Violence continues to rock the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region of Bangladesh, six days after a clash between indigenous villagers and Bengali settlers in Rangamati district resulted in the torching of several indigenous villages, the injury of twenty people, and an unknown number of deaths.
A curfew was imposed in Khagrachari town for the second night running yesterday, despite relative calm during the day. Local sources report that further violence and police raids on indigenous houses took place last night. A transport blockade was declared this morning by a Bengali settler students’ group, Parbatya Chattagram Bengali Chattra Parishad. Further demonstrations from both sides are expected in Rangamati and Khagrachari today.
The unrest began on 19 February with a land dispute between local indigenous people and Bengali settlers in Baghaichari, a remote area of Rangamati district. Clashes between the two groups were followed by the suspected burning of indigenous villages by security forces and Bengalis overnight. The bodies of two indigenous villagers were recovered the following morning, believed to have been killed by state security forces. Although many national media outlets report this is the total death toll of the incident, local sources suggest that the actual total is much higher.
The openSecurity verdict: The CHT has long been seen as the most volatile region of Bangladesh. Local indigenous communities have suffered violent repression at the hands of Bengali settlers, backed by the state and its security forces, for several decades. Since its independence in 1971, the government has treated the CHT as empty land where it can resettle poor Bengalis. It has also systematically denied the indigenous peoples an autonomous identity, insisting that they identify as Bengali. Successive governments actively encouraged Bengalis to move to the hill tracts, migrations that displaced thousands of indigenous people from their lands. Today, Bengalis outnumber the indigenous peoples in the CHT.
The influx of Bengali settlers into the hill tracts not only displaced thousands of indigenous peoples, it also brought with it a campaign of repression, murder and rape. Several indigenous political organisations, some of which had military wings, were formed to push the political demands of the hill peoples. From 1977, an armed insurgency was waged against the Bangladeshi government presence in the CHT.
Although the conflict was officially brought to an end in 1997 by an accord signed between the government and the dominant indigenous political organisation in 1997, more than ten years later many of the terms of the accord are yet to be implemented. Although the government committed to removing army camps from the CHT and ending the seizure of indigenous land, the camps remain and land continues to be taken by Bengali settlers.
This latest incident is widely believed to be the worst violence seen in the hill tracts since 1997. Violence spread to Khagrachari town when opposing groups staged protests on Tuesday about the events in Baghaichari. The United Peoples’ Democratic Front (UPDF), an indigenous peoples’ organisation which was calling on the CHT authorities to respond to the incident in Baghaichari, clashed with members of the Bengali Chattra Parishad, a Bengali settler students’ group. The government imposed a legal clause, referred to as section 144, banning all public gatherings and demonstrations, and imposed nighttime curfews for the last two nights. Troops were also deployed on Tuesday afternoon as the protests spiraled out of control.
According to national media sources, at least one person was killed, several houses torched, and twenty people injured in the first day of violence. However, the true extent of the impact of this violence remains difficult to establish at this stage. Mobile telephone networks are being periodically switched off, and journalists report harassment and intimidation. Journalists attempting to visit remote areas that have experienced violence have been denied access by security forces or armed groups of settlers, particularly in Baghaichari where the original incident took place. Furthermore, much of the national press is seen as partisan in its reporting of events in the CHT.
Despite these difficulties, The Daily Star newspaper estimates that over the last six days around 500 houses have been burned down, 80% of which were the property of indigenous people. Eyewitnesses also report seeing indigenous families moving their possessions out of their homes, fearing that their houses will be set alight. The paper also reports that over 3,000 indigenous people and 500 Bengalis have been displaced by the violence. Many of the displaced indigenous people are thought to be hiding in nearby forests. More worryingly, local sources report that state security forces conducted house to house arrests of indigenous young men on Wednesday morning. The indiscriminate nature of these arrests has only created more fear and tension in Khagrachari.
Several ministers of state visited Khagrachari yesterday, hoping to bring calm to the town. Despite pledges of aid and commitments to bring Baghaichari justice, visits did not noticeably improve the situation. While the government’s CHT Commission, alongside international and national non-government organisations, has called upon the government to take action, the government’s response has so far been fairly limited, relying on the security forces already in the CHT to restore order.
Commentators are divided about the impact this latest episode of violence will have on the CHT. State minister for home, Shamsul Haque Tuku, yesterday blamed the country’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), and its ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, for stirring up ethnic tensions in a effort to destabilise the country.
Other analysts suspect that initiatives to implement the provisions of the Peace Accord launched after Tuku's party came to power a year ago – including steps to reduce the army presence in the CHT – have caused consternation among the Bengali community. There are suggestions that vested interests in the region, including settlers and security forces, are seeking to destabilise it in order to justify a continued army presence there. Such interpretations are supported by unconfirmed reports that Bengali settlers from outside Khagrachari town were bussed into the town in order to intensify the violence.
The events of the last week certainly do not bode well for the CHT. Whatever their implications for the future, the intensity of the violence that is currently gripping Khagrachari demonstrates the slow pace of progress over the last thirteen years. The government needs to take more meaningful initiatives to implement the 1997 Peace Accord. It also needs to ensure that, if rumours of BNP agitation are true, the situation in the CHT does not again become a party political one, in which successive governments either oppose or support the implementation of the accord.
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