Tribal villages again under attack as settlers deny responsibility and the authorities look on
The incident was sparked when a group of Bengalis on 14 April tried to take over land used by local tribal people, named Jummas after their ‘shifting’ or ‘jhum’ form of cultivation. The raid failed because it would seem that locals carried out their own attack against settlers, causing the death of four of them. Such incidents are commonplace in Bangladesh. However, lack of information about them has tended to complicate matters.
Settlers and indigenous groups have accused each other in this particular case. Jummas say that Bengali settlers attacked 50 of their villages, setting houses on fire. The latter have countered, claiming the opposite.
The conflict is economic and social, essentially over land use, not religion. It stems from an attempt by Bengalis, backed by army and police, to colonise land inhabited by tribal communities.
However, in this case, roles were reversed because tribals attacked first. This has given Bengalis an opportunity of playing victim, demonstrate, and get the ear of the authorities, who tend to pay less attention to complaints by Jummas when the latter face similar circumstances.
The only thing that is certain is that four settlers were killed by tribals, something that appears disproportionate, especially since Jummas, who are very poor, tend only to use sticks against those who try to seize their land. When that happens, settlers usually organise counteractions against the indigenous population. Even when the police does move in to separate the parties, it never arrests Bengali settlers, thus allowing them to take over more land.
Some now fear that some small groups in the tribal population are trying to stoke the fire of conflict, perhaps restart the 20-year-guerrilla war that ended in late 1990s with a peace deal.
First declared unconstitutional, the agreement was later revived by the current government, but has not been implemented.
Measures taken by the commission to examine the contending claims have not satisfied anyone. For instance, the planned demilitarisation of the region has not been done since some 400 military camps are still waiting to be closed.
In the meantime, Bengali settlers have set up their own self-defence group, the Fight for People’s Rights in Chittagong Hill Tract (FPRCHT), a quasi-paramilitary organisation backed by local police that is known to use illegal means to suppress minorities.
In the latest incident, the FPRCHT lodged an official complaint with the prime minister, a clear sign that the settlers know how to navigate the corridors of power.
The group has also accused the police of not protecting them and not heeding their complaints. However, making false accusations is not that uncommon in Bangladesh.