In July 2014, Herv́e Ladsous, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) paid a three-day visit to Bangladesh. This was supposedly the highest-level visit to the country from the DPKO yet, and signified not only the importance of peacekeeping operations to Bangladesh, but also the DPKO’s interest in further nurturing the relationship. Through this symbiotic relationship, Bangladesh benefits economically from the earnings of its peacekeepers. It also keeps the military’s nose out of the country’s internal political matters, and projects a positive image of the country’s armed forces to the rest of the world. The UN, meanwhile, profits from employing peacekeepers with a credible reputation. Indeed, many commentators argue that political elites, the military, civil society and the international community all benefit from Bangladesh’s involvement in UN peacekeeping operations.
Political developments in recent years seem to support these observations. While in 2007 the military intervened when the two major political groups – the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Awami League (AL) – involved themselves in election-related violence, in late 2013 and early 2014 the military remained quietly watchful, contenting itself with providing the necessary security support on election day, and maintaining a safe distance from partisan involvement in the violence and blockades that brought the country to a virtual standstill for months. It may be safely assumed that the military did not want anything to damage its international image and its future peacekeeping prospects.
This unwillingness to intervene hasn’t always been the case. The independent country’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was killed in a coup in 1975, after which General Ziaur Rahman became president in 1977. Rahman was killed in an aborted military coup in 1981, and was succeeded (after a brief period in which the country was ruled by Adbus Sattar) by General H M Ershad, who assumed power in 1982 and retained it until 1990. Political analyst Syeed Ahamed termed the domination of civil and military bureaucrats over the decision-making structures of the state a ‘marriage of convenience’.
Given this history, the actions of the military during the reign of the 2007-08 caretaker government are inconceivable without considering the threat of restrictions placed on the military’s participation in UN peacekeeping missions. As academics Rashed Uz Zaman and Niloy Ranjan Biswas write, “the military’s complete takeover would have raised serious questions about its credibility in imposing democratic and legitimate governments in other parts of the world under UN auspices.” Despite the fact that the military-backed caretaker government of 2007-08 was the most significant military intervention in national politics in recent times, talk of setting up a National Security Council (possibly along the lines of the one in Pakistan), was dropped, arguably as a result of peacekeeping concerns.
While of late the army has, very clearly, been conscious of damaging its democratic and humanitarian credentials, this discretion has not inhibited its continued presence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The military was deployed to the CHT in the mid-1970s when an indigenous insurgency began in the area as a reaction to a constitution that failed to recognize the distinct identity of those in the CHT, as well as policies that encouraged cultural assimilation. After two decades of violence characterized by massacres and targeted rapes of indigenous women by the military, a ‘Peace’ Accord was finally signed in December 1997. The Accord demanded the rebels surrender their arms in exchange for a general amnesty, and, among other things, stipulated the removal of all temporary military camps from the CHT – a region which occupies over 10 percent of Bangladesh’s land mass. Although the rebels fulfilled their part of the bargain in a grand ceremony with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and although the military, at certain points in time, claimed to have dismantled some of their temporary camps, the overall presence of the army remains strong. Not only does the military continue its role in providing ‘stability’ (despite being accused of fomenting communal attacks on indigenous people), it is also involved in development work and owns a number of commercial tourism projects in the CHT.
An insidious presence
The deployment of the military in the CHT in the mid-1970s resulted in attacks on indigenous villages, as well as sexual abuse, detention, torture and disappearances. There was a near media blackout at the time, and even today, there has been no official, state or military acknowledgement of the massacres committed by security forces in the CHT.
Beyond everyday violence, the government also implemented a transmigration program to change the ethnic make-up of the CHT irreversibly. In the late 1970s they brought in poor, landless Bengali people from the plains with the promise of land to till and free food rations. In an article in the Daily Star, the then Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong (1978-81) expressed his shock at the decision of the military government, saying that they were “transporting civilians to the mouth of this Vesuvius”. These ‘settlers’ were strategically placed in guchcha grams (cluster villages), firstly to occupy land belonging to the indigenous people, and secondly to allow the military to maneuver themselves through the areas comfortably. Today, the presence of these settlers is one of the biggest causes of friction in the CHT. This, along with the fact that major clauses of the 1997 Accord are yet to be implemented (‘temporary’ military camps remain, while land disputes are ongoing) have meant that rights violations and violence continues.
In recent years, there have been a number of arson attacks on the homes of indigenous people in the CHT. The biggest attack took place in Sajek in February 2010, when a few hundred homes were burned to the ground. Several allegations were made against the military at the time, accusing them of protecting the arsonists and shooting two indigenous hill persons. The European Union aired their concerns about the military’s role in the tragedy, and was blasted by political groups for doing so. The matter was quickly buried and forgotten, and the impunity of the military was strengthened.
The military in the CHT still operates under the mandate of Operation Uttaran (upliftment), originally implemented as an anti-insurgency policy that sought to win ‘hearts and minds’. While the delivery of development is questionable, there still remains anywhere between 300-500 military camps. Foreigners must declare their presence before they arrive, while the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence is known to tail development workers, human-rights activists and journalists, heightening the securitization of the area. The military, on its part, justifies its presence in the CHT on a number of counts, including: military threats from India and Burma (this does not explain their presence in areas of the CHT which are not on the border); resolving ethnic conflict and conflict between Jumma or indigenous political groups (there is only evidence of the military giving protection to settlers); and to carry out development work under Operation Uttaran (the details of which are unavailable to the public).
The role of the army in controlling and ‘stabilizing’ the region portends future riches for the state: areas of the CHT are known to have huge quantities of untapped natural resources. Discussions are ongoing concerning the exploration of oil and gas in the area. Along with this, there is continuing work to expand the presence of the armed forces and border guards within the region. The military’s aspiration to have a permanent presence in the CHT is ably expressed in an article published on the 16th anniversary of the signing of the CHT Accord. In what should be seen as contradictory to the Accord itself, the writer, a directing staff at Defense Services Command and Staff College, says that “much of the journey still lies ahead”, and claims that the military has a “long journey towards sustainable peace in CHT”. This ‘sustainable peace’ is likely to coincide with the military’s business interests.
The military’s long arm also reaches the local and national media. Apart from carrying out its own PR in national newspapers and preventing counter articles from being published, the military is known to intimidate local journalists writing about the CHT. The enactment in August of the National Broadcast Policy 2014 puts draconian restrictions on the airing of anything that is considered ‘demeaning’ to the armed forces, law enforcement agencies and government officials. The policy imposes restrictions on airing news or any programs that “pose [a] threat to national security and sovereignty” or “could appear satirical to national ideology, the armed forces and law enforcement agencies”. This media blackout adds another layer to the impunity already enjoyed by security forces, allowing these forces to commit rights violations throughout the country, especially in the CHT.
Within the national narrative, 25 March is a very important date. The West Pakistan Army began Operation Searchlight on this day in 1971, an operation that systematically killed unarmed Bengalis of the then East Pakistan. This led to the declaration of the War of Independence. But 25 March is also an important date in the CHT. On that day in 1980, the Bangladesh military killed around 200-300 unarmed Jummas in Kaukhali, Rangamati. While the first date is rightfully remembered with due respect and solemnity around the country, the second is quietly buried and forgotten. The history of the ‘others’ is not important for us. As Naeem Mohaiemen writes, “The bloody history of the hills delineates a continuing contradiction between our history of liberation from Pakistan (Ekattur), and our replication of that same hegemony (language, security, regional autonomy) on our Jumma citizens.”
The attitude of many within Bangladesh towards the militarization of the CHT is yet to change. A number of justifications are given for the continuing presence and expansion of the military there, and the Awami League apparently feels no remorse for celebrating its ‘success’ in signing an Accord that it failed to implement. The international community too looks away. While the DPKO has shown a tough stand on sexual violence committed by peacekeepers on the job, and generally concerns itself with the democratic credibility of those it employs, it has chosen to ignore questions concerning the record of the Bangladesh Army in the CHT. Those questions are worth asking.
~Hana Shams Ahmed is an activist. The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in Himal Southasian, a leading publication of Nepal. Click here to go to the original.