers directly perpetrated violence on the Jumma people.

In the meantime, in May 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made a positive statement towards a complete implementation of the peace accord, including a partial army withdrawal and the addressing of land issues. Even though neither concrete measures nor schedule has been presented, it is essential to observe developments from now on, such as how the Jumma people receive this message and how they bring Hasina’s statement up to their political negotiations.