This exclusive interview of Rabi Shankar Chakma was published in December 8, 2006 issue of Star Weekend Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Star. Link: http://archive.thedailystar.
“We have no Fascination for Firearms or Armed Struggle”
An Exclusive Interview With Rabi Shankar Chakma
As we know that your party has denounced the “Peace Treaty”, as it is known, calling it “insufficient and inadequate”. Can you please explain your party’s stand on this issue for our readers?
Rabi Shankar Chakma: The CHT Treaty is insufficient and inadequate because it has failed to incorporate the hopes and aspirations of the people of the CHT. It has failed to address the key issues such as the right to self-determination, restoration of customary land rights, rehabilitation of the settlers outside the CHT, an end to military occupation and recognition of the ethnic minorities in the constitution. In short, the treaty is nothing but an instrument of surrender and falls far short of our demands.
Apart from the fact that the Treaty has failed to address the key issues of the CHT people, it has also many other flaws and shortcomings. For example, it lacks an in-built mechanism for implementation. The accord provides for constitution of an implementation committee to be manned by the parties to the Accord themselves. This arrangement has been proved to be ineffective and because of all these shortcomings, the treaty has failed to bring peace in the CHT region. Today, the treaty merely remains on paper.
Having said that, we want to make it clear that despite our serious reservations about the Accord, we offered to cooperate with the PCJSS leadership to force the government to implement the accord in full. This is in the greater interest of the CHT people and this is also because we wanted to keep our internal division and strife as low as possible. This has been and still is our policy vis-à-vis the CHT treaty. That is why we have criticised the accord and pointed out its flaws, but we have not stood in the way of its implementation.
What is the overall political and human rights situation in the CHT?
Rabi Shankar Chakma: As I have said earlier, the Treaty has failed to bring peace in the CHT. The human rights situation has worsened. The CHT is still under military occupation. We continue to receive reports of military raids and torture of innocent villagers. For example, on November 27 the army arrested two persons – Sundor Bikash Chakma (30) and Shubhonkor Chakma (30) – from Mahalchari bazaar in Khagrachari. They were going back home after attending the opening session of our Party’s first national congress held in Dhaka on November 26. The following day, both of them were handed over to the police and a false arms case has been filed against them.
There are many such incidents of arbitrary arrests and detentions that go unreported in the national newspapers and other media outlets. Other forms of human rights violations such as willful killing, rape, arson, land grabbing and religious persecution are still continuing across the CHT.
Apart from these, there is also widespread political repression going on against UPDF and its front organisations. We are not allowed to carry out our peaceful programmes freely. Many a times our rallies and public meetings have been disrupted. Many of our members and supporters have been detained under false charges. At least one hundred of them are still languishing in jails in Chittagong, Khagrachari and Rangamati. Political and civil rights are almost non-existent in the CHT.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts have 13 nationalities who speak 10 different languages. What do you think unite them as a group?
Rabi Shankar Chakma: The ethnic nationalities of the CHT, who are collectively known as Jumma people, are bound by a common heritage, culture and struggle. They also share the same aspiration, which is liberation from national oppression and exploitation. And since they have been living in the same territory for hundreds of years together and share the same destiny, language is not a bar to the unity of these peoples.
The right to language is a fundamental right of every human being. How do you think the rights to language and culture of different nationalities in the CHT have been ignored?
Rabi Shankar Chakma: The successive governments of Bangladesh or the ruling elite have one common policy with regard to the Jumma people: to bring them to the so-called national mainstream. It all began with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who asked a delegation of Jumma leaders immediately after the liberation of Bangladesh to forget their own national identities and become Bengalis. The situation deteriorated further when about 400,000 settlers were transplanted from 1978 – 1982 with a view to making the Jumma people a minority in their own homeland. This has resulted in increased alienation of the Jumma people from land and in denigration of their right to preserve their own culture and language.
In a civilised society, a government is expected to take special measures to preserve and promote the cultures and languages of the ethnic minorities. But nothing of this sort happened in Bangladesh. The government has established “Tribal Cultural Institutes” in each of the three hill districts. But their contribution to the promotion of hill people’s culture is next to zero. Therefore, the result of this continuous denial of the Jumma people’s right to language and culture has been horrendous. Today, one will hardly find a Chakma or Tripura or Marma who can write in his own language. Many have even forgotten that they have a written script of their own. This is today’s picture. And if this trend continues, tomorrow they will certainly forget their own distinct identities fulfilling the wishes of the first prime minister of independent Bangladesh.
A nation or an ethnic nationality is known by its distinct language, culture and customs. It is the duty of the government to protect, preserve and promote the distinct cultures and customs of different nationalities living in Bangladesh. Now the demand for education in ethnic languages up to primary level has become popular. Even many prominent intellectuals and educationists have voiced their support for this just demand. We hope a nation that had once shed blood to establish its people’s right to language will understand the pang of deprivation of this right among the ethnic Jumma nationalities.
Do you think the rights of the CHT’s ethnic minorities are entwined with the general freedom of the people of the other part of the region?
Rabi Shankar Chakma: The people of Bangladesh irrespective of racial identity fought for the liberation of the country in the hope that a free and independent country would offer them a better life and that there would be no oppression and exploitation. But in no time this hope has turned into despair. It became clear that a new exploiter elite class usurped the helm of the state after the Punjabi ruling class had gone. They began to loot and plunder the wealth of the country at the expense of the great suffering of the common masses. Even after 36 years of our freedom, this scenario has not changed. Rather it has deteriorated further. The disparity between rich and poor has widened. While a few people became super rich, the vast multitude of people plunged into the mire of poverty. Today, the new ruling elite not only oppresses the national minorities but also oppresses and exploits the people (the proletariat) of the dominant nation. Herein lies the possibility of a greater unity between the oppressed classes and peoples of the dominant nation and the ethnic national minorities of the country. In fact, the situation of the country will definitely push them towards such a unity. In today’s world, the oppressed classes of a dominant nation cannot liberate themselves without liberating other oppressed peoples and nations of the country. On the other hand, the ethnic minorities’ fight for liberation becomes easier if that fight is united with the larger fight of the vast people for emancipation. We are looking forward to a unified struggle of all oppressed classes and peoples and other ethnic groups because only such a struggle can liberate them from the bondage of age-old oppression and exploitation.
Do you have plans to participate in the general elections? How do you see elections as a way of going to power in general?
Rabi Shankar Chakma: In the greater context of present-day Bangladesh, the oppressed masses cannot hope for political power coming to their hands through elections. This is because the conditions in which elections are held do not offer the slightest chance that the genuine representatives of the people would win and form a government.
But the case of Chittagong Hill Tracts is quite different. In Chittagong Hill Tracts, where even the most basic rights of the people including the right to freedom of association are restricted, elections are usually seen as a means of reaching out to the people. After taking this and other aspects of the CHT situation into consideration, we have decided to take part in the next parliamentary elections. However, there is serious doubt as to whether the elections would be held on time. So far, the caretaker government has failed to create a congenial atmosphere for holding the election in a free, fair and impartial manner. And the 14-party alliance and others have continued their agitation. The situation has become fluid, volatile and explosive. The declaration of election schedule in a hasty and surreptitious manner has complicated the issue all the more. It has pushed the parties on a collision course. Any election held without participation of the major political parties would not be credible. Therefore, if conditions for free, fair and credible elections are not created, UPDF will not participate in such a bogus election. UPDF will respect the general sentiment of the people of the country.
It is widely perceived that the Bangali settlers in the CHT, poor as they are, sometimes have been used by a certain quarter of the establishment. What is your party’s view on the settler issue?
Rabi Shankar Chakma: As you know, the settlers were brought in the Chittagong Hill Tracts from 1978 to1982 under state-sponsored trans-migration programme. However, infiltration of settlers is still going on. There is no doubt that most of the settlers are poor landless peasants who have been uprooted from their lands in their home districts. This is just one of their identities. As soon as they enter the CHT they assume new identity and change their role. Willingly or unwillingly, they have become a tool of maintaining hegemony and domination over the Jumma people. In fact, the Chittagong Hill Tracts have become a classic example of pitting one oppressed section of the country against the masses of the national minorities. This is a game being played by the ruling elite of the country.
As a party, we think, UPDF has responsibility towards the settlers as well. While we oppose the use of the settlers as a tool of maintaining domination, we support and fight for their just rights. It is the ruling elite, which has deprived them of these rights. They have got the right to be resettled honourably and with means of livelihood in their respective home districts. Until they are resettled in this manner, the government must provide them the basic minimum needs during their stay in the CHT.
Many believe that your support in the hills is waning. How would you respond to this?
Rabi Shankar Chakma: Our support has increased exponentially since the last general election and it keeps on growing by the day. The successful holding of the first national congress in Dhaka is a clear testimony to this. About 1200 delegates and observers from all over the CHT as well as from other parts of the country took part in the congress. Without continued support from the general people it would not have been possible for us to make the congress a grand success.
For the last few years have witnessed some bloody clash between members of your party and the Jana Sanghiti Samiti. What can be done to bring this hostility to an end?
Rabi Shankar Chakma: It is unfortunate that UPDF – JSS conflict is still going on to the detriment of our cause. However, before suggesting a way out, we would like to look at the causes and genesis of the conflict. It all began when the JSS took to violence in response to our criticism to the CHT accord that they signed. They killed Pradeep Lal and Kusum Priyo in broad daylight in the most brutal fashion for voicing criticism to the accord. The incident took place on April 4, 1998 immediately after their surrender. This was followed by many such violent incidents in which many of our members and supporters were killed. This list is long and we have no intention to elaborate on this issue. Time and again we urged them to stop violence and come to the negotiating table. We have left no stone unturned to settle our differences through peaceful talks and discussions. Many prominent individuals have offered to mediate, but due to intransigence attitude of the JSS hawks all their efforts have failed.
We still want a negotiated settlement of the conflict. But the policy of the JSS is different. They have adopted a resolution at their party congress to eliminate UPDF. They have adopted the same resolution once again at a conference held in Rangamati a few days back. Not only that, in an interview with a Bengali daily back in 2000, the JSS president virtually ordered his men to lynch UPDF members and supporters. This is unfortunate but when he said this, no one took the trouble of criticising him. The government also remained silent. This kind of behaviour is totally unimaginable in any democratic dispensation.
Now, the hostility will come to an end if the JSS leadership comes out of their old shell and change their undemocratic and feudalistic mindset. Alternately, the bloodshed will come to an end if the government takes effective measures to stop the JSS from implementing its programme of eliminating the UPDF.
Lots of blood has been spilt in the CHT. We want to see an end to it. The JSS leadership must accept the reality and learn how to respect other people’s rights.
So far you have professed non-violence; is there any chance of your party taking up arms?
Rabi Shankar Chakma: We have no fascination for firearms or armed struggle. The UPDF is a democratic organisation. It is a new kind of party founded by the most advanced section of the CHT. The party has explicitly said that it wants to advance the cause of the CHT people through peaceful means. Article 2 of our Party constitution, which we have endorsed at the congress, provides: the aim of the Party is to establish full autonomy and build a genuine democratic society free from oppression and exploitation in the CHT through peaceful and democratic means.