A death squad comes to the hills

RAB deployment in the Chittagong Hill Tracts will further militarise the restive hills and violate the peace accord of 1997.

A death squad comes to the hills
Photo: Rapid Action Battalion.

During a recent discussion on the law and order situation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal vowed that he would bring peace to the CHT “at any cost”. Two weeks later the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order to deploy a permanent battalion of the elite police force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), in the region. Nicknamed the Parbatya Battalion (Hill Battalion), the operational theatre for RAB 15 will encompass the three hill districts (Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban) and the coastal district of Cox’s Bazar. According to recent news reports, the unit will consist of 677 personnel. The Cox’s Bazar section of the battalion has already been operational for a while now.

The three hill districts are the most militarised and surveilled areas in Bangladesh with military, paramilitary and police checkpoints; heavy presence of the National Security Intelligence (NSI), Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and District Special Branch (DSB); and, anywhere around three to five hundred temporary military camps and Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) posts. Given that RAB has a reputation for extrajudicial killings in other parts of the country, its deployment gives an even more ominous message to the people of the hills. It has been called a “death squad” by Human Rights Watch, which in its 2014 report estimated that this elite police unit — comprising of military and regular police personnel — was responsible for at least 800 killings in the previous 10 years. Many of these killings were carried out through what is euphemistically called “crossfires”.

Apart from that, the decision to deploy RAB in the hills contradicts the government’s stated commitment to implement the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997 (known popularly as the peace accord). As it happens, the 22nd anniversary of the accord was celebrated on December 2nd 2019. Clause 17 under Section D of the accord requires the dismantling of “all the temporary camps of military, Ansar and Village Defence Party” from the CHT. Not only does the recent order for RAB deployment contradict the essence of the peace accord to normalise and demilitarise the region, it also violates Clause 34 (a) under Section B of the accord which puts local police matters under the remit of the Hill District Council.

Despite the signing of the peace accord 22 years ago, the military continues to maintain its influence on administrative matters and uses the so-called “ethnic clashes” as justification for its massive presence in the CHT. Its open patronage of Bengali settler groups and usage of the anti-insurgency lens to deal with indigenous Jumma communities clearly show that there can be no peace in the hills as long as the military maintains its presence and control in the region.

Despite its heavy presence in the area, the military failed to thwart the arson attacks in Sajek (Rangamati) in 2010, in which more than 200 homes of mostly Jumma villagers were burnt down. A 2014 report by the International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission noted that the military-dominated state machinery ensures impunity for perpetrators of rape and other violence against indigenous women in the hills. In 2015, the extrajudicial killings of three Jumma men did not result in any accountability of the perpetrators but rather the imposition of financial penalties on the two newspapers that reported the killings describing the victims as adibashi (indigenous) instead of “terrorists”. Also in 2015, a Chakma-language film Mor Thengari (My Bicycle) was blocked by the Bangladesh Film Censor Board following an objection by the military regarding a short scene in the film showing military boots crushing the toys of a Chakma boy.

For the last few years many Jumma activists fled the country after receiving death threats. In 2018 and 2019, many Jumma activists were indeed killed, some of them by military personnel. Laws requiring non-governmental organisations active in the area to employ an equal number of Bengali and indigenous employees and support an equal number of Bengali and indigenous beneficiaries have also severely restricted indigenous rights activists’ work in the CHT.

The alleged rape of two Marma sisters by military officers (the military blamed Ansar members for the rape) in 2018 was widely reported in the media and the activists supporting the young women, including the Chakma Queen Yan Yan, were threatened. Michael Chakma, a Jumma activist who was also involved with many mainstream movements was abducted in April 2019 from Dhaka, he remains missing to this day. While there is no evidence of what happened to him, the nature of his abduction and the unwillingness of the police to do anything suggest involvement of security agencies in his disappearance.

There is no doubt that the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in adjoining Cox’s Bazar has further complicated the situation in the CHT, but as a United Nations Special Rapporteur’s report noted in 2011, militarisation and securitisation of the region has only led to increasing human rights abuses. 22 years after signing the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord, the government of Bangladesh, who signed the accord with such fanfare, needs to come up with ways to normalise the situation in the CHT, not militarise and securitise it further.●

Hana Shams Ahmed is the former coordinator of the International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission and a PhD scholar at York University, Canada.