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Chittagong Hill Tracts. History of Oppression By Govind Acharya, Amnesty International USA Bangladesh Country Specialist, govind@fastmail.fm. Four Broad Groups of People. The Kuki people were the ones who were in the area in prehistoric times.

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Chittagong Hill Tracts

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Chittagong hill tracts l.jpg

Chittagong Hill Tracts

History of Oppression

By Govind Acharya, Amnesty International USA Bangladesh Country Specialist, govind@fastmail.fm


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Four Broad Groups of People

  • The Kuki people were the ones who were in the area in prehistoric times.

  • In the early written language years, the Tripura peoples arrived from the west.

  • The Arakan came from present-day Burma.

  • Finally, the Chakmas and the Marmas arrived, making them the last non-Bengalis to settle in the region.


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The Clash With the British

  • The Battle of Plassey in 1757 brought all of Bengal, including the tribal regions, under the suzerainty of the British East India Company.

  • After some fighting with the British, the Chakma raja settled with the Company, agreeing to pay a yearly tribute in exchange for autonomy.

  • In 1860, the British government created the Chittagong Hill Tracts

  • In 1900, the British promulgated an order to guarantee that only CHT tribals could own land in the CHT.


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Indian Independence

  • The Boundary Commission tasked with partitioning India and Pakistan opted to include the CHT in Pakistan, despite the protests of some segments of the community.

  • Pakistani rule saw the beginning of the end of the autonomy that the CHT communities had since 1860. Small-scale violence began soon after Pakistan’s independence.

  • The Pakistani government constructed several hydroelectric dams, causing ecological damage to a swathe of the CHT region.

  • Pakistan withdrew the autonomy of the region under the military regime of Gen. Ayub Khan in 1963. Migration of non-Tribals began around this time frame.


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The Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971

  • The CHT was perceived as indifferent to the plight of the Bengalis and their freedom struggle. Some accused the CHT tribals of siding with Pakistan.

  • After independence, the Mukti Bahini was implicated in human rights violations committed against the tribals in the region, presumably in revenge for their neutrality in the 1971 war.

  • Soon after independence, M.N. Larma, a tribal leader, formed the political movement, the Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS), which created the military wing, called the Shanti Bahini.


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The Human Rights Violations Begin in Earnest

  • The provocation by the JSS in forming a military wing, brought horrific reprisals by the new government.

  • The government’s security forces often joined with Bengali settler militia, participating in massacres that left hundreds dead.

  • This was coupled with a large-scale influx of Bengali migrants seeking to start a new life with land in a fertile growing region.

  • In March 1980, in response to an attack by the Shanti Bahini, Bangladesh security forces lined up dozens of tribals and shot them, outside of Rangamati.


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The Influx

  • President Zia, who emerged from the chaotic 1975 – 1979 coup d’états, instituted a system of incentives to encourage Bengalis to move to the CHT.

  • This occurred rapidly, culminating in nearly 1/3 of the population of the CHT being of Bengali origin.

  • In addition to the ethnic dimension, most of the Bengali settlers are Muslim, while the tribal groups are mostly Buddhist, with a few Hindus.

  • Islamic missionaries have been active in the region, provoking religious tensions between converts and those who remained with Buddhism.


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More Human Rights Violations in the 80’s

  • During the rule of Gen. Ershad, the insurgency peaked, despite several attempts to split the JSS to isolate them.

  • Village Defense Parties (VDP) formed by security forces to defend Bengali property and lives killed up to 2,500 tribals in the early 1980s.

  • On April 19, 1986, a group of refugees fleeing to India were intercepted by the 31st Battalion of the BDR close to the Indian border post. Despite attempts of the Indian border guards to intervene, the 200 individuals were rounded up, many of whom were summarily executed and all were dumped into a mass grave.

  • In response to a letter by the Bangladesh government to Amnesty International around this time, AI asked that they cite a specific case where a perpetrator was punished– no response was received.


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Refugees and the Border

  • At the height of the conflict at the end of 1986 and 1987, India reported that 40,000 people had crossed into India and were refugees.

  • Bangladesh hinted that the Shanti Bahini was being armed and funded by their brethren in India. Indeed, many thousands of the same tribal groups do live in Tripura and no doubt provided material support to the JSS.

  • The CHT residents were mainly involved in agriculture and as refugees, were left depending on handouts from the Government of India.


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The Violations Committed By the Shanti Bahini

  • The Shanti Bahini (aka the Peace Army) committed widespread human rights violations by murdering settlers and killing soldiers that surrendered.

  • There is evidence that tribals involved in negotiating with the government were killed by the armed wing of the JSS.

  • In April 1989, 13 non-tribals were massacred in Kaptai subdistrict.


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Rape As a Weapon

  • On December 26, 1986, a group of non-tribal men raped and mutilated a group of women after Bangladeshi security forces burnt down their village in Baghai-Chari.

  • In Panchari sub-district, several women were raped by non-tribals and security forces and two tribal men were killed.


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Horror and Hope

  • On April 10, 1992, over 100 tribals were killed in revenge for the alleged killing of a non-tribal boy by the Shanti Bahini. The BDR arrived on the scene, but failed to arrest anyone for the crime.

  • A unilateral cease-fire was ordered by the Shanti Bahini in response to Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s peace talks offer in 1992.

  • Peace talks were somewhat successful, but the Bangladeshi government failed to issue a guarantee of safety to refugees. The refugees, now 50,000 strong refused to return from India until such guarantees were made.


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Special Powers Act and the CHT

  • The new democratically elected government began to use the Special Powers Act (SPA) arbitrarily against the Chakma people in the CHT.

  • Sanjoy Chakma was arrested on March 16, 1993 and was held for speaking out on behalf of CHT rights.

  • By the end of 1993, hundreds of tribals were held under SPA. Several were extrajudicially executed.


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Prelude to Peace?

  • The mid-90s saw a period of relative calm in the CHT region, with periodic cease-fires. These cease-fires were often punctuated by violent episodes.

  • Negotiations centered around the repatriation of refugees from India as well as the level of autonomy for the region.

  • Waiyzo Marma, a Buddhist monk, his wife and a guest were beaten in this time for denying having sheltered a Shanti Bahini soldier.

  • Kalpana Chakma, a women’s rights activist, disappeared without a trace. AI has reason to believe she was arrested by the security forces. To this day, her whereabouts are unknown.


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The Peace Treaty– the positives

  • In exchange for autonomy and an amnesty, the Shanti Bahini surrendered their weapons and were brought into the political mainstream.

  • The estimated 64,000 refugees from Tripura came home.

  • The formation of a 22 seat council to be composed of the various tribes.

  • A commission will look into the property disputes that are at the core of the tensions in the area.

  • There will be an eventual withdrawal of the Bangladesh Army.


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Problems With the Treaty

  • Lack of some enabling legislation from the Jatiya Sangsad has left the treaty is a bit in limbo.

  • There is no provision for prosecuting people who committed human rights violations.

  • There seems to be a lack of buy-in by some vested interests– specifically the settler community, who believes that their needs were not met by this treaty. This has led to violence, post-treaty.


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Violations of Human Rights, post-treaty

  • At Babu Chara Bazar, a women who was molested by a member of the security forces yelled for help. When help arrived, security forces came with 150 men and started beating up the people who helped the woman, leaving three people dead.

  • The Benuban Buddist Temple was ransacked by settlers in a dispute.

  • In a recent incident where a group of settlers attacked tribals, nine women were raped, a man was killed in front of his family and a 9-month old baby was strangled to death at Mahalchari. This was in response to a settler who was kidnapped. The residents of the town were not permitted to file a FIR until a court ordered the police to accept it. This incident is currently a subject of a worldwide Amnesty International campaign.


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