The peace talks between the government-appointed National Committee on CHT and the Parbattya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS) seems to be nearing the end of a long road. Once signed, the agreement will end the 23-year insurgency that traces its roots back to the time of the previous Awami League government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The PCJSS has indicated that they would like to sign the final CHT peace agreement on 25 November to coincide with the tripartite (Bangladesh-Pakistan-India) economic summit and Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral’s visit to Bangladesh.
Any agreement on the CHT would be a personal political victory for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Only that the dialogue is facing hurdles in its final stages.
For starters, what has been reported as one of the highlights of the agreement – the PCJSS’s long-standing demand that “unnecessary” army camps and border posts be withdrawn or dismantled in the CHT – is being strenuously opposed by Begum Khaleda Zia of the opposition BNP. Saying that this would be a grievous breach of national security, the BNP has called for a nation-wide strike on the day the treaty is signed.
The peace agreement had initially been expected to be signed earlier this year before the ceasefire agreement with the PCJSS expired on 30 June. But an attack in May by Shanti Bahini “regulars” in olive uniforms on a border outpost in Banderban killing a Bangladesh Rifles soldier and two tribals led to the postponement. The BNP has been using the example of this attack to term the PCJSS demand unacceptable.
The May attack underscores the complexity of the CHT problem. Two Marma insurgents were arrested in connection with the attack on the border post. The Marmas are the second largest tribal group after the Chakmas (who make up 24 percent of the one million CHT population) and the arrested two are known to have confessed to a scheme for a separate Marma state in Banderban because they do not recognise the peace negotiations as representative of all the CHT minority groups.
Disaffection among non-Chakma tribals aside, the Dhaka government faces greater challenges from Indian rebel groups that have been using the Hill Tracts as a base to launch attacks on Indian forces. After the Awami League government agreed that Bangladesh would support and participate in joint operations against Indian rebels, if asked, these groups have gone on the counter-offensive. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has reportedly threatened to target Bangladesh if it helps India in this regard. It is also feared that militant groups from India’s Northeast would try to scuttle any agreement by instigating the Marma and other tribes.
Meanwhile, there is as yet disagreement over the peace treaty itself. The PCJSS and the Shanti Bahini are demanding that Dhaka grant full authority to the proposed CHT Regional Council over land, civil and police administration. In addition, they insist that the government make a list of all the military camps that will be withdrawn and commit itself to resettling Bengali settlers who want to leave the hill districts. It is also known that the government has been slow in repatriating refugees from the Hill Tracts.
While the CHT peace talks are drawing to a close, nothing is as yet certain. The PCJSS and the government have been down this road before. But this is as good a chance as any that 23 years of conflict may yet draw to a close.