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Bangladesh Backgrounder

Since the late seventies, indigenous Chakma tribal rebels have been engaged in bush war with the Bangladesh Army in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in southeastern Bangladesh. The army had been brought in to protect Bengali settlers in the CHT area. Some 50,000 Chakmas fled to the neighbouring Indian State of Tripura in 1986, alleging brutality by the Bangladesh Army. The Chakmas continued to live there in refugee camps, from which the rebels known as the Shanti Bahini organised attacks against the army, the Police and Bengali settlers in the CHT. The tribals demanded regional autonomy for the CHT, the withdrawal of government troops and the resettlement of about 50,000 Bengalis outside the area. The insurgency in the CHT has left some 25,000 people dead.

The CHT Peace Accord

In December 1997, the Government of Bangladesh signed the CHT Peace Accord with the Parbattya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS) – the political forum of the hill tribes – ending 20 years of tribal insurgency. The CHT Accord provides a 22-member Regional Council – the Chairman and 14 members of which must be tribal people. The Regional Council has been entrusted with the task of maintaining law and order, levying taxes and overseeing development projects in the CHT area. The Parliament must now consult the Council on matters affecting tribal inhabitants of the CHT region. In 1998, a Ministry for CHT Affairs was created and a tribal leader, Kalpa Ranjan Chakma, was appointed Minister. In May 1999, Jyotirindro Bodhipriyo Larma, alias Shantu Larma, who led the insurgency movement, was appointed Chairman of the Interim Regional Council. The PCJSS abolished its armed wing Shanti Bahini and in November it emerged as a regional democratic party called United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF).

The danger of a resurgence of violence in the area is very real. Bangladesh’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies have rejected the CHT Accord as unconstitutional and as a threat to sovereignty, and have promised to scrap the agreement if they return to power. Differences between tribal groups have also begun to surface.

Isolated acts of terrorism perpetrated by CHT activists continue.On February 16, 2001, three foreign nationals - one British and two Danish engineers were abducted in the Naniarchar forests of the Rangamati Hill District, 14, 200 sq-km Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in the south-east region of Bangladesh, which borders India and Myanmar. While a second British national and their Bangladeshi driver were also abducted with the trio, the two were released to pass on the ransom demand for over $1.6 million (90 million taka). The abductors are suspected to be tribal insurgents of United People's Democratic Front (UPDF), the UPDF activists are former partners of Shanto Larma with whom the government signed the 1997 peace accord, the break-away faction opposes the 1997 peace accord which ended more than two decades of insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

With the release of the hostages on March 17, several facts have come to light. Diplomatic sources said that the foreign nationals were first abducted by a gang of bandits. Later a new group of abductors with sophisticated weapons took over. A released hostage revealed that the leader of the new group was a Chakma and a former 'Shantibahini officer'. Although some captors claimed that they are members of the UPDF, they are reported to have told the hostages later, that they do not have any political demands but only want money, which will go for the 'welfare of Chakma people'. Just as confusion surrounds the identity of the abductors, so is it with the 'commando raid' which reportedly freed the hostages. There are discrepancies in versions reported by the government, the press, and the released hostages. Speculation is rife that the abductors have been granted safe-passage and amnesty. This speculation is strengthened by the fact that before releasing the hostages, the abductors had added new demands besides the ransom - withdrawal of the military cordon around their suspected hideout, safe passage and exemption from all legal charges for the abduction.

Tribal insurgents are reported to have abducted foreigners before. In 1994, one foreigner was abducted and released without any ransom believed to be paid because of the rapid moves of the army. However, in 1984, the tribal gunmen in guise of Shantibahini insurgents had abducted a foreign national and the then government paid a ransom of ten million taka and 22 kg gold.






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