Disputes over land rights still remain a key barrier to peace in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) even 23 years after the signing of the CHT Peace Accord.
In three hill districts -- Rangamati, Khagrachhari, and Bandarban -- both Bangalees and tribal communities are in conflicts over their land rights, the authorities concerned said.
Apart from land disputes, widespread extortion and increased activities of insurgent tribal groups are also leading to instability in the southeastern part of the country.
The CHT Peace Accord, signed during the first tenure of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 1997, marked its 23rd anniversary on Wednesday (December 02), but peace has not yet been established in the region yet.
Trans-border mobility of tribal insurgent groups and the unprotected border with neighbouring India and Myanmar have been making it difficult to bring peace in the hard-to-reach areas of the three hill districts, security officials said.
Back in the early 1980s, some 812 families, mostly victims of climate change and river erosions were relocated to a hilly terrain named 'Shona Mia Tila' in Babuchara union of Khagrachhari from the country's plain land. The hill was then named after the leader of the families known as Shona Mia.
But these internally displaced people couldn't reside in the hill for long; they had to leave their given land amid resource shortages, raid by tribal insurgent groups, torture, abduction, and killing by them, and natural causes.
In phases, starting in 1986, they had to desert their land to take refuge in a cluster village for Bangalees, some 22 km away from Shona Mia Tila, known as Pashchim Para at Madhya Boalkhali in Dighinala upazila of Khagrachhari.
In the last 34 years, the 812 families grew to a population of about 25,000 to 30,000 who now live in the inhuman conditions in small congested houses.
Shona Mia Tila in Babuchara has been in possession of the tribal communities and the hill is now called 'Shadhana Tila' by present inhabitants.
During a recent visit to the cluster village, Shajahan Farazi, the leader of the community, told the FE that the 812 families got court orders to return to our land in Shona Mia Tila but the local administration was unwilling to assist these people.
"What was our fault? The government brought us here and gave land to live and cultivate. We have legal documents of land ownership but can't go there, fearing attack by them (tribal people)," he said.
Besides, Mr Farazi urged the government to build roads, establish market, supply electricity and water before relocating them again to the Shona Mia Tila.
He also demanded that the authority ensure security at the Tila before their relocation.
The government settled the 812 families on 4,060 acres of hilly khas (public) land of Shonamia Tila in 1983 and allotted each family 23 decimals of land for making house and 4.77 acres of arable hilly land for farming.
Responding to a question about land disputes, Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Khagrachhari district Pratap Chandra Biswas told the FE that there had been no land survey in the hill districts yet and most of the tribal people had been living on their land for generations without any legal documents.
"If land does not come under a survey it is considered as khas land but due to the culture of distrust, the tribal communities are not interested in land survey because they think it would further affect their land rights," he said.
Until the land survey is done, land disputes wouldn't abate, he said, adding: "The government is ready to do survey, but the tribal communities are quite non-cooperative in this regard."
While his attention was drawn to the situation in Shona Mia Tila, he said during his tenure in Khagrachhari, no one came to the DC office to file any complaint about getting back land in the Tila.
Citing insurgency in the hill district, he said, "It is a political issue on which I shouldn't comment, but I can say if the nature of the problem is political, then the solution must be political."
The CHT Peace Accord was signed on December 2, 1997, between the Bangladesh government and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS).
The accord was signed by Abul Hasnat Abdullah on behalf of the government and Santu Larma on behalf of PCJSS.
The treaty ended a nearly two-decade-long conflict between Shanti Bahini and government forces over the insurgency.
Out of the 72 sections of the peace treaty, 48 have already been met and 15 have been partially implemented while nine others are in the process of implementation, according to the government.
As per the treaty, Shanti Bahini is supposed to submit all of their firearms and ammunition and go back to normal life.
But a number of them didn't submit their arms, rather they joined different insurgent groups, directly or indirectly controlled till date by two factions of PCJSS -- PCJSS main and PCJSS (reformist) and two factions of United People's Democratic Front -- UPDF main and UPDF democratic.
In the last two years (from January, 2018 to October, 2020), these insurgent groups had been involved in bloody clashes that claimed 97 lives -- 41 from UPDF main, five from UPDF democratic, nine from PCJSS main, 30 from PCJSS (reformist), two Bangalees, and eight others.
According to security forces, in between January 2014 and October 2020, about 376 people were killed by insurgent groups, of which 256 were from tribal communities and 120 were Bangalees.
Besides, security forces arrested around 1,596 hill people for their connections with insurgency across the CHT.
Time to time, Bangladesh Army had recovered heavy armaments like SMG rifles, LMG rifles, small arms, rocket launchers, IEDs, magazines, sharp tools, etc. from tribal insurgent groups during different operations in the entire CHT.
On last Saturday (November 28), a team from Army's Khagrachhari region recovered two AK-47 rifles, magazines, one TSMC (Arm processor), and 21 rounds of ammunition from a local terrorist group.
The cache of heavy arms and ammunition was recovered from the hilly areas of Bhuachhari in Sajek union of Rangamati district, according to a press release issued by Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR).
Widespread extortion by multiple and conflicting insurgent groups has become a big concern in three hill districts.
According to official estimations, at least Tk 3.5 billion to Tk 4.0 billion is generated as extortion which is allegedly used in funding and arming the insurgent groups.