Withdrawal of army troops has begun in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh. The hill people are also demanding that the Bengalis be removed from the region. Foreign quarters join in this demand. Tension prevails. Anwar Parvez Halim of Probe magazine speaks to retired Brigadier General Hannan Shah about the situation.
The military is being withdrawn from the Chittagong Hill Tracts ostensibly as part of implementing the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) peace accord of 1997. Many see this as a security threat to the region. As a former military officer, how do you view this?
The manner in which the military and other security forces are being removed from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the name of the peace accord can only be suicidal for Bangladesh in the near future. The situation which should have emerged as a result of the CHT peace accord, namely security for the inhabitants of the area, has not materialised till date.
A large section of the so-called Shanti Bahini remains armed till today and has not accepted the peace accord. They are situated both within Bangladesh and outside and are increasing the suffering of the people in the CHT region manifold.
According to common practice, the army is deployed in areas where there is unrest and a disruption of peace. Once peace is restored, the army is withdrawn in phases and brought back to the barracks. Then, when the army is withdrawn, the vacuum left by them is filled by the police or paramilitary forces like the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). And then only when peace is firmly established in no uncertain terms in the region, are the remaining security forces withdrawn. However, such peaceful conditions do not prevail in the CHT.
The inhabitants of the CHT, both hill people and non-hill people, are still concerned. They are still alarmed by the situation there. Under the current conditions, removing the army from the area simply for political reasons will be suicidal.
As a former army officer with knowledge of the CHT, I want to state that the government must take the opinion of the armed forces about the overall situation of the region before taking steps to withdraw the army from the CHT.
It is being said that the withdrawal of the army is nothing unlawful as it was part of the accord.
The peace accord maintains that the Shanti Bahini has to surrender all arms and ammunition, but they have done this only partially. They have not met the conditions till now. How can we expect the Bangladesh government to fulfil its side of the accord, while the Shanti Bahini does not? This cannot be. This goes against the interests of Bangladesh.
You said there would be a breakdown of law and order in the region.
I didnt say that there would be a breakdown of law and order per se, I said we apprehend a breakdown of law and order in the CHT in the near future.
Shanti Bahinis demand for a separate Jummaland has support from foreign quarters. Shanti Bahini had camps in a neighbouring country. They were sheltered there. There were innumerable instances where they would carry out subversive activities in Bangladesh and then take refuge there. In the past, the neighbouring country would use the CHT as a trump card to twist Bangladesh’s arm when it came to agreeing to their various policies and plans. There is no reason to believe they will not do the same in the future. This is what we apprehend. After all, this particular neighbouring country does not enjoy good relations with any single one of its other neighbouring states.
Foreign quarters, including agencies like UNDP, are putting on pressure for a removal of the Bengali settlers from the CHT. Why?
As for the issue of “settlers”, if the UNDP and other foreign quarters and persons like Lord Avenbury, are demanding that the Bengalis be removed from the CHT and relocated in the plains, then why don’t these same quarters demand the removal of the Jews who have been settled from all over the world on Arab land? Why this dual standard? It is the constitutional right of any Bangladeshi person to live where they want in the country. A Chakma, Tripura, Santal, Marma, Bengali, anyone can settle anywhere in Bangladesh. Our Constitution guarantees this. So Bangladesh is not bound to follow any accord that is contradictory to the Constitution of the land.
There is much talk of development for the indigenous people, but it is evident that only one particular ethnic group has actually benefited from this.
The main ethnic group in the CHT are the Chakmas. The Chakmas are the beneficiaries of the so-called peace treaty.
In actual terms, the real indigenous persons of the CHT are the Nagas, Kukis and Mizoras. The Chakmas settled here a few hundred years ago. Having been defeated in battle in their homeland, a region in Cambodia, they were driven out and came to Burma. Driven out from Burma, they then migrated to Bangladeshi territory, the area which today comprises of the CHT region. The Mughal rulers at the time gave them permission to settle here. Bengali-speaking persons have been inhabitants here for thousands of years. This is all documented in history. So the move to establish one particular ethnic group as indigenous to the CHT, is being instigated by certain vested quarters within Bangladesh. That is clear.
We must be on guard. There had been efforts in the past to use Christian missionaries to convert the simple-minded hill people to change their religion. However, it was possible to thwart their ploys to an extent. Now I hear that once again there is a move to convert these poor and simple hill people.
We have seen how the western forces use these converted people for separatist purposes. East Timor is still fresh in our minds. And yet look at the contentious region of Kashmir. This is a Muslim area and so they choose to turn a blind eye to the region. Similarly, they take no steps regarding Sikkim.
Do you see a possibility of another "East Timor" being created here?
There may be moves to create another “East Timor” here, but in my political and military knowledge, this will not be possible. However, a political party may betray the interests of the country and endeavour for such a move. But we, the nationalist forces of the country, along with the common people, will not allow this to happen.
Look at the other issues. They say if natural resources like gas are discovered in the CHT, they will be entitled to the royalties. But then, gas has been discovered in my home area of Kapasia. If gas is taken from there to Dhaka, it is the state that benefits, not any separate region. The government cannot have a dual policy. Will we from Kapasia then demand all rights to the gas discovered there, laying full claim to it and depriving the rest of the country to the rights to the natural resource? This is not done in any country of the world.
Manebendra Larma signed the peace accord with the then Awami League government. Was Manebendra Larma any elected leader of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, elected by the people there to represent them? I served in the CHT. To my knowledge, Manebendra Larma was not given any right to represent the hill people through any convention or council.
The problem which will rear its head in the future is land related. There are three points here. One is that the government has full authority over the land. Next is that the District Commissioner supervises the land and from time to time allocates it as required. Then comes private ownership. In the plains, there are plenty of papers and documents for private property ownership inherited even from British times. But since the CHT was run by the Hill Tracts Manual of 1900, the raja, headman and karbari would be in charge of running the affairs there. Their word was law.
Agricultural land in the true sense is very limited in the CHT. There is some fertile land in areas where the Kaptai Lake water has receded, otherwise crop agriculture is limited. And so the people there use jhoom methods of temporary cultivation in the hills. They may cultivate potatoes in one area this year, then the next year they may shift their cultivation to Malchhari or to somewhere else. But now it is seen that though they have shifted, they are laying claim to the first lot of land. This is wrong. The land of their jhoom cultivation is government land. If any of their land is illegally grabbed from them, that must be returned. But no one has the right to drive anyone out of the land on which they have been settled by the government, where they have been rehabilitated. If anyone does so, this will be completely against the Constitution of Bangladesh.
There is a global propensity to vilify Muslims as terrorists. Do you think that this region could be used to portray Islamic terrorism by introducing such militant elements?
I am happy to say that till date those who have been settled in the CHT have not taken up any form of aggression whatsoever. The Bengalis have been repeatedly attacked by Shanti Bahini and other terrorist groups of the hill region. They have been killed, their homes have been burnt down, and their livestock has been destroyed. All these are internationally recognized crimes.
Shanti Bahini declared war against the Bangladesh government to establish their Jummaland. They have carried out massacres, killing even children. They can be tried for war crimes in the future. I will request the government to look into the role during 1971 of the present day Shanti Bahini leaders and other leaders of the region, to see how they collaborated with the Pakistani forces and what war crimes they committed.
Shantu Larma and the others must accept the Constitution and denounce the demand for Jummaland.
New Age: On withdrawal of troops from Chittagong Hill Tracts by Hanufa Shamsuddin