05/10/2006, 00.00
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The Chittagong hills are crying (Overview)

Eastern Bangladesh has been the scene of clashes between local tribal peoples and Bangladeshi soldiers for quite some time. In the last few decades Bengali settlers have been arriving in great numbers, depriving local tribal peoples of their lifeline: their land. For this reason, locals have revolted against the authorities.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), the mountain area in the Chittagong area, covers a tenth of Bangladesh's surface. The region is different from the rest of the country in terms of landscape and culture. Unlike the remainder of Bangladesh, the hill region is forested and its indigenous populations are Buddhist.

When the British Raj was carved into two states in 1947, the Hill Tracts came under Pakistani control. But under the new dispensation, ethnic minorities began suffering discrimination.

In 1971, the area followed the rest of East Pakistan to become the newly-independent state of Bangladesh. Like its Pakistani predecessor, the new government continued to treat the Hill Tracts as marginal, without any specific recognition; tribal peoples continued to be shunted aside, oppressed and mistreated by the majority of the population.

In 1972 a local nationalist movement, the Jana Sanghati Samiti (JSS) emerged. The following year, its armed wing, Shanti Bahini, was founded. Tired of oppression, the Tribals started revolting against the central government in the mid-1980s, causing widespread disorder.

In 1989, the Bangladeshi parliament adopted four bills to solve the problem but, so far, to no avail.

Repression continues. One example is told by a young herder who remembered seeing soldiers taking a young man off the street, put a rifle in his hand, and take a few snapshots. The photos ended up in the papers as proof of the existence of armed terrorists. A poor and innocent bystander was thus made into a terrorist and then tortured.

Today no one dares speak out against what is going on. Any resistance is deemed terrorism, but if the government really wants peace, it should close down its military bases in the region, remove the Bengali settlers, restore the land to its rightful owners and prevent settlers from moving in.

Victims of such injustice want the government, local authorities, human rights organisations and every person of good will to help them bring the guilty to court.

"Today we are like foreigners in our own land," one said. "We fought heat, rain, cold, dangerous forest animals to turn the untilled soil into fertile land and now they want to come and take it away".

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