This year marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord between the-then Awami League government and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, the political front of Shanti Bahini militia. There have been many hues and cries over the materialisation—or rather, lack of it—of the treaty ever since.
To say that the treaty—popularly known as Peace Accord—was a controversial one will be an understatement. Peace Accord, ever since its very inception, has been plagued with controversies. Not just the Bengali community, but also a powerful and popular section of hilly people lament the treaty for some genuine—and inverse—reasons.
Some of the proponents of the accord—mostly associated with the government or ruling party—claim that the lion’s share of the treaty has been implemented. Others complain that the “spirit” of the treaty is yet to be realised.
Meanwhile, there has been a mixed opinion among those in the opposition front. The Bengali population believes that the treaty is utterly discriminatory and rigged against them. The hilly opponents say that the accord has not secured their rights enough.
I, as a leader of the local Bengali community, am among those who have been in the forefront in the opposition to the treaty. Let me use this opportunity to remind you all of the fact that that I was the main organiser of the long march that Khaleda Zia, the former prime minister, the then-opposition leader, and chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led towards Khagrachari, my constituency, from Dhaka in a show of protest.
Fast forward to 2017, hilly people believe that they have been betrayed. On the other hand, many, mostly from the Bengali community, find themselves submissive to the unofficial authority of armed militias—a brutal circumstance that angers, and rightly so, many.
Over the years, these armed militias have dissolved into several factions, understandably, due to the disagreement over who controls the lucrative extortion business. All too often, communal violence, abduction and murder take place. With the advent of social media, youngsters from both communities engage in hateful encounters. Land affairs, the main subject of dispute, have been complicated because the authorities tasked with dealing with them lack legitimacy and proportionate representation of all ethnic communities.
In retrospect, I now believe my comrades and I were right: Peace Treaty brought anything but peace across the hill.
In my view, the dumbest flaw of the treaty was that it failed to take the Bengali community into account as an important stakeholder in the entire affairs. The treaty created a number of powerful authorities, which effectively have denied a proportionate Bengali representation. Without having secured public confidence all over the country, Sheikh Hasina’s debut government hurriedly signed the treaty, arguably, to brighten her image in the international community. These have proven to be some of the most shortsighted shortcomings of the treaty.
All said and done, let me present the excerpt of an op-ed I wrote for a weekly magazine back in June 1998—nearly 6 months after the treaty was signed—laying out the opposition of the Bengali community to the treaty. Though I focused on the legal aspect of the treaty, many of you may still find it relevant. Some of my initial reservations and concerns might have proven to be exaggerated, but still, they are important because if the treaty had gone through with all its “spirit” protected, its ramifications would have been disastrous.
I, in my op-ed, pointed out the following flaws in the treaty that I found discriminatory, divisive, illegal, unconstitutional, and dangerous.
- Tribal circle chiefs—three hereditary but obsolete rulers who lack any democratic legitimacy or mandate—have been authorised to certify residency status, among other things. It is legally ambiguous.
- Without having validated by the regional and district councils (four powerful councils created by the mandate of the treaty), no residents in the area would be able to buy, sell, transfer or even lease the land s/he owns. It revokes some important individual freedom.
- In the regional and district councils, the majority posts—including the chairs—have been exclusively reserved for tribal population, despite the fact that Bengali people constitute nearly half the entire population. This is discriminatory and divisive.
- The said rehabilitation of the members of Shanti Bahini militia is unacceptable. Those who slaughtered civilian and military people have been awarded cash and land. Many have been appointed in public service. On the other hand, those who were wronged by the militiamen have not been compensated.
- The treaty has created posts of a joint secretary and three deputy secretaries. However, Bengali people have been barred to be able to hold those posts. This is discriminatory and divisive.
- The treaty empowered the councils to essentially “veto” any laws relating to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This is outright unconstitutional.
- The councils have been given the power to appoint repatriated militias in various ranks of law enforcement agencies. Those who even a few days ago did not hesitate to harm civilians and law enforcers are now themselves law enforcers—which is inherently dangerous. It threatens to endanger the area’s security paradigm.
- The councils have been authorised to appoint, transfer and punish public servant, which I fear will create an imbalance and chaos.
- The regional council—chaired by militia chief Shantu Larma ever since its inception—has been authorised to control all aspects of land affairs in the hill. This endangers the interest of the Bengali community.
- The councils have been authorised to control the local administration across the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It implies that the councils are a state within the state and is contradictory to the concept of “unitary” Bangladesh.
- The treaty has waived the bank debt of militiamen and hilly people completely. However, those in Bengali community who endured serious financial damage due to the conducts of Shanti Bahini have not been compensated or waived.
- Many flaws in the treaty have been legitimised by arguing that the constitution allows exceptions in favour of “backward” communities. If we are talking about “backward” population, then let me tell you that the literacy rates among Chakma community, the largest tribal community, and Bengali community are 70 percent and 10 percent respectively. Chakma community is way ahead of others when it comes to business, trade and public jobs. If they are “backwards”, what is Bengali community, then?