The signing of a peace deal between PCJSS and the then Awami League government in 1997 did not mean anything only for the CHT region. It was, in fact, more than that. Twenty-three years have elapsed since the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord, but some important conditions of the historic treaty still remain unfulfilled due to "non-cooperation from some armed groups," in the words of officials.

Locals and officials say these groups are trying to destabilise peace in the three hill districts again. The main objective of the historic treaty was to establish peace in the hilly region and ensure the country's progress. But, they said, peace has not fully returned in the mountains over the last two decades as the armed groups remained engaged in various terrorist activities, including murder, kidnapping and extortion.

One of the major conditions of the deal was to develop the three hill districts -- Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban --as tourism hotspots. But it cannot be properly implemented due to the opposition by the anti-peace treaty groups, the officials said.

On December 2, 1997, PCJSS (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity) signed the peace deal with the then Awami League government, led by Sheikh Hasina, ending over two decades of tribal insurgency and bloodletting in the hill districts. Then Jatiya Sangsad Chief Whip Abul Hasnat Abdullah signed the deal on behalf of the government while Joritindra Bodhipriyo Larma (Santu Larma) on behalf of PCJSS.

But a group of ethnic minority people, led by Prasit Bikash Khisa, formed the United People's Democratic Front (UPDF) in 1998 opposing the peace treaty - although they said they would not oppose its implementation.

PCJSS also faced a split as some of its members quit it in 2007 and formed PCJSS (Reformists) led by Sudha Sindho Khisa. UPDF also splintered and formed a separate platform the UPDF (Democratic), led by Tapan Jyoti Chakma (alias Borma and Jalwa) on November 15, 2017.

Turf war escalates

These groups have reportedly been engaged in various crimes, including extortion, kidnapping and killing, locals alleged. This has particularly come to a head since the 20th anniversary of the accord in 2017 and the split in UPDF.

Officials said sometimes they clash with each claiming the lives of mainly Pahari and sometimes Bengali people and hampering development activities.

According to law enforcers, the four hilly armed groups have been at loggerheads just for establishing supremacy and extortion.

They said though there is no specific study, law enforcers, local police and intelligence agencies said around Tk 400 crore is extorted in the CHT region every year.

They said the local armed groups are constantly changing their tactics in the case of extortion.

"They've chosen mobile banking as the way of collecting toll to dodge the eyes of security forces. So, it's now difficult to identify them. Those who pay the toll money also don't want to speak up about the extortion in fear of reprisal," an officer of a leading Intelligence agency in Rangamati district told UNB wishing anonymity.

Contacted over phone, former state minister for CHT Affairs Dipankar Talukdar said the four-armed groups active in the region are basically "extortionists".

He said the negative attitude of the JSS is the main barrier towards full implementation of the peace accord. "Armed groups must surrender the illegal arms to pave the way for the smooth implementation of the peace accord."

He said the armed groups are now targeting the Awami League leaders and activists in the hilly districts as part of their move to destabilise the region.

"Maintaining a hostile relation with Awami League leaders and activists, it's not possible to bring peace in CHT," Dipankar added.

He said JSS should come forward with a positive mentality to restore peace in the CHT. "Otherwise, all efforts will go in vain."

According to official statistics, 376 people, including 120 Bengalis, have been killed in three districts of the CHT in various incidents like extortion and conflict over supremacy from January 2014 to October this year. Besides, 536 people, including 169 Bangalis, have been abducted during the period.

Sources at the local police and intelligence agencies said 105 extortionists in the CHT have been detained by law enforcers since January 2019 to September 2020. Locals said they have to pay a certain amount of money to the armed groups for whatever is sold in markets.

"Even if you sell a banana stick, you'll have to pay a portion of the money to the armed groups from there," said a resident of Rangamati town.

Hazards galore

Talking to our sister newsagency UNB, Superintendent of Police (SP) of Rangamati District Alamgir Kabir, said there are some obstacles to the prompt arrest of accused and putting them on trial in murder cases due to geographic location of the CHT and some other reasons.

"Once a crime is committed in a remote area, it's difficult to find an eyewitness. In many cases, it takes three days to come from a remote area to testify. They don't want to do that. Linguistic problem is also a barrier to any investigation and finding out offenders as the different tribal groups use different colloquial."

"Army, police and BGB personnel usually jointly conduct operations and we take instant action if we get any information about extortion. That's why they're constantly changing the strategy of extortion," Kabir said.

He said the criminals now receive toll money through mobile banking instead of collecting it physically. "So, we now try to take action through tracking."

Obstruction to development

A senior officer in the Rangamati district administration said tribal leaders and armed groups have been directly and indirectly opposing the development of the region and tourism industry in the CHT only to exploit the residents of the region and maintain their supremacy.

He said the members of JSS (original) and UPDF keep on carrying out various criminal activities, including making attacks on tourist vehicles and hijacking to create obstacles to development of the tourism industry in the region and discourage the arrival of tourists.

President Md Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina issued separate messages marking the 23rd anniversary of CHT peace accord.

Abdul Hamid called upon all irrespective of party affiliations to work together to harness the potentials of the hill districts. The prime minister sought cooperation from all for full implementation of the CHT peace accord.

She said the post-1975 undemocratic governments (after the assassination of Bangabandhu) had created divisions between the Bangalee and the hill people for their self-interest instead of maintaining social stability there, state-run news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha reported.

Killings, tortures and injustice, grabbing of lands and wealth and misuse of the state resources had made the region more unstable, she added.

Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, better known as Santu Larma, who heads the Parbatya Chattogram Jana-Samhati Samiti signed the instrument on behalf of the 'residents of the Chittagong Hill Tracts'.

The PCJSS said that resolving the disputes on possession of land by settlers, making the land commission functional, identify non-ethnic permanent residents, placing law and order under local bodies, withdrawing security forces, transferring hill matters to the regional and hill district councils, rehabilitation of returnee ethnic families and general clemency for ethnic individuals charged with secessionist offences before signing the accord were not fully implemented.

KS Mong, also a central leader of the PCJSS, said that the CHT Affairs Ministry, which was installed after the accord, has become merely 'a post office' for forwarding letters from three districts to other ministries and departments as demand for amending the allocation of business for the ministry in line with the accord are yet to be met.

Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs Minister Bir Bahadur Ushwe Sing said any problem in implementing the CHT Peace Accord should be identified and resolved through discussion.

"There'll be no blame and complain in implementing the CHT Peace Accord. We should identify the problem and find ways to resolve the problem as our main purpose is to bring peace," he said while at a meeting at the ministry, marking the 23rd anniversary of the accord.

There is a committee, which is working for the implementation of the Peace Accord. Abul Hasnat Abdullah is the chief of the committee and it is the committee's task to look into the problem and find solution, said Ushwe.

The area of Chittagong Hill Tracts is about 13, 295 square kilometres and it is home to 1.6 million people. Different development activities have taken place in the last 10 years, the minister said.

"We've stepped into the 23rd year of the Peace Accord. It has 72 sections and of these, 48 sections were fully implemented while 15 were partly completed and the work to implement the rest is underway," Ushwe said.

In 1973, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman directed to form a committee for the overall development of the CHT, he said. "It is Bangabandhu, who was behind introducing five percent quota for the indigenous people," he added.

The crux of the issue

In the past, the Prime Minister's International Affairs Adviser Dr Gowher Rizvi has said the government is firmly committed to fully implementing the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord at the earliest. The Prime Minister herself wants the accord signed in 1997 to be fully implemented as soon as possible, he said.

Dr Rizvi was addressing a roundtable on 'Chittagong Hill Tracts Treaty: Context and implementation' at the CIRDAP auditorium in the city following the 22nd anniversary of the accord. Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs Ministry organised the meeting chaired by its Minister Bir Bahadur Ushwe Sing.

Dr Rizvi said although there was much that remained to be done for full implementation of the treaty, some things had moved forward quickly and will advance further, and no-one should doubt this. "Our Prime Minister wants full implementation of the treaty as soon as possible," he said.

The PM's adviser said the land dispute problem is the crux of the issue. "There is no hesitation to resolve the land dispute problems. The law has already been amended so that the problems can be resolved quickly."

Dr Rizvi urged all parties to fully cooperate to complete the task as early as possible. "The faster it can be done, the better it will be for all of us and for the country," he added.

Kujendra Lal Tripura, MP, said the CHT Accord's full implementation will face no barrier if the land dispute problem is solved.

"There is a sense among both the Bengalis and tribal people that implementation of the amended law to resolve land dispute will affect their own community adversely," he said.

Kujendra Lal, who is also the chairman of the Taskforce on Rehabilitation of Returnee Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, asserted the Chittagong Hill Tracts is an integral part of Bangladesh.

"As chairman of the Taskforce, I have the responsibility to rehabilitate tribal refugees. But there are many non-tribals also who are displaced. They need to be rehabilitated also," he added.

Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs Secretary Md Mesbahul Islam gave a PowerPoint presentation on the 'Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord: Context and implementation'.

In his presentation, he said out of 72 articles of the CHT Peace Accord, 48 have been fully implemented, 15 have been partially implemented and the remaining 9 are 'under implementation'.

Among others, Dipankar Talukder, MP, of Rangamati, Chairmen of different upazilas, headmen and people's representatives and journalist leaders of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, as well as representatives of NGOs and high officials of the ministry were in attendance at the roundtable.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act 2001 set up a Land Commission, headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court as its chairman to settle land disputes and to determine the ownership of the land of those who were dispossessed. Ancient customary laws were not recognised and the claimants, without having title documents, are not getting any remedy despite being in the possession for a long time of the property inherited from their forefathers. Though a number of complaints (approximately 22,000) have been filed, but no decision regarding those complaints has not been made yet. Despite amending the Act in 2016, the government could not formulate the necessary Rules accordingly.

The commission's chairman, Justice Anwar-ul Haque, said that they are in a sort of limbo because the government is yet to outline the rules of business for the commission.

"We have sent recommendations to the government, but the government is yet to draft the rules of business," Justice Anwar-ul Haque told journalists last year, appearing before the press after a meeting at Rangamati circuit house. He added that the commission is yet to recruit manpower and set up offices in the three districts under CHT, linking the delay to "red tape at the Ministry of Land."

Justice Haque repeated his frustrations in February of this year, following a meeting of the commission held in Bandarban. "We are still waiting for the formulation of the rules of business to settle the fate of more than 24,000 petitions on land disputes," he said.

Additional reporting by M Jahangir Alam

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