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SREBRNIK: An obscure part of South Asia

Henry Srebrnik
Henry Srebrnik - Contributed

There are places in the world so relatively obscure that few people other than those who live there are aware they exist, but that doesn’t make them any less important.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts in the far southeastern corner of Bangladesh is one such region.

It has a diverse population, quite different from the rest of Bangladesh, which is almost uniformly Bengali Muslim. Its inclusion in the Muslim state called Pakistan that was born at the 1947 partition of India has also led to problems for its peoples, who are mostly Buddhists and Hindus.

Covering 13,295 square kilometres, the Hill Tracts are the only extensively hilly area in Bangladesh. It shares borders with Myanmar on the south and southeast, India on the north and northeast, and the Chittagong district of Bangladesh on the west.

Home to eleven indigenous ethnic groups, the largest being the Chakma, they are collectively known as the Jumma people.

They historically have lived a relatively semi-autonomous existence under first Mughal and then later British imperialism. They were governed by semi-autonomous local chieftains or minor “princes” as British administrators dubbed them.

At the time of partition in 1947, the inhabitants of the Hill Tracts opted to join secular India rather than Muslim-majority Pakistan but, for complex reasons, ended up in the latter.

This population, numbering some 500,000, is different from the majority Bengali people of Bangladesh in language, culture, heritage, religion, political history, and economy. 

They are closer to their Southeast Asian neighbours in Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia and speak Tibeto-Burmese dialects rather than Bengali.

Such ethnic and religious differences have been a source of conflict in the region. The peoples of the Hill Tracts have suffered violence and human rights violations, including the destruction of Buddhist and Hindu temples, forced conversion to Islam, rape and massacre.

Many peoples in the area have objected to the influx of Muslim Bengali settlers. While in 1961 there were 40 mosques and two madrasas in the region, by 1981, there were 592 mosques and 35 madrasas.

Widespread resentment also occurred over the displacement of some 100,000 of the native peoples due to the construction of the Kaptai Dam in 1962. It inundated nearly 40 per cent of their cultivatable land.

They did not receive compensation from the government and many thousands fled to India. 

The 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh required “Bengaliness” to be the prime identity for its citizens, effectively sidelining minority indigenous groups like the Chakmas. Chakma leader Manabendra Narayan Larma refused to be identified with the Bangladeshi nation.

An armed struggle between the Shanti Bahini insurgents made up mostly of Chakmas, and the government only ended in 1997 with the signing of the Chittagong Hills Tract Peace Accord. 

It provided recognition of the region as a tribal-inhabited area, introducing a special governance system. This was regarded as the cornerstone of a new period of peaceful coexistence between the inhabitants of the Chittagong Hills Tracts and Bangladesh.

But the lack of implementation of the main provisions in the accord has led to an increase in tensions between the central government and the indigenous communities. These derive in particular from the presence of the Bangladesh military in the region.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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