Armed conflict from the mid 1970s to 1997 in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in Bangladesh displaced a substantial part of the local population. Of a total CHT population of almost one million (1991 census), the Government CHT Task Force estimated that 128,000 persons remained internally displaced as of July 2000 (IFRC July 2000).
Prior to the creation of Bangladesh as a state in 1971, the population in the CHT was mainly composed of 13 different indigenous tribes, commonly called the Jumma people (UNPO 1997). The indigenous population is predominantly Buddhist and their culture and social customs differ from the rest of the Bangladesh population. Until the 1960s, the CHT enjoyed a high degree of autonomy with little interference from the ruling governments (AI 2000, section 2).
Conflict over land together with the pressure for assimilation into the majority culture of Bangladesh constituted the background to the armed conflict (AI, 2000, section 2). Since the 1960's, and particularly after the creation of Bangladesh, the Government resettled landless and poor peasant Muslim Bengalis from the densely populated and land scarce delta region, in the CHT. Often, the local tribal population was evicted from their land. An armed indigenous group, Shanti Bahini, waged a low-level conflict in the CHT from the early 1970's. The government responded by forcefully imposing its strategy of "Bengalizing" the CHT until a peace agreement came into effect in December 1997 (AI February 2000). In addition to a fast growing military presence in the region, Bengali settlers were also mobilised against the indigenous population. During this period, the demography of the CHT changed drastically: from constituting only 9 percent of the population in the CHT in 1947, the non-tribal percentage increased to almost 50 percent in the last census of 1991 (UNPO 1997).
Information about uprooting of the indigenous population varies. Amnesty International states that more than 50 per cent of the indigenous population were forced to leave or fled massacres, arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial executions (AI, 2000, section 1), while USCR more carefully estimates that some 64,000 Jumma people sought refuge in India while more than 60,000 others became internally displaced (USCR 2000).
After more than two decades of armed conflict, a Peace Accord which granted the CHT a higher degree of self-governance, was signed in 1997 between the Government of Bangladesh and the main organization of the indigenous people, PCJSS. Since then, the Bangladesh Government maintains that virtually all problems in the CHT have been solved. (UNCERD 30 May 2000, UNHCHR 14 August 2000).
However, although the Accord paved the way for the return of Jummas who had sought refuge in India, it did not resolve the problem of internal displacement in the CHT. The land issue remains at the core of the current problems. While property rights of the tribal population have been regulated by local traditions and not registered in public records, the Bengali settlers obtained official documents certifying their ownership of the land. After the Peace Accord, the Bengali settlers were dispossessed of land previously belonging to returning Jumma refugees and their papers were considered invalid. Many Bengali settlers were therefore relocated several times upon return of the Jumma refugees, and in some cases made landless. According to figures from the government CHT Task Force, some 38,000 non-tribal people had become internally displaced in 2000 (IFRC, July 2000). However, PCJSS do not consider non-tribal people internally displaced and demands that they be relocated outside the CHT (RAWOO 2000).
Not surprisingly, many Bengali settlers, backed by the military and the main opposition party in Bangladesh, refused to give up the land to the returning Jumma refugees. Based on available figures, it may be suggested that about 30,000 persons have not been able to regain possession of their land - thus making them internally displaced upon return to the CHT (AI February 2000, section 5.2).
For the estimated 60,000 Jumma people who remained internally displaced within the CHT during the conflict, the situation is still unresolved. While at least half of the refugees got their land back upon return from India, the large majority of the internally displaced are awaiting their case to solved by a land commission that was created as part of the Peace Accord. The work of the land commission has not yet started. The internally displaced are therefore left in the same situation as when the Accord was signed more than three years ago.
Apart from the land question, other parts of the Accord remain to be implemented, the most serious being that most of the non-permanent army camps have not been closed down. Opposition to the Peace Accord both within the Jumma society and from the Bangladesh opposition party, BNP, further hampers a solution to the problem of internal displacement in the CHT (AI February 2000, section 2). The tribal population is reportedly still victims of human rights abuses by Bangladesh security forces (UNCERD 22 March 2001).
Very limited information is available about the current situation of the internally displaced in the CHT. Although the conflict in the CHT caught the attention of the international community and the Peace Accord was generally well received, the presence of international actors on the ground is limited. While humanitarian access has improved and the Government launched a rehabilitation package for the internally displaced, no information has been found on assistance activities specifically targeting this group. A study from one area claimed that the internally displaced population suffered from starvation and diseases (Daily Star, 16 February 1999). Most of the internally displaced live scattered in the remote and inhospitable hill and forest areas with limited livelihood and with no access to health care facilities (USCR 2000).
Although not a topic in this profile, internal displacement in Bangladesh is most often associated with the devastating cyclones and floods that regularly occur in this country. In addition to such large-scale natural disasters, close to one million people are displaced annually by the inundation of flood plains, erosion and the shifting courses of the country's major river systems. During bad years this figure can sometimes increase to 5 million. Population displacement is further aggravated by the fact that some 50 per cent of the over 130 million population is landless and many are therefore forced to live on and cultivate flood-prone land (GECHS 1998, Appendix III, p.60, IFRC March 2001, OCHA October 2000).
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