CHT peace accord: a dead letter?


The accord of 1997 may have ended the war between the Bangladesh army and the now-defunct Shanti Bahini guerrillas but that does not necessarily mean that peace has descended on the hills, writes Aongay Marma

The one thing that the ruling Awami League-led government is good at is making and breaking promises. Over the years, it has perfected it into an art. For it, making and breaking promises is a continuous, never-ending process. It goes on and on until the cows come home. Can anyone say how many times the prime minister and her ministers and advisers have pledged to implement the CHT accord? Hardly. For the AL, promises are only to be made, not kept. It made the same promises again while it celebrated the 17th anniversary of the accord on December 2. It will forget its own promises soon, like it did in the past, and the accord, which has many flaws and shortcomings including the absence of an inbuilt mechanism to ensure implementation, will remain where it was before. This is despite the fact that the Awami League considers the conclusion of the accord without any third-party mediation as a major success.

But it would be unfair to blame the government alone for the non-implementation of the accord. The JSS (now split into two factions, one of which is headed by Santu Larma and the other by Sudhasindhu Khisha), the other signatory to the treaty, is equally liable. Despite their rhetoric about shedding blood and reverting to armed struggle, the JSS leaders, wallowing headlong in political opportunism, have little appetite for action and putting effective pressure on the government to get the accord implemented. They seem to have little interest in venturing out of the comfort zone of the Regional Council, which has all the trappings of power, but no real power. Yet, they never forget, while making speeches, to ask people to get ready for a showdown with the government. During the past 17 years, they only whined and complained about non-implementation of the accord but refused to take up programmes to turn up the heat on the government. They only talked the talk but did not walk the walk.
Thus the AL-led government’s breach of promise and the JSS’s repeated failure to launch even a semblance of a popular movement are to blame for what the CHT accord now seems to have become — a dead letter. If the JSS could keep up sustained pressure on the government, things would have been quite different. But then again, it is also a fact that no political party can build a movement against a government on whose support its political survival depends. Moreover, because of wrong policies pursued over the years, the JSS has now become a mere shadow of its former self, and it will be too much to expect it to bring meaningful pressure to bear on the government.
On the other hand, the UPDF’s position vis-a-vis the accord has always been to point out its flaws and not to stand in the way of its implementation. It is true that the party expressed serious reservations about the accord. But even then, it offered to support the JSS in its efforts to force the government to implement the accord in toto. Ironically, far from being pleased, the JSS leaders were actually irritated by this genuine and considerate offer. This proves that the JSS does not want to launch an effective campaign for full implementation of the accord lest it invites the wrath of the government and leads to the loss of the perks and privileges that its leaders now enjoy as chairman and members of the Regional Council.
That the accord has failed to bring peace in the CHT is too obvious to require any proof. The CHT International Commission in the fourth update to its original report ‘Life Is Not Ours’ termed the accord ‘a new source of conflict and instability’. In the report, published in 2000, three years after the signing of the CHT Accord, the commission further said: ‘However, there are a number of questions and issues which the accord leaves unresolved and which, if not addressed, could lead to a breakdown of the peace.’ The commission’s prediction has undoubtedly turned out to be true. Any accord which fails to address the main demands of the Jumma people is bound to fail. This has always been the case in the CHT. Many might not know that the CHT Accord of 1997 was preceded by two other accords. The Priti faction of the Jana Samhati Samiti, popularly known as the Badi group for advocating severance of the CHT through Indian support, had signed an agreement with the government before its eventual surrender in 1984. This agreement, much like the one signed by Santu Larma’s JSS, also included many lofty provisions which were never implemented by the government. The overarching focus of the erstwhile government of Hussain Muhammad Ershad was the surrender of the Priti faction as it was needed to weaken the JSS.
Apart from the agreement with Priti faction, the Ershad government had signed another agreement with a team of hand-picked so-called traditional Jumma leaders which resulted in the formation of the ‘hill district local government councils’ in June 1989. This was another political manoeuvre on part of the government and its primary aim was to alienate the JSS from its popular support bases. However, traditional leaders were vilified and denounced as collaborators and the HDLGCs were rejected by almost all sections of the Jumma people. Later, with the formation of the Hill Students’ Council, the resistance movement intensified and the government eventually had to sit down for talks with the JSS and sign an agreement in December 1997.
The accord of 1997 may have ended the war between the Bangladesh army and the now-defunct Shanti Bahini guerrillas but that does not necessarily mean that peace has descended on the hills. Human rights violations are still rampant and widespread, with at least over a dozen large-scale sectarian attacks taking place since the signing of the accord. Many innocent Jumma people were either killed or injured and hundreds of their houses burnt down in those mindless attacks. Besides, incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and death in custody, rape and attempted rape are reported quite regularly from all over the CHT. These have been well documented by national and international human rights organisations, including the International Work Group for Indigenous Peoples. In short, there is hardly any major difference between pre- and post-accord situations in the CHT.
Another aspect of the accord is that it has divided the Jumma struggle, at least for the time being. With the accord, the government has succeeded in bringing a section of the Jumma leaders under its control and pitting them against the people. This has had disastrous consequences for the Jumma people, who are completely disillusioned with the accord and are trying to extricate themselves from this situation.
Pitting one section of the population against another has always been a handy tool for colonial masters. But there comes a time when this does not work any longer and the people are able to throw off the chains of bondage and oppression. The government, which acts rather like a colonial ruler when it comes to the CHT, may feel a sense of schadenfreude when Jummas are locked in an internecine fratricidal conflict, a by-product of the CHT accord, but it cannot run away from its responsibility to make good on its promises. The sooner the government realises this, the better.

Aongay Marma is general secretary of the Democratic Youth Forum and a former president of the Hill Students’ Council.

This article was published on December 5, 2014 in New Age.