The Chittagong Hill Tribes have three of the factors that increase the likelihood of rebellion in the future: territorial concentration; Bangladesh's limited history of democratic rule; and a history of lost autonomy. There has also been growing dissatisfaction with the lack of full implementation of the peace agreement. Factors inhibiting rebellion include efforts at negotiations and reforms and transnational support for the settlement. International assistance has included the initiation of development projects by various NGOS and UN agencies.
The slow implementation of the peace agreement generated continued protest by tribals in 2001-2003. Some of the key issues that remain to be addressed include the creation of a commission to manage land distribution, the removal of the army from tribal areas, and potential limits on immigration to the hill tracts. How these issues are addressed can significantly influence tribal opposition to the agreement.
The Chittagong Hill Tribes primarily reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region of southeastern Bangladesh (GROUPCON = 3). The tracts region borders tribal areas in neighboring India and Bangladesh. The region contains significant natural gas deposits, it covers 10% of Bangladesh's territory, and its tropical rainforests comprise 60% of the country's reserve forests.
Also referred to as the Jummas, which indicates their historical occupation of slash and burn cultivation, the Chittagong tribes differ significantly from the majority Bengali Muslim community. The group speaks multiple languages; it has different social customs than the dominant group; it follows animist and Buddhist religious traditions; and it is racially related to the tribals in neighboring Burma (CULDIFXX = 4). The tribals consist of 13 tribes of which the Chakmas are the largest, making up almost half of the group's population.
The Chittagong tribes entered Bangladesh from Burma beginning in the 15th century. The tribals have violently resisted efforts to subjugate them. The Mughal empire that ruled the subcontinent granted the tribals local autonomy in the mid-17th century. They were able to resist British control until 1860 when they received special status. When India and Pakistan were created in 1947, the Chittagong tribes were incorporated into the Muslim-majority East Pakistan despite their desires for the creation of an independent confederation of northeast tribal states.
The geographic and social isolation of the tribals ended with the building of the Kaptai Hydroelectric Dam in the early 1960s. Along with flooding more than 40% of the arable land in the CHT, more than 100,000 Chakmas were displaced, which was some 25% of the area's population. In 1964, the region's special autonomous status was revoked and the area was opened up to economic exploitation and an influx of Bengali settlers.
Since the 1970s, successive Bangladeshi governments promoted the migration of Bengalis to the hill tracts region which led the tribals to fear that they would become a minority in their traditional region of residence. Further, tribal lands were taken away and given to migrants, and the tribals were subject to violent attacks by Bengali settlers. In 1972, a tribal self-defense organization was formed: the Parbattya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS or Chittagong Hill Tribal People's Coordination Association). In the mid-1970s, the PCJSS' military arm, the Shanti Bahini (Peace Force), launched an armed struggle for independence or at the very least widespread autonomy (REB75X = 6. The Shanti Bahini's violent campaign continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s (REB80X = 7, REB85X, 98X = 5).
During the 1980s, Bangladesh's successive military governments primarily addressed the tribals' rebellion through the use of repressive tactics. However, in 1989, three semi-autonomous districts were created in the Hill Tracts region. The local councils were rejected by some tribals who sought genuine autonomy. Bangladesh's return to democratic rule in the mid-1990s facilitated negotiations between the two sides. When Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League became Prime Minister in 1996, she promised to end the insurgency. After seven rounds of talks, the PCJSS and the government signed a peace accord in December 1997 to end the two-decade long rebellion that had cost over 25,000 lives.
The agreement provides some measure of autonomy for the Chittagong Tribes. The region is governed by a local council, the majority of whose members are tribals. The current chairman of the council is the leader of the PCJSS. The council's responsibilities include maintaining public administration, law and order and promoting development. The Shanti Bahini was disbanded in 1998 and the PCJSS subsequently became a political party. There are some reports that disgruntled PCJSS members have formed a new rebel organization as they believe that the peace agreement does not adequately address issues such as the status of the Bengali settlers.
The Chittagong tribals suffer from various demographic stresses including: very limited public health facilities; environmental decline which is a result of massive deforestation; dispossession from their land; and competition with the Bengalis to settle on underutilized land. The tribes are substantially underrepresented in the political and economic arenas primarily due to historical neglect (POLDIS03 = 1, ECDIS03 = 1). Public policies are in place to help improve their status. The main governing body of the region, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council, must be headed by an indigenous person. Two-thirds of the remaining members must also be of indigenous origin.
Most group members are seeking greater control over their affairs through some form of broad autonomy. The tribals also want an end to Bengali migration to group areas, the return of tribal lands that were confiscated and transferred the Bengalis, and an end to communal attacks against group members. Despite its natural resources, the Chittagong Hill Tracts region is economically disadvantaged, and the promotion of development is a key to the tribals' future prospects. Another key demand is the removal of Banaldeshi troop presence from the area.
Group interests are largely represented by conventional political organizations; however, the militant Shanti Bahini, which agreed to a cessation of hostilities in December 1997, has also received significant support. The vast majority of group members support tribal organizations including the Shanti Bahini's political arm, the PCJSS. The tribals are a factionalized group and there are violent clashes between the moderates and radicals (COHESX9 = 3).Relations between the tribals and the Bengali settlers in the CHT continue to remain tense. There were sporadic clashes between the two groups in 2001 and 2003 (INTERCON01, 03 = 1). In 2001, the head of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Concil warned that that the peace pact was in jeopardy because the government had not implemented the promised troop withdrawal. Given the partial implementation of the peace record and continuing intragroup violence, the region continues to be vulnerable to future conflict.
Far Eastern Economic Review, 1990-94.
Keesings Record of World Events, 1990-94.
Maxwell, Michael (1998), >Peace for the Chittagong Hill Tracts?=, Fourth World Bulletin, Summer.
Nexis Library Information, 1990-99.
Phase I, Minorities at Risk, overview compiled by Monty G. Marshall, 07/89.
Probashi, a Bengali Weekly published from New York, June- July, 1993.
Lexis- Nexis Library Information, 2001-03.
Minorities at Risk Phase II
British Broadcasting Corporation.
This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.