Back to the bad old days in the CHT


No accord will be able to bring peace in the CHT unless the government recognizes the rights and identity of indigenous Jumma people and take effective measures for promotion and protection of their rights, writes Rabi Shankar Chakma

Six years have elapsed since the signing of the much-vaunted CHT Accord of 2 December 1997. The accord was signed after a protracted negotiation between the government of Bangladesh and the Jana Samhati Samiti for five years. It is often said such protracted negotiations becomes more successful than summit level accord because of the ability to identify pros-cons of an accord and therefore develop in-built mechanisms for its better implementation. Alas! The CHT accord did not contain such in-built mechanisms for implementation. The aim to “uphold the political, social, cultural, educational and economic rights of all the people of Chittagong Hill Tracts region, to expedite socio-economic development process and to preserve respective rights of all the citizens of Bangladesh and their development” has little meaning for indigenous peoples of the CHT.

Among the major shortcomings of the Accord was the negotiation process itself. It was neither transparent nor democratic. Both the JSS and the government kept the citizens of the country in dark about the whole process, let alone making them part of it. The whole thing was done in a secretive way as if everything would turn up side down if the people knew about it.

The in-built mechanisms are crucial for smooth implementation. When an agreement is signed, there arise certain obligations for the parties to perform. The breach of such an agreement should normally be settled before the court of law. This is the general rule relating to contractual obligation. But contracts of political nature, that is the accords and treaties signed between the political parties and states, are quite different. Courts cannot enforce such accords although courts can question validity of such accord. Aggrieved parties do not have the right to seek redress in law courts. That’s why governments has shown contempt for such accord and history of indigenous peoples all over the world is replete with instances of such failed accords.
The CHT accord enunciated the obligations to be fulfilled both by the Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS) and the government of Bangladesh. The JSS performed all its obligations before the government performed any single obligation on its part. As per the CHT treaty the JSS was bound to do so within a specific time frame. However, this became the source of all later discords between the two sides. Once the JSS lost all leverage against the government, the then Awami League government found it expedient to back out. Acceptance of such provisions by JSS was tantamount to giving carte-blanch to the government.

At the beginning the JSS leaders were over enthusiastic about the accord. They placed unqualified trust and faith in the Awami League government. On many occasions the JSS supremo Santu Larma said that he had full confidence in the government of the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But it took only a few months before they were completely disillusioned with the Awami League. Soon after their surrender the JSS leaders could realize that their arithmetic of politics of Bangladeshi ruling parties was totally wrong. They found out in no time that they have been betrayed. So the honeymoon between the two sides proved to be too short-lived. The first discord between the Awami League and the Jana Samhati Samiti arose when the JSS leaders publicly made a claim that there was an unwritten agreement in addition to the Accord signed. When the Awami League did not have any interest to implement the written accord, it was fanciful to the extreme to expect the Awami League to discuss any verbal accord. It was simply a case of inability of the JSS leaders to understand the Awami League, and for that matter the character of the ruling parties of Bangladesh. The JSS also accused the AL of violating the terms of the agreement when the government nominated three members for the Interim Regional Council from the Bengali community in total disregard of the JSS recommendation. In protest against this action of the government the JSS refused to take over the charge of the Interim Regional Council. But JSS could not hold on to its position. After nine months they had to give in, as the government threatened to reconstitute the Interim Regional Council to resolve the stalemate. The JSS leaders felt they might be left out.

The JSS leaders consistently accused the previous Awami League government of violating the CHT accord. They are now grumbling against the ruling BNP led four party alliance. However, their grumble does not go beyond the nuisance value, lest the BNP government may dislodge them from the Regional Council either through elections or summary removal.

The CHT accord is now in limbo. The BNP and its alliance partners vehemently opposed the treaty when they were in opposition. They demanded that the treaty be scraped as it compromised the sovereignty of the county. BNP went to the extent of organising a so-called “long march” from Dhaka to Khagrachari to boost support for their demand. So it is quite understandable that the alliance government has little interest in the implementation of the accord. This makes the future of the accord all the more uncertain. Even after six years, the accord remains unimplemented. The accord has failed because of its sheer non-implementation due to the lack of in-built mechanism. The implementation of the CHT accord totally depends on the charity of the government. This is the most pathetic aspect of the accord.

The United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF) and its sister organisations namely Hill Students Council, Hill Peoples Council and Hill Women’s Federation expressed serious reservations about the accord. They pointed out its shortcomings and maintained that unless the main demands of the CHT people are met the much-cherished peace will remain a far cry. They voiced their criticism when almost the whole country was gripped by euphoria about the accord. But once the euphoria subsided and the dust settled down, every thing became clear. The post accord situation has vindicated UPDF assumptions. Even the topmost leader of the JSS acknowledged that he has committed a grave mistake by signing the accord.

The accord of 1997 may be historically important, but it is not the first of its kind. The CHT people are witness to two other similar agreements. The aim of both of these agreements was to resolve the Chittagong Hill Tracts problem. The first agreement was signed in 1985 with the Priti Kumar faction of the JSS. This resulted in the surrender of its members at Rangamti Stadium much like the formal surrender of the main JSS on 15 February 1988 at Khagrachari stadium. It should be noted that many good things were written in the said agreement, although it too remained largely unimplemented. The other agreement was signed in 1989 with some selected so-called traditional Jumma leaders of three CHT districts. This was the agreement which paved the way for the formation of the controversial Hill District Councils. As everyone knows, none of these agreements was able to resolve the problems.

In conclusion, the accord of 1997 has already met the same fate of the two other agreements mentioned above. A historic accord is now in the process of being consigned to history. It is a pity that the CHT people will have to witness such a tragedy. However, no accord will be able to bring peace in the CHT unless the government recognizes the rights and identity of indigenous Jumma people and take effective measures for promotion and protection of their rights. The sooner the government develops the democratic attitude to address the demands of its ethnic minorities, the sooner peace will return to the CHT.
(On this day in 1997, a landmark deal was reached on peace in the Chittagong Hill Tracts)

The writer is a member of the Convening Committee of the United Peoples Democratic Front

The article was published in the New Age on December 2, 2003