The International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC) has expressed deep concern about the ongoing unrest in Bandarban, while issuing a call for civilians to be protected.

It follows the chain of events since May 8, when 3 Bawm men were allegedly killed at Paingkhong Para of Rwangchari Upazila by the same vigilante group that killed another 8 Bawm men just a month earlier, on April 6.

The Commission, an advocacy group that grew out of the peace process that led to the CHT Accord of 1997, in its statement noted that local leaders had informed the media that none of the deceased had any affiliation with any armed groups, and one of them, Nemthang Bawm (43), was the president of a local unit of the Awami League.

The statement distributed via a press release then came to the incident of May 16, going by the Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate (ISPR, the public relations division of the Bangladesh Armed Forces) press statement a day later that said two soldiers were killed and an additional two army officers were injured by an IED explosion and sudden gunshots from the Kuki Chin Army (KNA) during a military operation.

The Commission however regretted that the ISPR statement made no mention of an indigenous Tripura, Jewel Tripura (26), who was also killed, and another Abraham Tripura (35), who was injured during the military operation.

In two separate press statements, an Agartala-based human rights organisation, Humanity Protection Forum, and CHT-based political organisation UPDF brought the allegation that Jewel and Abraham were being used by the military as "human shields".

"According to their press releases, and information from local media, on 15 May 2023, the military took a total of 32 Mro civilians from Pasing Para and M T S Para of Remakri Prangsa Union, Ruma; 10 Marma civilians from Mong Yu Para of 2 No. Ruma Union and 22 Tripura civilians (Jewel Tripura and Abraham Tripura were part of this group) of Sobsang Basiram Para under Remakri Prangsa Union of Ruma," the statement further said.

"Also, on 17 May 2023, the military took another 10 Marma civilians from Chaipo Village of 2 No Ruma Union and another 10 Marma civilians from Lungchiri village of Ruma Bazar to participate in their raid against the KNA. Their whereabouts are still unknown," it added.

Dhaka-based media reported they (Abraham and Jewel) were being used as porters by the Army.

The statement noted that on May 18, in a live talk show aired on a popular TV channel Ekattor TV, a prominent journalist from Bandarban further alleged that Jewel Tripura was killed and Abraham Tripura was injured while they were being used as porters by the military during their raid against KNA.

"If these allegations are indeed true, this requires urgent attention from the government of Bangladesh and the military. Bangladeshi military forces cannot use civilians as human shields during military operations, which is specifically mentioned under Article 51(7) of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions," the statement from the Commission said.

"The safety and protection of civilians must always be a top priority during military operations. The CHT Commission strongly urges the authorities to launch a prompt, impartial, and effective investigation into the allegations, the release of civilians taken for military operation immediately, and the use of all feasible precautions to avoid and minimise civilian harm," it concluded.

Earlier the international CHT Commission in a statement dated April 12 expressed its alarm at the situation evolving in the hills, following the killings of the 8 Bawm villagers on April 6.

Both statements were signed by Sultana Kamal, Elsa Stamatopoulou, and Myrna Cunningham Kain, on behalf of the entire Commission.

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