Violence rocks hill tracts: A thirty-year-old dispute over land rights between Bengali settlers and the tribals of Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh escalated last month. Two tribals were killed in army firing and tribal homes in 11 villages of Rangamati district were burnt, allegedly by the army and settlers on February 20.
The hill districts of the region—Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban—are home to tribal communities like the Chakmas and Marmas. They have been fighting the Bengali-speaking people since the government started settling them in the region in 1978. The tribals raised an armed militia, Shanti Bahini, to fight the army. A peace accord in 1997 between the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina and the tribals, granting them limited autonomy, could not be implemented as rival political parties opposed it. Tension resurfaced in January this year when the tribals of Retkaba village in Baghaichhari subdivision of Rangamati gave a memorandum to the authorities seeking return of land taken by settlers.
The violence escalated on February 19 when 33 tribal homes in Retkaba and Gangaraam Mukh were burnt. The next day a tribal attacked an army sergeant with a machete during a demonstration. Army men retaliated by opening fire that killed two and then reportedly proceeded to set fire to tribal homes around Gangaraam Mukh. Three days later riots started in Khagrachhari town. The authorities clamped a curfew. “The tribal people are afraid to return home and are hiding in the forests,” said Purnomaas Bhikkhu, a tribal who fled to Dhaka. Chairman of Baghaichhari subdivision Sudarshan Chakma said the authorities are trying to bring the tribals home. Out of 500 affected families identified, 390 have been given Tk 1,000 and 20 kg rice.