The Awami League government has announced that it will pull an Army brigade from the Chittagong Hill Tracts region (CHT, comprising the districts of Rangamati, Khagrachhari, and Bandarban) as part of the “phasing out” of troops, according to the terms of a 1997 Peace Treaty. (as reported by the Daily Star and New Nation) The brigade is located at Kaptai (in Rangamati) and will be relocated to the Chittagong Cantonment.
The Awami League was in power during the signing of the treaty. The other party to the treaty was the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS). However, the intervening BNP-Jamaat government (from 2001-2006) and Caretaker government (2007-2008) did not make any progress on the implementation of the treaty.
The conflict stemmed, partially, from ethno-religious-economic tensions between the Hill Tribes and the government of Bangladesh. At the risk of generalizing the issue: the CHT is populated mostly by Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and traditionalists of non-Bengali ethnicity. This region was awarded to East Pakistan (in 1947), ostensibly because it formed an integral hinterland of the Port of Chittagong, despite the fact that its inhabitants were not Muslim, which was part of the reason for Partition in the first place. In the intervening years, a number of Bengali-speaking settlers moved into the CHT and proceeded to marginalize the “tribals.” The effects of this political, economic, and social marginalization are still observable in the lack of development in the hill districts. An insurgency ensued and lasted over two decades, until 1997.
However, the PCJSS does not represent the interests of all the hills’ tribes. The United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) rejected the treaty (incidentally they were elected to the Chairmanship in three upazilas during the 22 January upazila elections, see breakdown from NextFrame).
A district leader of the UPDF alleged that the brigade’s pullout had nothing to do with the treaty and everything to do with the fact that the brigade in question simply was “not required anymore.” A retired Brigadier General told the Daily Star that the law and order situation had improved since he was assigned to the CHT in 1990-1992.
However, he did warn that security organizations would have to be on guard for the UPDF and any “foreign intrusion.” He also suggested that the government hold “long due” elections in the districts to “revitalize their activities involving people.”
The BG’s concerns and suggestions are substantive. Specifically, a “foreign intrusion” is a very real threat as the CHT is some of the most wooded and inaccessible areas in the region. Patrols regularly stumble upon weapons caches and small groups of fighters. With the UPDF’s engagement in the political process, one hopes that their motivation for violence will be less.
Ensuring free and fair elections for representative district governments will go a ways in bolstering the local people’s confidence in Dhaka. However, this is not enough. If Dhaka wants to truly enjoy stability and peace, the marginalization of the CHT’s people must cease, development must be provided equitably, and the Bengali settlers in the districts must learn to respect their neighbors.
Likewise, the UPDF must come to accept their role as a political unit in Bangladesh and engage in democratic politics (rather than politics of the gun).