The Government of Bangladesh, the Ministry of Home in particular, has come up with a set of directives concerning the indigenous people of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) that are contradictory to the 1997 Peace Accord and detrimental to the core values and spirit of the country's Liberation War and independence.
The directives came out of a meeting chaired by the state minister for home affairs held on January 7, minutes of which were issued as a memo on January 22. Ironically, two days after the meeting, the prime minister's adviser for international affairs told the media that the government was working sincerely for full implementation of the Accord. A week after the memo was issued the adviser was quoted to have urged all parties to shun mistrust and expedite implementation of the Accord.
The question is how was the call for building trust to take the political process forward if imposition of a set of rules marginalises the indigenous community? Is the call for trust just eyewash?
The meeting was reportedly held on the basis of a working paper produced by Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB). While presenting the report a senior official said: “There is no accountability of funds allocated in the name of development in CHT.” Endorsed by other officials, this led to a directive that the CHT Affairs Ministry be asked to solicit report on progress of implementation and result of UNDP-funded projects during the last 10 years worth $160 million.
It would be, however, more meaningful if the meeting had expanded the scope of this directive so that accountability and transparency were equally needed for all other projects.
Another directive gives authority to the security agencies and law enforcing authorities to conduct joint operations against outfits that are against the Accord and armed terrorist groups involved in extortion, murder, kidnapping, drug and arms smuggling. This is highly desirable in the interest of security, peace and stability of the region. But who is going to determine who are against the Accord and under what criteria?
One of the directives relates to the CHT Commission, an international civil society initiative to monitor progress of implementation of the CHT Peace Accord and enhance the capacity of stakeholders in this regard. The Commission has been working for a decade and a half with the knowledge of the government; on several occasions the Commission met with senior leaders of the government, including the present prime minister, to report on assessment of progress and recommend measures to implement the Accord. Never before did one hear this strange theory that it should be renamed dropping the term Commission. The proponents apparently confuse it with constitutional or such other bodies set up by the government, perhaps their position stems from the fact that the CHT Commission wants the government to deliver its stated pledge to fully implement the Accord and is sympathetic to the rights of the indigenous community. The objection to use commission in the name is also hilarious when examples are aplenty of similar initiatives called commission.
Foreign nationals travelling to CHT will require permission one month in advance from the home ministry upon clearance from intelligence agencies. They will additionally need to notify local administration and police authority about their visit. Diplomats will require permission from the foreign ministry. Anyone -- both nationals and non-nationals -- wanting to meet indigenous people must do so in the presence of officials of local administration, army and BGB. These are gross violations of the Constitution and highly discriminatory against the indigenous people, especially when no such restrictions exists elsewhere in Bangladesh. These are also unprecedented even in authoritarian regimes around the world.
The ministry has also come up with a prescription that a code of conduct be implemented for foreign nationals travelling to CHT. Leaving apart its implications for the government's international image, an obvious question is why such despotic rules defying an avowedly pro-liberation government that claims to be sincere about implementing the accord and establishing trust among communities?
Acquisitions by the BGB of land for their newly set up sector and battalion establishments should not violate the Hill District Local Government Council Amendment Act of 1998, and the basic land rights of indigenous people.
In another breach of the letter and spirit of the Accord, the police and Ansar authorities have taken the power to carry out phased transfer of former members of Shanti Bahini employed in these forces in CHT to other districts. While the Peace Accord stipulates a mixed police force consisting of indigenous and Bangali recruits, this move is bound to create further distrust about the government's commitment to implement the Accord.
Above all, the directives have been issued without any consultation with the regional councils, which is mandatory for any such decision of vital interest for the region. The only option for the government to nullify the perception that it has been grossly ill-advised is to withdraw the directives without any delay, and declare a specific time-bound road map to fully implement the CHT Peace Accord.
Iftekharuzzaman. Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).
Published on 5 March, 2015 in The Daily Star. Link