If These Hills Could Talk

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Signing of CHT Peace Accord in presence of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (File Photo)

The 20th anniversary of the CHT Peace Accords, that passed last December 2nd, was not an auspicious occasion. As far as anniversaries go, there was little to celebrate. As a result of the accords, the armed insurgency that had raged in the hills for over two decades may have ended, with the Shanti Bahini, military arm of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), ceremoniously laying down its arms. But no-one could pretend that the overall situation in the hills had changed sufficiently – in line with what was agreed in the accords – for the ‘peace’ that prevailed in the three frontier districts to be anything but a volatile commodity.

The lack of headway hung heavy in the air, as PCJSS president and Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council chairman Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, better known as Santu Larma, addressed an event organized in Dhaka around the anniversary, where he alleged that his people’s demands for self-determination, as well as their cultural and political rights, had been repressed by the military-led administration in the hill tracts. His authority had waned significantly over the years since the time he led the peace initiative with the centre, yet he could hardly mask the sense of resentment as he complained that support for the cause of the Jumma - a collective term for the peoples of the region - among the wider population had failed to translate into the kind of active movement that could put pressure on the government to implement the accords.

In the hill tracts, various programmes were held in Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachari, where similar views were aired. At none of the programs could it be said that the mood was anywhere near celebratory, or even optimistic. Instead, what prevailed was a sense of urgency, of something at or nearing breaking point. Ill at ease. But no-one could have foreseen what was to transpire over the course of the next six months, that culminated in the cold-blooded killings of 6 individuals in just two days last week, five of them political figures including the upazila chairman of Naniarchar in Rangamati, where the killings occurred. It brought the number of such killings in the region to 18, starting from December. All the elements indicated an all-out turf war had broken out. Yet given the history of the region, and the various stakeholders and interests at play, it would be foolish to count out something altogether more sinister.  

Portending tragedy

The die had actually been cast a bit more than six months ago, some weeks prior to the 20th anniversary date, for the escalation in unrest that commenced in December. We may trace it to the sudden splintering of the United People’s Democratic Front party, or UPDF, on November 15,  that led to the birth of the breakaway faction UPDF (Democratic), led by Tapan Jyoti Chakma (alias Borma), one of those killed last week. It is important to understand UPDF’s own emergence as a political party twenty years ago now in the shadow of the peace accord, advocating full autonomy for the region, and officially maintaining a stance ‘skeptical of the accords’.

The aims of the party, as stated in its manifesto, are “to ensure the existence of all nationalities in the CHT through the establishment of full autonomy, and to establish a democratic society free from oppression and exploitation. Equality of nations, equality of both sexes and non-communal and democratic ideals shall constitute the basis of all activities of the party; it shall show respect for the freedom, sovereignty and integrity of the country.” It is also stated that “the party shall endeavour to ensure the rights, dignity and interests of all residents of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.”

Right from the start, the UPDF, or “full autonomy activists” have been branded as ‘terrorists’ by the government, who took to using their existence to justify the continuing presence of the military in the CHT. They are called ‘terrorists’ despite the fact that these activists have always operated overground by democratic means and the stated aims of the UPDF are “all but separatist”.

According to the CHT Commission, an advocacy group, the media in Bangladesh has also been guilty of presenting a very one-sided picture that projects UPDF activists and their supporters as anti-peace, wanting independence from Bangladesh, thus adding to their criminalisation instead of giving a political analysis of the actual situation that spurs a national debate about what ethnic identity and autonomy for the indigenous peoples in Bangladesh mean. Thus the UPDF activists have been met with severe repressive measures from the start.

Yet as the conditions of the accords remained unmet over the years, almost naturally UPDF’s clout as a voice for the restive Jumma grew, while the PCJSS, now just the JSS, saw its support slowly wane. Eventually it suffered a split during the caretaker regime that followed the ‘1/11’ political changeover in the country, with the formation of the JSS (Reformist) in 2007. The raison d’ etre of the new faction, supposedly, was Santu Larma’s authoritarian grip over the JSS - which was branded undemocratic.

Almost exactly 10 years later, the UPDF (Democratic), as it broke away from UPDF, would go on to make the same claim about the original incarnation, as the reason behind their formation. A month later, the first shot would be fired in what quickly eventuated as a ‘war on UPDF’.

Killing season

The count of 18 political murders in six months should be broken down to explain that prior to the latest 6 killings, almost all the victims were members or supporters of UPDF. Two of the victims included in the count were members of the AL’s local units. The first actual victim of the supposed turf war, was actually UPDF activist Anal Bikash Chakma, who was shot dead on December 16. This was the first death that UPDF attributed to its breakaway faction.

Within weeks, top UPDF leader Mithun Chakma was shot dead on January 3. UPDF again accused UPDF (Democratic) of the murder, alleging also that the new group was working in cahoots with the army, as part of the latter’s “divide and rule” policy in the hills.

Mithun’s murder in broad daylight following a court appearance drew international attention.  Amnesty International called upon the Bangladesh authorities to hold a rigorous investigation, without delay, into the murder of indigenous human rights defender, and ensure that any persons against whom credible evidence exists are prosecuted in accordance with international standards of due process. Although two cases have been filed, no-one has been arrested in connection with either, and both would seem to have hit a dead end.

The pattern has persisted throughout. UPDF activist Dilip Kumar Chakma was shot dead on February 17;  Subhash Chakma was shot dead in Dighinala, Khagrachhari four days later, while another activist, Natun Mani Chakma, was murdered on March 11. None of these murders have led to any arrests or any serious investigation by the authorities.

On April 12, UPDF’s Jony Tonchongya was murdered in Naniarchar, within hours of which a JSS (Reformist) activist in the area, Sadan Chakma, was also killed. It’s unclear whether the two murders were linked, or specifically if Sadan’s murder was an act of vengeance for the killing of Jony. But by this time a picture had also emerged of the two breakaway parties in the region, that is the JSS (Reformist) and UPDF (Democratic), having entered into some kind of unholy alliance aimed at taking down UPDF. Or so it was alleged anyway, by the UPDF and its various affiliated organizations that include the Hill Women’s Federation, the Democratic Youth Forum, and the Pahari Chhatra Parishad.

The killings were not over yet. On April 16, Surjo Bikash Chakma, said to be a UPDF supporter, lost his life in Khagrachari, allegedly at the hands of the JSS Reformists. Finally

UPDF leader Sunil Bikash Tripura was killed in a shootout at Panchhari Upazila in Khagrachhari on April 22.

Plus in the background to all this, two activists of the Hill Women’s Federation, Manti Chakma, general secretary of HWF central committee, and Doya Sona Chakma, general secretary of the organisation’s Rangamati unit, were abducted and remained missing for a month, before being released on April 20. Upon their release, they accused the UPDF (Democratic) of being the abductors. Doyasona has accused UPDF Democratic of being behind the abduction, and that they were later joined by activists of JSS Reformists.

Turf war, or old habits die hard?

Against this background, came the escalation last week.

On May 3, Rangamati Naniarchar Upazila Chairman and JSS Reformist leader Shaktiman Chakma was shot dead in front his office while another leader, Rupom Chakma, was shot and injured. In an immediate reaction, JSS (R) accused the rival political platform in the Chittagong Hill Tracts United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) for the assassination.

“An armed UPDF group led by Arpan Chakma committed this heinous crime,” said the party Central Committee’s Publicity Secretary Sudhakar Tripura.

The very next day, a group of the UPDF (Democratic) on its way to attend the last rites of Shaktiman, was waylaid in Naniarchar. Unidentified gunmen ambushed them in Betchhari area around 12:15pm, killing five and leaving seven others injured.

Tapan Jyoti Chakma, 50, alias Borma, president of UPDF (Democratic); Sujon Chakma, 28, general secretary of Mohalchhari unit Pahari Chhatra Parishad (PCP), and Pronok Chakma, 23, a member of Jubo Samiti, died on the spot.

Setu Chakma, 30, another member of Jubo Samiti, and driver Md Sajit, 32, died on their way to hospital.

The narrative adds up if UPDF was indeed behind these latest killings. Given the way their personnel were being targeted, the party must have been itching for vengeance after all. Some commentators see the abduction of the two HWF activists as the last straw. In this narrative, the CHT has descended into all out turf war once more, after a period of three years during which the different parties had all maintained a united, if fragile, peace for the sake of the region. When the Jumma can be shown to be fighting among themselves, traditionally it is the security forces who are seen as the gainers. The peace process for implementing the accords takes a backseat, and the condition of army withdrawal from CHT is pushed further into the backburner.

The harmony between the political parties that had prevailed since 2015 would seem to have been upset by the formation of the UPDF (Democratic) last year. UPDF have been blaming the army from the start for sowing the division that led to their split. The breakaway faction’s connections with the JSS Reformists, in terms of their motives, are somewhat less clear. But we should also be clear that as yet, there is nothing in terms of evidence to tie UPDF to the attack. Practically the only thing reflecting on them as the perpetrators is a narrative that fits vengeance. 

Additionally it may be also be noted that the UPDF, as it has matured as a party, has also usually proved credible in its pronouncements. Just as an example, many were reluctant to take them at face value when they were the first to portray the emerging scenario in the region whereby the UPDF Democratic and the JSS Reformists were forming an alliance. Yet in that at least, they would seem to have been proved correct.

The police, in its first week at least, would seem to have followed the same path as in the case of the UPDF killings: no arrests, no clues, only bluster from the responsible officers. And a bewildering refusal to file a case on their own accord, in the absence of family members coming forward.

With everything reduced to mere speculation thanks to the authorities’ lack of initiative, what lies ahead in the hills is anybody’s guess. The only certainty,  might be more bloodshed.

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 34
  • Issue 44

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