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Bangladesh erupts in ethnic violence

Bangladesh has been rocked by the recent flaring up of decades old ethnic tensions, as Bengali settlers set fire to hundreds of indigenous homes. Pinaki Roy reports from Dhaka on the latest developments and explores the background to the violence

Recent violence between the indigenous community and majority Bengali speakers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region of Bangladesh left two people dead and many injured.

Thousands of indigenous people were left homeless as their shanty houses were burnt to ashes on February 19th and 20th. In the attacks, committed by members of the majority Bengali speaking population in the presence of law enforcers, two people including a woman were killed and more than 50 injured, while 357 houses were set ablaze across 11 villages.

The children of the indigenous Chakma family. They were forced to flee their village after their mother was killed by army fire amid protests against Bengali settlers ; photo - Jasim Mazumder, The Daily Star

The indigenous people from these villages are now hiding in the dense forest or have moved to other villages. They claim the attacks were an attempt to grab their land and properties.

Human rights worker Sathi Chakma visited Baghaichhari, where the arson took place, on March 2nd. She said the homeless people were living in fear in Baghaihaat.

“Many are coming with relief. But the relief will matter nothing to them if they can’t rebuild their houses soon,” she said.

“The land where there were villages is barren now. The sooner they can build their houses the better, otherwise the Bengali settlers might grab their land.” Sathi, who belongs to the indigenous community, said she strongly believed the attack was primarily a land grab.

Old fire in the hills

Violence centring on land issues is nothing new in the CHT. It has been going on since 1978, when the government decided to settle Bengali speaking people in the CHT where indigenous communities including Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Bom, Murong, Chak and some other small groups were living traditionally.

In 2008, Bengali speakers set fire to the villages of indigenous people in the same area, and grabbed indigenous land where 35 Bengali speaking families later built new houses.

Since then, the indigenous community have been protesting and demanding the government give their land back.

Indigenous local Hridoy Chakma told journalists after the recent attacks that soldiers from nearby camps went to his house and demanded his land to extend their army camps.

Ignoring his pleas, the army removed Hridoy from his land and later handed it over to Bengali speakers.

The army dominates the hills, especially since the government of densely populated Bangladesh adopted its policy of settling landless Bengali speaking people in the CHT, which comprises a tenth of the country’s total land mass.

The violence is no different this time round. Tension started in January when the indigenous people of Retkaba village in Baghaihat protested the taking of their land and submitted a memorandum to the government representative in Baghaichhari.

They did not get their land back, and relations between Bengali speaking and indigenous people grew bitter.

On February 19th, Bengali settlers attacked the Retkaba and Gangaraam Mukh villages in Baghaihat and torched 33 indigenous houses.

The next day, the indigenous people protested the arson attacks on their houses. The military arrived and asked them to leave, then charged them with truncheons to disperse them.

A protester attacked an army sergeant with his machete, prompting the military to fire on the indigenous people. At least two people were killed on the spot including a woman, and some seven people were injured.

An indigenous man who was at the scene and did not want to be named told The Samosa that after firing, the army together with the group of settlers set fire to almost all the adjacent villages in the Gangaram Mukh area.

More than 300 thatched and corrugated tin indigenous houses in 11 villages were burnt to ashes in intermittent attacks, allegedly launched by Bengali settlers.

On February 23rd the trouble spread to the town of Khagrachhari, where Bengali settlers torched the houses of indigenous people. The government moved to outlaw outside gatherings of more than four people, and a Bengali speaking youth, Anawar Hossain, was found dead at Adarshapara in Khagrachhari after setting fire to indigenous houses.

Still tension remained in the area. The indigenous refugees could not go back to their villages even 12 days after the attacks, and have had to live off food rations sent by the government and NGOs.

The blame game

The leaders of the Bengali settlers deny they set fire to the houses of indigenous people.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is currently Bangladesh’s main opposition party. Abdul Wadud Bhuiyan (left), a Khagrachhari lawmaker for the BNP from 2001 to 2006, is accused of provoking Bengali people to attack the indigenous community. A Bengali settler himself, Bhuiyan responded at a press conference in Dhaka that it was the government’s supporters who attacked the indigenous people.

Meanwhile Maniruzzaman Manir, the leader of the Parbatya Chattagram Sama Odhikar Andolan (PCSOA), an organisation of Bengalis in the CHT, claimed that the indigenous people were getting support from international communities and fighting the Bengali settlers.

He demanded safety and security for Bengali speaking people in the hills.

Accord and discord

During its previous term in government, the Awami League signed a peace accord with the Parbatya Chattagram Janashanghati Samity (PCJSS), the regional political party of indigenous people, on December 2nd 1997.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord ended a 20 year bush war between the Bangladeshi army and the Shanti Bahini, the guerilla force of the PCJSS, in three hill districts – Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban – in the CHT.

The Shanti Bahini was fighting the Bangladesh army because of the government policy of settling Bengali speaking people in the CHT where the indigenous people traditionally lived.

The indigenous people claimed their inherited land was given to newly settled Bengali speaking people, and launched an armed struggle during the early 1980s, demanding full autonomy for the CHT.

Expecting a peaceful situation following the Peace Accord, many indigenous people who had fled to refugee camps in India started returning home, only to find their land encroached by Bengali speaking people. Though the Awami League government had signed the peace accord at the end of 1997, they could not implement it due to protests by the opposition BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami.

BNP and Jamaat came to power in 2001 and shelved the accord without implementing it. Instead, the BNP-led government encouraged Bengali speaking people to settle in the CHT.

After winning the 2008 national election, the present Awami League government assured the indigenous leaders they would implement the accord as soon as possible.

But there is still a long way to go to implement the accord due to land disputes. The indigenous people want their land back while the Bengali speaking people say the government gave the land to them. There are thousands of such land disputes in the CHT.

Purnomaas Bhikku, a Buddhist monk who was in the area where the recent arson attacks took place, travelled around 400km from Baghaihat to Dhaka to take part in a Buddhist monks’ protest on February 28th. He said : “Such violent situations are taking part again and again. Now the hill people need a peaceful situation.”

Though Purnomaas Bhikkhu recites ‘Sabbe Sotta Sukhita Honto’ (‘All the living entity be happy’) everyday while praying, he does not foresee a peaceful situation in the hills.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.