The fate of the Chittagong Hill Tracts tribes of Bangladesh

In breaking away from Pakistan, the founders of Bangladesh in 1971 proceeded top set up a “Bengali” state, but this ignored the fact that there were other peoples also living within the borders of the country. The tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts are an example of this. They have suffered terribly with tens of thousands being killed over the years, fighting back against national oppression.


Little is known about the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh with its 700,000 indigenous people. Situated in the south-eastern part of Bangladesh, the CHT occupies a physical area of 5,093 square miles, constituting 10 percent of the total land area of Bangladesh. The region comprises three districts: Rangamati, Khagrachari and Banderban. The area is important to the ‘policy planners’ of Bangladesh for strategic and economic reasons. It is surrounded by the Indian states of Tripura on the north and Mizoram on the east, by Burma on the south and east, and by the Chittagong district on the west. The ongoing insurgency in the Indian northeast and Burma increases the CHT's importance for the military strategists of Bangladesh. The region is also rich in natural resources. Gas, coal, and copper deposits have been found in the Miani Reserve Forest.

The Jogigofa Union (local administrative unit) located in the Khagrachari and the Rangamati district is presumed to hold oil deposits. The Bangladesh Government, however, have not been able to exploit the resources due to local insurgency.

CHT’s present-day incorporation within Bangladesh is the historical product of the post-1860 British advance to the east and northeast of Bengal, in order to provide a buffer zone for its burgeoning Indian empire. This artificial boundary demarcation prefigured the political separation of the CHT at the end of British rule, in 1947, from Burma to the south, and the Indian states of Tripura and Mizoram to the north and east. Despite their close ethno-cultural affinities with other peoples of Sino-Tibetan origin in these states, and the lack of ethnic or religious identity with Bengalis, the eleven diverse ethnic groups ‑ Bawm, Chak, Chakma, Khami, Kheyang, Lushai, Marma, Mrung, Pankho, Tanchangya and Tripura found themselves instead in (East) Pakistan and after 1971 in Bangladesh. The tribes are commonly known as Jummas, the term of collective self-identification used by the people.

The two largest tribes, the 350,000-strong Chakma and the Marma, are both Buddhist, while other tribes are Hindu, Christian or practice their own religions. The Hill Tracts are rugged and steep, making it difficult to grow food. To make best use of the land, the Jumma tribes practise a form of ‘shifting cultivation’ or ‘slash and burn’ cultivation, growing food in small parts of their territory, before moving on to another area and allowing the land to recover. This is known locally as ‘Jhum’ cultivating, the origin of the term ‘Jumma’. The Mrung people live further away from the other Jumma peoples, on the hill-tops. They generally live in houses built on tall stilts.

These peaceable hills have been subject to an extraordinary violence, which in turn evoked a violent response. Between 1980 and 1997, almost 10,000 people are known to have died in the low-intensity war which ravaged the already damaged environment and culture of the Jummas. A number of concerned Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have closely monitored their situation and in more than one instance have unequivocally accused the Bangladeshi government of committing genocide against the Jummas. The influx of Bengali settlers from the plains in the 1970s upset the demographic balance, and made the traditional jhum (slash and burn) cultivation no longer sustainable. It became highly militarised; 70,000 people crossed the border to India and 60,000 more were internally displaced by massacres, burnings and evictions. Survival International, which works for tribal peoples worldwide, has noted their extreme plight claiming a figure of 125,000 fatalities since 1947. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has spoken of “the calculated annihilation of the tribals”. In 1984 the Anti-Slavery Society forecast that genocide would result if nothing was done.

Political Development

Bangladesh attained independence from Pakistan on December 16, 1971, after a nine-month war of liberation. The war was intensely nationalistic and was manifested in the culture and language of the Bengalis within the state of Pakistan. The Bangladeshi nationalist movement and liberation war were both predicated on the ideals of Bengali nationalism.

The Awami League became the main champion and mouthpiece of the Bengalis, on whose deprivations and demands the entire movement was based. The Chittagong Hill Tracts, though constituting part of East Pakistan at the time, was never incorporated within the equation. While the Awami League may not have considered that the CHT merited separate attention, the Hill people were nevertheless politically, culturally, and linguistically distinct and could not identify with the Bengali movement for autonomy and later for independence. Because the resources of the CHT had been exploited for the development of East Pakistan, the demands and expectations of the Hill people would have been quite different from those of the Bengalis.

The Awami League did not have any representation from the CHT, nor did its leadership ever visit the CHT during its political campaigns. During the course of the liberation war, some CHT youths did join the armed movement. Moreover, the chief of the Chakma tribe had sided with the Pakistani army during the war, an act the Bengalis viewed with suspicion. Following the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the Mukti Bahini (Bengali Liberation Forces) raided the houses and jungles of the CHT in search of Pakistani soldiers and collaborators alleged to be hiding in the area. Alarmed at these developments, the Hill people sought constitutional safeguards for their protection and recognition as a separate community within the new state.

Maulana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujib leading a protest march in 1953.Maulana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujib leading a protest march in 1953. As Bangladesh proceeded with the framing of its state constitution, a Hill people's delegation, led by Manobendra Narayan Larma, called on Sheikh Mujibur (Mujib) Rahman, the then prime minister and made the following demands:

  • Autonomy for the CHT with its own legislature;
  • Retention of the 1900 CHT Manual;[1]
  • Continuation of the offices of tribal chiefs;
  • Provisions restricting the amendment of the CHT Manual and imposing a ban on the influx of non-tribal people into the CHT.

Mujib rejected the demands, advising the Hill people to assimilate with the new, nationalist Bengali identity. Mujib backed his advice with a threat to effectively marginalize the Hill people by sending Bengalis into the region. The constitution of Bangladesh, adopted on November 4, 1972, incorporated the ideals of Bengali nationalism to the exclusion of the state's non-Bengali population. In its preamble, reiterated in Article 8, the constitution accepted “nationalism”, “socialism”, “democracy” and “secularism”.

M.N.Larma, leader of Hill people’s delegation, refused to endorse the constitution and argued against it in Parliament:

“You cannot impose your national identity on others. I am a Chakma not a Bengali. I am a citizen of Bangladesh, Bangladeshi. You are also Bangladeshi but your national identity is Bengali… They [Hill people] can never become Bengali.”

Larma's contentions failed to make any impact on the Bengali policymakers. As a state, Bangladesh was the outcome of an intensely nationalist movement, and Bengali nationalism was seen by policymakers as all encompassing. Having successfully led the country to independence, the Awami League could perceive the dangers of secession inherent within such demands for autonomy.

Article 1 of the constitution declared Bangladesh to be a unitary state, ruling out any possibility of a separate legislature or autonomy for the CHT. Article 3 specified Bengali as the state language, and Article 6 declared that the citizens of Bangladesh were to be known as “Bengalis” These provisions aggrieved the minority communities and were seen as clear acts of the state's identification and patronization of the dominant community at the cost of minorities.

Discrimination and marginalization of CHT tribes

State economic policies undertaken in the CHT have led to wide-scale displacement of the Hill people and disruption of their lives. The policies have alienated the local population from resources they traditionally consider common property.

Persecuted Jumma peoplePersecuted Jumma people To accelerate the process of so called industrialization in what was then East Pakistan, the government undertook to harness the water resources of the CHT by constructing a hydroelectric plant on the Karnafuli River in Rangamati. Between 1957 and 1962, with US financial and technical assistance, a huge lake was created to the north and east of a barrage at Kaptai village. No social impact study of the project was made prior to the dam's construction, which would have far-reaching consequences for the Hill people. The dam submerged 400 square miles of ground ‑ 40 percent of the district's total area. 100,000 people were made homeless, half of whom migrated to India as refugees. Many are still living in India as stateless persons. The Hill people did not benefit vocationally from the construction, as employment opportunities created by the project were taken up by Bengalis. While the Hill people claim that they were promised free electricity, today few areas in the Hills have electricity.

The Hill people's interaction with the forests is rooted in their economic, cultural, and often religious beliefs and constitutes an integral and vital part of their lives. Traditionally, forest resources were put to domestic use, with the forest environment itself providing living habitats. The Hill people considered these sites not only their common property but also the locus of their ancestors’ spirits. Utmost care was taken for their conservation and renewal, including jhum (slash-and-burn) cultivation.

The first attack on the Hill people's customary rights over the forests and forest resources came during the British colonial period, when the notion of social forestry changed to commercial forestry. In 1865, the Indian Forest Reserve Act, which was passed ostensibly to protect the forests, barred local people from entering them and using their resources. But it was to meet the requirements of the imperial railway companies that forest resources needed protection ‑ to ensure a steady supply of wood for making railway sleepers or ties.

In 1875, the British colonialists introduced two types of forests: reserve forests (RFs) and district forests (DFs). The RFs were put entirely under the management of the forest department; jhum cultivation and any use of forest resources were prohibited. The DFs were put under the direct control of the deputy commissioner; jhum cultivation and the use of forest produce for domestic purposes were allowed, with certain restrictions that the deputy commissioner might impose from time to time. The state also granted high quality forest land to European entrepreneurs for plantation. Tea, coffee, and orange plantations were established in the 1860s and teak plantations in the 1870s.

This exclusion of the local population from the forest resources continued in the postcolonial state of Pakistan as well. In the current situation the Bangladeshi government have continued the colonialist policies regarding the forest resources of CHT. The appropriation of land as RF has marginalized the Hill people in various ways ‑ through displacement, loss of rights, criminalization, disempowerment of women, and environmental degradation.

The declaration of a forest as RF effectively displaces the indigenous population. In practice, the government does not provide alternative land areas to this displaced population. Consequently, they live as internally displaced persons (IDPs) with all the traumas and hazards associated with homelessness. With the loss of lands and rights to resources traditionally available to them, and with no alternative means of livelihood, the Hill people are forced to enter the RF illegally as “thieves”. For instance, most of the lands of the Kheyang tribe have been taken over as RF. The remaining 4,000 Kheyangs live as displaced people in the Banderban district of the CHT, and many of the men have arrest warrants for allegedly “encroaching” upon the RF.

Under the jhum system, women enjoyed a more or less equal position with men in terms of work distribution, which was a source of their empowerment. Women used forest resources for cooking, fuel, and traditional medicines made from roots and leaves. With the loss of access to traditional resources, women in some Hill societies, such as the Kheyangs, must perform both private and public chores to sustain their families.

Plantation and logging have marginalized the population who depend on these resources. It has also degraded the environment and undermined the soil quality of the forests. The replacement of natural forests with commercial or industrial plantations has damaged the environment. The Hill people have been suffering from the devastating effects of logging by the state and private enterprise, often illegal, for years. Forest products are used for industrial production ‑ timber, bamboo and firewood are extracted from the forests of the CHT. Logging has resulted in the removal of natural forest cover and caused irreparable damage to the soil and environment. The Hill people claim that private individual and gangs, often in collusion with forest department officials and the military, have carried out illegal logging in the CHT.

Land Alienation

Land alienation of the Hill people accelerated after the independence of Bangladesh due to the state-sponsored Bengali settlement programme. By the mid-1970s, a full-blown insurgency had erupted in the CHT under the leadership of the United People's Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (PCJSS), with its military wing, the Shanti Bahini (SB), Peace Corp, actively aided by the Indian government. In 1979, the government rescinded restrictions against settling non-residents on CHT lands. According to one estimate, approximately 400,000 Bengalis were settled in the CHT between 1980 and 1984.

A secret Shanti Bahini camp, May 5, 1994. Photo by Biplob Rahman.A secret Shanti Bahini camp, May 5, 1994. Photo by Biplob Rahman. The Shanti Bahini, from its formation in 1973, not only violently challenged the state but did so with the covert assistance of India, which, after its initial patronage of Bangladesh, had turned into its main enemy. The government adopted a counter-insurgency strategy, the Bengali settlement programme, resulted in large-scale land alienation of the Hill people, with far-reaching implications not only for the Hill people themselves, but also for relations between the Hill people and Bengalis.

India’s support for the Shanti Bahini is not a genuine support for the rights of the CHT peoples. India has its own insurgency problem in its north-eastern states. Some of these north-eastern states want full political autonomy from India. Providing military training to the SB and aiding them with weapons, India is creating political chaos within the CHT, without it achieving the status of autonomous region. The establishment of an autonomous region in the CHT would motivate the insurgents’ demand for political freedom in India’s own north-eastern states. Thus we see how the local power, India, uses a minority population in its neighbouring country, not to defend their genuine rights, but as pawns to defend its wider interests.

Against this backdrop, India made its own calculations and decided to support the Hill people's movement. SB headquarters were established in Tripura, and SB personnel were trained and armed by the Indian military. India was indirectly involved as well, through the flow of refugees from the CHT into Tripura. The externalization of the CHT issue made India a party to the escalation as well as de-escalation of the conflict.

By the mid-1970s, the SB had started a full-scale insurgency in the Hills. It first attacked a convoy of the Bangladeshi military in the CHT in 1977. The brazen nature of the attack, coupled with the fact that the SB was operating with Indian assistance, greatly alarmed the Bangladeshi military.

The government responded by undertaking a full-scale military solution to the political problems of CHT. The general commanding officer of the Chittagong division was charged with administration of the CHT. The Bangladeshi military counter-attacked Shanti Bahini raids with mass reprisals on villages and with the detention, torture and often Central American style “disappearance” of thousands of targeted jumma teachers, students and civil servants. On March 25, 1980, at the village of Kaokhali Bazar, west of Rangamati, a junior army officer using the pretext of a Shanti Bahini ambush of an army unit some weeks earlier, ordered tribal elders from the area to meet to discuss matters of law and order, and then proceeded, without warning or provocation, to have his soldiers gun down everybody in the village. The genocide was extended to 24 neighbouring villages, resulting in between 200 and 300 deaths, all of unarmed men, women and children. Mass rape and mutilation, including of nuns and monks, accompanied this sequence, as did the ritual desecration and/or destruction of Buddhist and Hindu temples. The participation of local police and Bengali settlers in these atrocities suggested its close pre-planning.

Shanti Bahini raids were certainly recognised primarily as a pretext for operations which included the ethnic cleansing of whole districts to make way for Bengali settlers. In the summer of 1983, for instance, helicopter gunship bombing in the Panchari area to push out jumma villagers was supported by para-military Ansars (auxiliaries). In army reprisals the following year, Ansars again figured prominently in scorched earth operations which left hill people either dead or starving. As on previous occasions, mass rape, especially of young girls, often accompanied by their mutilation and/or subsequent murder, was a persistent and prevalent atrocity. Its purpose, as previously perpetrated on Bengalis by the Pakistani army in 1971, was clearly to defile and punish whole communities.

Resorting to divide-and-rule strategies, the military co-opted certain Hill people and established various indigenous organizations, thereby polarizing the community. Forests were cleared in the name of counter-insurgency, compounding the degradation of an already fragile environment.

Peace Deal

Begum Khaleda Zia, former Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Photo by Antônio Milena/ABr.Begum Khaleda Zia, former Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Photo by Antônio Milena/ABr. The collapse of the military regime in Bangladesh in 1992 led to its replacement by the first civilian government under Begum Khaleda Zia. There were some illusions at the time that this would open up prospects for a legal jumma participation in the emerging bourgeois democratic regime. This changing political climate contributed to persuading the Shanti Bahini to declare a unilateral ceasefire in August 1992, although some have speculated that a more likely cause was the intense international pressure upon the new government to engage in talks with the PCJSS (United People's Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts).

When Sheikh Hasina (the daughter of Sheik Mujib) of the Awami League became Prime Minister in 1996, she promised to end the insurgency. After seven rounds of talks, the PCJSS and the government signed a peace accord in December 1997 to end the two-decade long rebellion that had cost over 25,000 lives.

The agreement provided some measure of autonomy for the Chittagong tribes. The region is governed by a local council, the majority of whose members are tribals. The current chairman of the council is the leader of the PCJSS. The council's responsibilities include maintaining public administration, law and order and promoting development. The Shanti Bahini was disbanded in 1998 and the PCJSS subsequently became a political party. Some PCJSS members believe that the peace agreement does not adequately address issues such as the status of the Bengali settlers.

With 85,000 troops in the region, regular fighting despite the supposed ceasefire with the Shanti Bahini, continued maltreatment and killing of jumma, including three massacres after the advent of “civilian” rule, one of them, at Logang village, Khagrachari, in April 1992, the largest single massacre of all, military, if not government intransigence against compromise has remained the rule. In fact, the main superficial difference compared with previous years has been the Bangladesh military operation of its anti-jumma campaign behind proxy bodies. One of these is the Parbatya Gana Parishad, the Hill Tracts People’ s Council, a militant organisation for defending Bengali settlers, largely recruited from membership of the fundamentalist Jamat-e-Islami party. Another is the so-called Tiger Force, a militia composed of Marma and Mru tribesmen, whose traditional rivalries with the Chakma, and hence Chakma dominated PCJSS, are clearly exploitable. Not that it has stopped the military intervening on its own account. On the very day of the June 1996 elections, Kalpana Chakma, the young and popular organising secretary of the CHT Women’ s Federation, was abducted from her home in Baghaichari by military personnel. Although the government promised an enquiry, Kalpana Chakma has not been seen since.

In July 2009 Bangladesh ordered troops to pull out from the CHT region 12 years after signing a peace deal. The Defence Ministry of Bangladesh in a statement promised withdrawal of troops would start immediately and all the 35 camps under three infantry brigades would be completely wound up by the end of September 2009.


The Bangladesh state has employed a range of genocidal strategies in dealing with the CHT problem. These included the militarisation of the whole region, swamping it with Bengali immigrants, placing the jummas in cluster villages under military surveillance and denying them access to the commons and forests to sustain their livelihood and life integrity, persistent human rights violations, including disappearances, repeated rape, vandalisation and desecration of religious (especially Buddhist) sites and shrines, destruction of villages and property, physical and mental abuse of individuals, repeated killings, especially though not exclusively of known jumma activists, leaders, professionals, monks and nuns, and finally some 13 major massacres extended over the period 1980 to 1993. These actions taken together would certainly constitute genocide within the meaning of the 1948 Convention.

Bangladesh Army move into a Jumma townBangladesh Army move into a Jumma town PCJSS as a movement has suffered from ideological weaknesses. It was dependent on India for its base of operation and material support. At the same time, the party knew that India would not support an independent CHT state, given the separatist movements afoot in India's north-eastern states. The objective of the Indian state was to keep pressure on the Bangladeshi state to dissuade it from supporting India's north eastern insurgents. Ideologically, Jumma nationalism remained a petty bourgeois movement, as the PCJSS wanted to retain the CHT Manual of 1900, which had created a chieftain-based administrative system for the CHT. The movement also remained dominated by the Chakma tribe. Consequently, the smaller groups, though supporting the PCJSS cause, preferred to be identified with their own generic names rather than with Jumma. Even within the Chakma, the educated professional group thought that jhum was an occupational category that could not be the basis of a people's identity.

Indigenous peoples in the South Asian subcontinent and beyond have been the subject of received wisdoms largely emanating from 19th century anthropologists. These refer to the “tribe”, itself a patronising and problematic term which stereotypes them as the remnant or residue of the oldest, most primitive elements of humankind. This depiction, on the one hand, has them “closer to nature” and even “noble” in their savagery, but on the other, it demotes them to the bottom of the civilised heap, as backward but marginal obstacles in the path of progress. This essentially Western bourgeois view is, however, closely mirrored in a Bengali counterpart. In this, the “innocence” and “naivety”, of the hill tribes is clearly indicated by jhuming, the shifting cultivation using slash and burn techniques traditionally practiced in the CHT forests. The alleged evolutionary gap between this “inefficient” economic mode and the more “advanced” plough cultivation of the plains in turn provides the rationale for a specifically Bengali version, in which the childlike and jungle natives are offered the guiding, not to say uplifting, hand of their more sophisticated neighbours as they are introduced to the benefits of civilisation and modernity, with the aid of machine guns and other such niceties, of course. The rapacious interests of capitalism mean that the tribal cultures are doomed in the face of “modernity” and that survival for their members is dependent on their rapid abandonment of their traditional ways of life. Following this outlook, the destruction of native societies is presented as inevitable.

The fact is that capitalism has utterly failed to solve any of the problems facing all the masses of Bangladesh, of whatever ethnic group they may be. In fact it has brought them only further misery. There is no strong leadership in either the PCJSS or the government to provide a clear programme for a solution to the CHT. Even if they do manage a “solution”, just as the present one, it would only be a temporary patch, which would be very short lived, fragile and chaotic. Its demise will usher in greater conflict and perhaps even a ferocious and more radical movement of the masses. In spite of the vacuum on the left and the pathetic capitulation of both the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to Islamic fundamentalism, the obscurantists are not strong enough to sway the movement in their direction. The trade unions are also, unfortunately, weak (less than 1% of workers are unionised).

Now the task mainly rests on the shoulders of the Communist Party, the Workers' Party and different socialist parties to break asunder the myth of this farcical bourgeois democracy and present a clear revolutionary programme to the masses of Bangladesh including the Jumma people. An imperialist dominated, semi-feudal, semi-capitalist Bangladesh cannot solve this problem. The peoples of the CHT cannot solve the problem on their own. They require the unity of all working and oppressed people. A Socialist Bangladesh, within a wider Socialist Federation of the South Asian Subcontinent, would have the resources to meet the needs of all the peoples who inhabit this part of the world.

[1] In 1881, the British Colonialist government of Bengal divided the CHT into three circles—Chakma, Bohmang, and Mong—each of which was placed under the administration of a government-appointed chief. In 1900, the government promulgated the CHT Manual, which detailed rules and regulations for administration of the CHT, and placed the region under the administration of a deputy commissioner, who presided over all civil, criminal, and jurisdictional matters. The circle chiefs retained power over customary matters but were formed into an advisory council primarily to assist the deputy commissioner. The Hill people remained largely unaffected by these developments, since their local structures were not altered

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