Asia-Pacific, Headlines

POLITICS-BANGLADESH: Opposition Strikes Dim Euphoria of Peace

Tabibul Islam

DHAKA, Dec 8 1997 (IPS) - Apprehension has replaced the initial euphoria that greeted the end of a 22-year-long armed conflict over land in eastern Bangladesh, between the government and separatist tribal leaders.

Three nation-wide strikes called by an alliance led by the main opposition party against the Dec. 2 Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) peace pact crafted by the Awami League government has disrupted business activities in the country each time.

At least 100 people including several opposition members of Parliament were injured in clashes between the strikers and police in the capital last Friday, during the most recent strike in one week.

The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) which is leading the protests has rejected the government’s landmark agreement with Chakma tribal leaders as a “black treaty”.

The insurgency traces its roots back to the time of the previous Awami League government of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the present Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed.

Tribals took to arms when Mujibur Rahman turned down their request for special protection in the post-independence government. Some 100,000 ‘Jumma’ (tribal Chakmas and non-tribals) people were uprooted by the construction of a dam in the late 1950s and 1960s, which inundated 40 percent of arable land.

The governments that followed tried to crush the insurgency by resettling more than 40,000 landless Muslim Bengali settlers from the plains between 1978 and 1985 under a population transfer programme in the Hill Tracts.

Hundreds of thousands of tribals, largely Buddhists, crossed the border into refugee camps in the northeastern Indian state of Tripura, where they have been languishing in makeshift shacks for more than a decade. Bangladesh has been under pressure from donors to mend its human rights records in the Hill Tracts.

While some 15,000 refugees have returned home since 1994 following agreements between India, Bangladesh and refugee leaders, around 44,000 remained, preferring squalor to the violence unleashed by security forces and settlers in the CHT.

Former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia of the BNP accused the government of turning the Muslim settlers into “second class citizens” by restricting their rights of ownership of land and other political rights under the agreement.

Under the peace agreement, a 22-member regional council will be constituted for the three hill districts of Rangmati, Bandarban and Khagrachhari, whose chairman will be indirectly elected by the members of the three hill district councils.

The chairman, who must be a tribal, will enjoy the rank and status of a state minister. Two thirds of the members of the regional council will be elected from among the tribal people who make up 52 percent of the Hill Tracts’ 80,000 people.

Among the 12 tribal members, five will be elected from the majority Chakma tribe, three from Marma, two from Tripura and one from Murong and Tanchainga, and one from among Lusai, Bom, Pankho, Khumbi, Chak and Khaing tribes.

Two of the members of the regional council will have to be women, who along with the others will be elected for a five-year term.

Most importantly, a ‘Land Commission’ that is to be set up will be headed by a retired judge to settle disputes over land ownership. Until 1950, tribal land could not be transferred to people from outside the Hill Tracts.

The peace agreement states that the ‘Shanti Bahini’, the armed wing of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati (PCJSS), which has been fighting the Bangladesh state will have to surrender their arms within 45 days. The date and place of the surrender is to be decided through joint consultation with the government.

The government has also agreed to give members of the outlawed political party one thousand dollars each for the rehabilitation and resettlement of their families.

A separate ‘Ministry for CHT Affairs’ headed by a tribal as minister will be set up. It will execute the decisions taken by the regional council, which has sweeping powers relating to land management.

Each hill district council has been empowered to appoint police personnel up to the rank of sub-inspector, and be responsible for their transfer and discipline.

Most political observers here believe the ruling Awami League has found a political solution to the long-festering problem. “There could be no other better means to end the bush war in the CHT,” a Dhaka-based commentator said.

Describing the agreement as a “bold step of the Awami League government”, constitutional lawyers, Istiaq Ahmed and Amirul Islam, said it was in accordance with the Constitution.

Prime Minister Hasina has said that she will seek ratification by Parliament. Talks between the government and tribal leaders started during the martial law administration of Hussain Mohammed Ershad. The BNP government that followed was not keen on a political solution, and there was no progress in the talks.

Bangladesh has paid a heavy price for the conflict. At least 20,000 people including military personnel have been killed. The war has cost the national exchequer an estimated 100 million dollars annually.

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