25 years later, Bangladesh closer to peace in border region

RANGAMATI, Bangladesh (AP) — A quarter century ago, Modhumala Chakma says it was impossible to leave her house in the evening and walk around the nearby hills because they were controlled by a tribal insurgent group seeking autonomy in southeastern Bangladesh.

“It was a difficult time,” says the 60-year-old farm worker from an ethnic minority in the Shuvolong area of Rangamati, one of three districts bordering India and Myanmar collectively called Chittagong Hill Tracts. “We lived in constant fear of being raped or killed.”

“Those bad days are gone,” she says.

Eleven ethnic groups live in the three districts, Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachhari. About half the population is tribal people who mainly follow Theravada Buddhism and half is Bengali who are mostly Muslim.

Twenty-five years ago, the government and a tribal organization signed the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord officially ending the insurgency. While Modhumala is enthusiastic about progress since then, she's uncertain whether the region has actually established peace.

The government insists it has met most of the terms of the Dec. 2, 1997, treaty, but tribal groups and their supporters say it still needs to resolve critical issues including land disputes.

The region covers one-tenth of Bangladesh’s total territory and has a population of 1.6 million. The armed insurgency, led by a group called the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, demanded autonomy and land rights for its people. The insurgency began in 1977, six years after Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan.

“This part of Bangladesh was in a state of war, in a state of armed conflict for long. Since 1997 the region has changed in many ways,” said Delwar Hossain, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University. “It is relatively stable, and it has brought about quality changes in many aspects.”

He says things are moving in the right direction, but it takes time to heal.

Experts say land disputes remain a concern, and tribal groups allege that several past governments have violated the treaty by allowing non-indigenous Bengali people to move into the area, changing its character and taking away land from tribal groups.

Violence and crime still mar the Chittagong Hill Tracts as authorities struggle to reach the remotest areas where they say gangs are pushing for control and extorting money. Dipankar Talukdar, a four-time ruling Awami League party member of Parliament in Rangamati, said some groups are using the disputes as a distraction.

“They need a cover to do the extortion," he said. “They talk about independence and ensuring rights and other things. But the original reason is to extort.”

He said security agencies have arrested members of a new group called the Kuki Chin National Front that has sheltered fundamentalist terrorists in remote jungles for training purposes.

“The civil and military administration is working together to establish peace as a response to those people or groups that want to destabilize the region,” said the top government official in Rangamati, Mohammad Mizanur Rahman. “It’s a continuous process.”

Since the accord was signed, the government has worked to develop infrastructure in the region. In 1997, the Chittagong Hill Tracts had 2,800 kilometers (1,700 miles) of roads, which has increased to about 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles). The number of hospitals and clinics has grown from 24 to 270, and the number of temples and churches from 1,663 to 2,820, the government says.

“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated dozens of bridges in CHT last month. New roads are being constructed. Electricity is coming. All these are very good for us,” said Abdus Salam, a farmer whose father moved to Rangamati decades ago. “Here we live peacefully now. I think the future will be much better.”