It has remained for the longest time, the blind spot in our national agenda. The issue of the Chittagong Hill Tracts is far from an intractable one; indeed, the inexplicably neglected CHT Peace Accord of 1997, which could yet go down as one of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s crowning and most statesmanlike achievements, provided a credible road map to the resolution, with almost no significant issue on which the two sides failed to meet each other - if not always halfway, at least where both could acknowledge the futility of the destructive old ways of insurgency and crackdown.
Unfortunately since that zenith, things have gone rather pear-shaped. Judging by the take-no-prisoners turf war that we have been witnessing in the three districts under CHT for the better part of three years now, things have reached a tipping point from which there may be no turning back. Unless urgent and relevant policies are adopted sooner rather than later, this almost mythically beautiful and uniquely resourceful part of the country, covering fully 10 percent of its landmass, may never realize its enormous potential as an integral part of Bangladesh. And the triumph embodied in the peace accords, may wither away into a historic dud.
This must start with an acknowledgement that the people of the region have reason to feel aggrieved and frustrated. Twenty-two years is more than enough time to implement any peace accord. The PCJSS, which was the government in Dhaka’s partner in brokering the deal, has been forced to face questions over their own credibility from the people they claimed to represent as a result of this foot-dragging. The various splinter groups that emerged as a result have each proved problematic in their own way, till now that they resemble armed groups more than political factions. As a first step towards confidence-building, the PCJSS must be shored up by the government in Dhaka again as the legitimate partners in peace. For that to happen, the group’s leader Shantu Larma must be allowed to display credible gains on the ground to his followers. Some of these things can be achieved from Dhaka with the stroke of a pen: such as official promulgation of the rules formulated for implementation of the amended Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act. This can lead to a big win on the ground for Larma and proponents of the peace accord. And maybe, just maybe, ease some of the tensions that have resulted in almost 70 politically motivated killings among different factions since 2017, including 6 members of a PCJSS breakaway group in the latest incident on July 7.
This mindless bloodshed amongst brothers must end, and we must prioritise its ending. Anything otherwise would be wilful blindness.