Mon, 24 Apr 2000

Bangladesh tribal leader feels betrayed

By Anisur Rahman and Nurul Alam

RANGAMATI, Bangladesh (AFP): A former Bangladeshi tribal guerrilla chief, who rose to prominence three years ago after signing a peace treaty with the government to end a two-decade insurgency, now complains he has been betrayed.

Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma told AFP in an interview that he was frustrated by what he sees as the slow pace of implementation of the 1997 agreement.

Violence among tribal factions in the southeastern Bangladesh hills over recent months has left 43 people dead and many kidnapped or missing.

"A sense of frustration is again growing among the tribesmen as the government is yet to comply with the major conditions of the treaty, including settlement of land disputes," he said.

"The hope and assurances that inspired us to give up the insurgency and sign the peace accord have not been fulfilled," said Larma, who now heads the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council formed in 1998 in line with the accord.

Tribal sources said several promises, including the delegation of more powers to the council, the settlement of long-standing land disputes and jobs for surrendered rebels, had not yet been fulfilled.

Recently Minister for Land Rashed Mosharraf visited the area and gave assurances that work on the settlement of land disputes would be expedited.

Rangamati, a lakeside scenic town, has been turned into the administrative headquarters of the council for the once-troubled districts bordering India and Myanmar.

The insurgency was led by the Shanti Bahini group from the majority Buddhist Chakma tribe which demanded autonomy and the expulsion of Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers from the plains.

The troubles left an estimated 25,000 people dead and thousands took refuge in India.

Larma, 59, said the current violence was not linked to tribal frustration over the December 1997 treaty. But local security sources said most of the recent deaths resulted from clashes between tribal factions supporting or opposing the accord.

The opponents, who accuse Larma of betraying the tribal cause, recently formed a United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF) to air their frustration over the slow implementation of the agreement.

Larma's Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity, the political wing of the defunct Shanti Bahini, denied any role in the new violence and accused the government of backing the anti- accord factions.

"Those who are opposing the treaty, in fact, are the creation of the government and we have grounds to believe that they are getting protection from the government agencies including police," Larma said.

Last month, five UPDF activists were killed in sniper attacks in Rangamati and Khagrachari towns, prompting the government to step up security. The UPDF accused Larma's group of carrying out the attacks.

Government leaders, however, said such incidents were inevitable in the transition period of the peace treaty.

"Such violence and rivalry will die down gradually," said Dipankar Talukdar, a tribal MP from the Awami League party of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed.

But UPDF leader Rupak Chakma said the trouble in the hills would continue until tribal autonomy was achieved and the Bengali settlers were expelled.

"The 1997 peace treaty ... can not serve the interests of tribal people," he said, adding that his group would lauch a political campaign against the accord.

Larma called the anti-accord groups a bunch of "confused people."

But he also complained that the army was continuing its presence in the hills and often harassing tribesmen. The army has denied the charge.

"We are now intensifying our political campaign to realize our demands, but if these are not fulfilled, we may have to think in a different way," Larma said in an implicit warning.

Most of the 50,000 tribal refugees who fled the fighting some 10 years ago and took refuge in India returned home last year.