Is the Government Trying to Maintain Status Quo in CHT?


Rabi Shankar Chakma

At times, the best decision is not to make any decision. This is how a well-known proverb goes. The BNP-led alliance government seems to have been sticking to this adage ever since it came to power in 2001. Except for some routine changes such as appointment of deputy minister for CHT Affairs, appointment of the Chairman of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board, and reshuffling of the three Hill District Councils, the alliance government has refrained from taking any major decisions with regard to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This legitimately raises the question: is the government trying to maintain status quo in the CHT?

The question or rather the apprehension is further reinforced by the fact that despite its vehement opposition to the CHT accord the government has allowed the leaders of the Jana Samhati Samiti to continue to occupy the Regional Council. In contrast, the government has replaced the Chairmen and members of the three District Councils with men of its own choice. Ever since their formation in 1989, the district councils have not seen any single member or chairman with affiliation to a party other than the ruling one. Earlier, the Awami League filled the councils with its own party members and so did the autocratic government of Hussain Muhammas Ershad. The previous BNP government and the present BNP-led alliance government just followed suit.

The Hill District Councils were first introduced in 1989 by military dictator General Ershad and was later incorporated with minor modifications into the accord of 1997. The Councils fall far short of the demands of the Hill people and do not function effectively. They are nothing but extensions of the offices of the ruling party. No government has ever bothered to hold elections to these institutions. All this proves that when it comes to the Chittagong Hill Tracts all the mainstream political parties invariably follow the same policy. This explains why the present government has neither abrogated the accord nor implemented it.

While the alliance government’s apparent policy is to maintain status quo in the CHT, it has given Mr. Wadud Bhuiyan MP a free hand in matters relating to “development” in CHT. Violating all norms and conventions and the CHT treaty itself, the government appointed him as the Chairman of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board. This made him the boss of the CHT overnight as all the “development funds” of the government are channelised to the Board, depriving all other institutions including the Regional Council. This is the primary reason which drove the Jana Samhati Samiti to take up anti government action programmes in the last few months. One wonders whether the JSS leaders would have gone for such programmes if a few crumbs had fallen on to their table or if the Regional Council had absolute control over the CHTDB. However, the interesting aspect of this development is that it has laid bare the pathetic situation of the Regional Council. It has all the trappings of power, but the real power lies with the Deputy Commissioners and the government-controlled institutions of the CHT such as the CHTDB and the District Councils. The Regional Council is a misnomer. UPDF stands vindicated on this count.

Taking advantage of the prevailing situation and (ab)using his authority, Mr. Wadud Bhuiyan MP is now trying to consolidate his personal position. As soon as he assumed chairmanship of the CHTDB, the meaning, tone and tenor of development has changed overnight. Over the years the CHTDB has been under serious criticism for many of its programmes that were undertaken with total disregard of the opinion of the Hill people. Many critics say that the erstwhile government of Ziaur Rahman established the CHTDB in 1976 to achieve some politico-military objectives. The crucial role played by the CHTDB in the so-called counter-insurgency warfare is well known. Until recently the GOC (General Officer Commanding) used to be the ex-officio chairman of this development body. However, with the surrender of the Shanti Bahini guerrillas in 1998, the need for direct military control over the CHTDB has come to an end, and the government opened up the chairmanship of the Board to the civilians. The first non-military civilian to occupy the chairmanship of the CHTDB was Bir Bahadur MP, a member of the Awami League. He lost his job when the BNP came back to power in 2001.

Since its establishment, the CHTDB has always been the central focus of the politics of development in CHT. Just as the military used this body to achieve its military objectives, so now the ruling party is using it to consolidate its position. There are serious allegations against the Board’s Chairman of diverting funds to fake projects to benefit his party members, creating a personal fiefdom Wadud Palli and undertaking projects that have the potentials to eventually evict hill people from their hearts and homes – all in the name of development.

In its last election manifesto the Banglasdesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is opposed to the CHT treaty of 1997, pledged to find a political solution to the CHT crisis. The party secured two of the three seats in CHT in the said election, a rare feat for the BNP. But up until now the party has failed to live up to its promise. Although the BNP never said what it had meant by “political solution”, the pledge however tends to imply that the party does not consider the Awami League – PCJSS treaty as a comprehensive political solution. Otherwise it would not have raised the slogan of political solution.

There may be different and often conflicting interpretations of this vague term, but the ruling BNP-led coalition government could have by this time initiated a political dialogue to find a permanent solution to the most vexed and outstanding issues of the CHT. That it did not do so is a clear testimony to its policy of maintaining status quo in the CHT region. However, there is still time for the government to initiate a dialogue process that would include all the regional political parties of the CHT. Better late then never. The CHT issue deserves immediate attention of the government. The policy of keeping status quo makes no sense; it does not solve anything, rather it complicates the issues. We hope the government would understand this fact and act before it is too late.

[The writer is a member, convening committee, United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF)]