CHT Peace Accord
CHT Peace Accord

What did it achieve and what is the way forward?

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), the South-eastern part of Bangladesh, is unique in its geographical features and ethnic diversity. The area with its size of 13,184 square kilometres is bordered by Myanmar and the Indian state of Mizoram on the East and Tripura on the North. With its 1.6 million people, it entails a great importance to Bangladesh for its geopolitical location.

It is also located in one of the most unstable sub-regions in the world, given the conflict-prone Northeast India, the Rohingya crisis, insurgency war and continuing Junta rule in Myanmar, and the Bay of Bengal. The region was mired with conflicts in three broad historical trajectories — the British, the Pakistanis, and Bangladesh. Particularly, the insurgency war on ethnic questions was fought in the late 1970s and continued for more than 25 years.

After years of peace talks, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord was signed between Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samity (PCJSS) and the National Committee representing the government of People’s Republic of Bangladesh, led by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on December 2, 1997. The Accord ended the 25-year-long (1972 to 1997) armed struggle between the PCJSS rebel wing Shanti Bahini (Peace Force) and the government of Bangladesh.

Paradigm shift in peace-building

This Accord has been termed as a paradigm shift for peace and prosperity of the area. The Accord was a historic achievement for the Sheikh Hasina government for a number of reasons. First, PM Sheikh Hasina came to power in 1996 after 21 years of political struggle in Bangladesh following the tragic assassination of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975.

Within just 18 months of her rule, Prime Minister Hasina resolved one of the most difficult ethnic problems in the world. Second, the resolution of the CHT conflict was a strong commitment of the Bangladesh Awami League. The party continued to prioritize establishing peace in the CHT in the post-Accord era. For example, the the Awami League Election Manifesto of 2008 states:

The 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord will be fully implemented. More efforts will be directed towards the development of underdeveloped areas, and special programs on priority basis will be taken to secure rights of the ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and other communities, and to preserve their language, literature, culture, and unique lifestyles.

Second, the Accord was the direct outcome of negotiations between the two parties — PCJSS and the government of Bangladesh. There was no involvement of a third party which is a rare case. Third, the Accord was a landmark concession from the government of Sheikh Hasina to establish rights and dignity of the Hill people despite Bangladesh being a unitary state under the constitution. Fourth, the Accord received widespread support from the Hill people as a testament of creating a better future for the region through establishing peace and harmony. Finally, the Accord paved the way for undertaking development and confidence-building initiatives by the local, national, and international non-state actors to support the post-conflict peace building process in the region.

What is in the Accord?

The Accord is one of the comprehensive and progressive documents of its kind. It covers issues of life and livelihoods of the Hill people such as land, human rights, gender, conflict, peace, post-conflict peace-building, and development. The Accord has a preamble, four sections, and 72 articles that extensively cover all the relevant issues between the two parties.

The preamble of the Accord says: “Under the framework of the constitution of Bangladesh and having fullest and firm confidence in the sovereignty and integrity of Bangladesh … with an objective to elevate political, social, cultural, educational, and financial rights and to expedite [the] socio-economic development process of all citizens in CHT…”

What has it achieved?

The 1997 Peace Accord provides for an overall framework for a unique administrative structure the CHT enjoys currently as well as in the future. It creates an environment where the CHT would enjoy the status of a tribal-inhabited region, which comes close to being a self-administration entity in the new institutional landscape holding unprecedented management powers that accompany it.

Institutionally, it ensures regional administration for the CHT people through the three-tiered administrative system. First, at the national level, a new institutional mechanism in the form of a ministry was created. This ministry, called the Ministry of the CHT Affairs, is headed by a tribal person. An advisory committee consisting of a minister in charge of the CHT and other representatives from tribal and non-tribal backgrounds assists the ministry.

Second, the CHT Regional Council was established to coordinate and supervise the three district councils and municipalities of the CHT. The RC consists of 22 members including its chair, who is indirectly chosen by the elected members of the three hill district councils. Third, at the local level, the existing hill district councils have been empowered and strengthened by expanding their powers and functions.

The district councils are responsible for land management, the local police, tribal law, and social justice, youth welfare, environmental protection and development, promotion of local tourism, and supervision of local government institutions within the district.

The HDCs can supervise the work of headmen, surveyors, and assistant land commissioners.

The implementation of the accord arrangements in the CHT region is envisioned through the strengthening of the three district councils, establishment of regional councils, and the MOCHTA and their smooth and effective functioning enshrined in the 1997 Peace Accord.

Based on sources available in government documents, 48 articles of the Accord have been fully implemented, 15 are partially implemented, and nine are in the process of implementation, which signifies a major achievement of the government. On February 10, 2016, in reply to a starred question, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina mentioned that her government had already implemented 48 clauses out of 72 clauses of the CHT Accord and was working sincerely to implement the rest of the clauses.

Looking at the global experiences of accord implementation in countries such as India, Senegal, Angola, Djibouti, Guatemala, Nepal, and Sudan, Bangladesh has achieved considerable success. Despite a debate on the process and extent of implementation of the Accord, there is no doubt about a number of achievements.

First, there is an overwhelming concurring view that the implementation of the Accord is the lasting solution to the CHT problem. Second, the Accord has been a bold and major step towards peace in a highly volatile and diverse region. Third, it has effectively ended the war and has established the fact that there is no benefit for any party through violence and conflict.

Fourth, the Accord has substantially reduced the scope of external involvement in the region that has enormous geopolitical significance for Bangladesh. Fifth, there is a limited knowledge about the content of the Accord among the people in the CHT that creates confusion and suspicion. Sixth, the Accord has created new political structures to deal with the issues of peace, development, and harmony at the inter-group and community levels.

Finally, the Accord has a critical impact on the lives and livelihoods of people in creating a better and enabling environment for the Hill people.

Challenges and concerns

Different stakeholders, from the violent armed groups to the government agencies, need to engage in a spirit of genuine cooperation and address some challenges. First, there is a growing religious intolerance in the region that would foment violence and harm inter-community and inter-faith relations.

Second, in recent times, intra-Pahari clashes have increased along with extortions and kidnapping in the region. Third, there is a lack of confidence and trust among the people at their own communities as well as at inter-community level. Fourth, in the age of social media, rumour and misinformation are creating problems in society. In the CHT, many incidents considered triggers or catalysts behind violence against the Hill people are not well founded with facts. With deeper investigation of many of those incidents, it reveals the truth, which is often the reverse of conventional wisdom. One of the critical issues widely observed is the use of rumour or propaganda against rival groups or people. This leads to misperception and misunderstanding among the people in the region, and eventually creates hostile relations.

The way forward

The government of Bangladesh is deeply committed to implement the Accord, signed 25 years ago as a reflection of genuine political will to improve the lives and livelihoods of the Hill people. A peaceful and conflict-free CHT is an imperative for every stakeholder. A few of the issues are extremely significant in charting a new future for the CHT in the era of transforming Bangladesh into a developed country through peace and harmony.

First, there is no alternative to full implementation of the Accord. Almost all Hill people strongly believe that the implementation of the Accord is the key to solving problems in the CHT. Second, there is a need for consolidating the progress achieved so far. Third, the principles and norms of reconciliation and togetherness can provide a social fabric that would contribute to a better society.

Fourth, more initiatives are needed to enhance confidence and trust among people. Fifth, land is singularly identified as a critical instrument to establish peace in the region; both the Hill and the Bengali people emphasize that land disputes need to be resolved immediately. Sixth, both the Hill and Bengali people should be equally treated by the government, non-governmental organizations, and development partners in every area.

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