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South Asia

An evolving great game for the Pearl of the Indian Ocean



Sri Lanka is currently reeling under its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948 and the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the civil war in 2009. Here, however, I look at how India and China try to extend their influence on the island in entirely different ways.


Sri Lanka is regarded as Asia’s oldest democracy in terms of universal adult suffrage, dating back to 1931. But, unfortunately, for twelve years in the last two decades, the island has been under the authoritarian grip of the Rajapaksa family who lead the country to the brink of bankruptcy and the people of Sri Lanka are now paying the price for the manner in which they used their democratic right of voting. The island is also referred to as the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ due to its geostrategic importance.

Being a small island country in the Indian Ocean with a population of only 22 million, Sri Lanka always try to balance its ties with the two large regional rivals – India and China. Even though India is the island state’s only immediate neighbour, the far-away China has been vying for influence in the island for a long time now.

The southernmost point of the island of Rameshwaram in India’s south-eastern coast, a place named Dhanushkodi, lies only about 27 km from the town of Thalaimannar in Sri Lanka’s north-western coast. As per Hindu beliefs, Lord Ram’s Bridge (the ‘Rama Setu’) once stood in between these two points, and now it’s visible from the sky only as a chain of under-water limestone shoals. Scores of Sri Lankan refugees are now taking the same route and are arriving at the shores of the India’s Tamil Nadu state in rented vessels and fishing boats to escape the current economic and humanitarian crisis that the island is currently reeling under.

Buddhism, a faith practiced by over 70 per cent of Sri Lankans, came from India, the land of its origin. The northern and eastern parts of the island have an added history of falling under the rule of India-based Tamil kingdoms in the medieval era and even today have a significant proportion of Tamil population, one of the two major ethnicities in Sri Lanka, along with the majority Sinhalese.

India’s navy continues to be the first-responder and net-security provider throughout the region, including in Sri Lanka, delivering medicines, vaccines and other essentials even via its warships during the pandemic and even during the ongoing crisis. All these facts underline that no country is historically, geographically and culturally close to Sri Lanka as India is, yesterday and today.

The subtle advent of the Chinese challenge

In the last decade or so, India’s traditional ‘sphere of influence’ in its immediate neighbourhood in South Asia and the Indian Ocean is faced with a challenge from an unwelcome actor lying hundreds of miles away, who likes playing a disruptive role in the regional balance of power dynamics. China has been strongly employing its enormous economic resources to eclipse and undermine India’s role in the region, and thereby in Sri Lanka, which is strategically located in the crossroads of sea lanes in the Indian Ocean.

Since the mid-2000s, China has been pumping in money in the form of easy loans and investments, and has been funding infrastructure projects in the backdrop of the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Tamil militia group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ended after 26 years of fighting. But, the Sri Lankan society still remains divided with the rise of Buddhist majoritarianism and continuing discrimination against the Tamils. In the post-war years, the war-torn country was badly craving for reconstruction and recovery. China astutely cashed in that necessity.

An increased Chinese footprint in the island could also jeopardise India’s naval superiority and interests in the Indian Ocean, where Sri Lanka is strategically located. In 2014, two Chinese submarines and a warship visited Colombo port, raising alarms in New Delhi as it had an immediate consequential bearing on India’s strategic interests.

During the final phase of the Sri Lankan Civil War, India took a stance of delivering only non-lethal weapons, owing to the Tamil question, while China supplied necessary arms, thereby winning the trust of the ruling Rajapaksas, who were instrumental in winning the civil war. This was when China began to win Sri Lankan public trust, but it happened at the cost of India.

The Tamil question and India’s UNHRC dilemma

After the civil war, the Sri Lankan government was charged with allegations of committing war crimes against innocent civilian Tamils. To counter them, Colombo moved a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2009 explaining that it acted only to preserve the unity and territorial integrity of the country. India supported this resolution, despite the Tamil question, keeping China in mind. But, this was faced with huge domestic backlash, especially from the Tamil Nadu state leadership and the diaspora, which forced India to vote against Sri Lanka in the U.S.-drafted resolutions of 2012 and 2013 on the issue.

At the same time, China backed Sri Lanka in rejecting this resolution by stating that it amounted to interfering in the island’s internal affairs and that it could affect the ongoing post-war reconciliation process. This was a favourable turning point in China’s relations with Sri Lanka. In 2014 and 2021, however, India abstained in UNHRC resolutions that held the Sri Lankan government accountable for its malign role in the civil war, thereby taking a diplomatically balanced stand.

The consolidation of the Chinese geostrategic challenge

In the meantime, China had become Sri Lanka’s largest import destination and trading partner by 2016, and today its largest creditor as well. In 2017, the Sri Lankan government leased the port of Hambantota in the island’s southern coastline, overlooking the Indian Ocean, to a Chinese state-owned company for 99 years, causing strategic insecurity for India, as the prospect of the port getting militarized in the future, under Chinese control, loomed large.

This is considered as part of China’s larger ‘String of Pearls’ strategy to subvert Indian interests in the Indian Ocean by taking control of strategic port facilities in certain key littoral states and islands such as Djibouti, Pakistan, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The Hambantota port is poised to be a key transit point in China’s ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’, which is part of the broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive trillion-dollar, inter-continental infrastructure and connectivity project led by China. The Chinese are also involved in the Colombo Port City mega-project, which is dubbed as the ‘future Dubai’ of South Asia.

The shuttle diplomacy

Earlier this year, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited Sri Lanka, where he proposed a forum for Indian Ocean island states and asserted that no ‘third party’ should interfere in China-Sri Lanka ties, in a clear reference to India. While the Indian foreign minister Dr S. Jaishankar also visited the island to assure India’s support to the island, took part in a summit meeting of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and called on Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. By the way, Sri Lankan Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa visited India in March, this year. Such official visits are also seen from and to the Chinese side as well.

Since the beginning of this year, India has offered more than $2.4 billion in lines of credits and currency swaps at different levels to support Sri Lanka, in addition to facilitating arrangements under the aegis of SAARC and the Asian Clearing Union. Despite this, Sri Lanka still relies on Chinese credit to loosen its foreign debt burden. In the past two years, ever since the pandemic began, China has offered about $2.8 billion as ‘financial support’ to Sri Lanka.

Contrasting maritime outlooks

Even after having knowledge about Colombo’s financial constraints and poor repayment capacity, Beijing continued to channel billions of dollars as quick loans, lines of credit and one-sided investments in Sri Lanka without following due procedures, while it was actually intended to gain strategic leverage over India by entangling the island in a ‘debt-trap’, the most abominable form of chequebook diplomacy.

This is the same strategy that Beijing is employing elsewhere in the ‘Global South’ countries, particularly in the African continent. In contrast, India’s engagement in the Indian Ocean region is summed up in the inclusive maritime doctrine of ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ (SAGAR), which was unveiled in 2015.

However, it is true that India has found it difficult to catch up with the Chinese in this new ‘great game’ for relative influence as it has a number of structural constraints in terms of expediency in bureaucratic functionality and delivery. However, it needs to be stated that Sri Lanka reached this abysmal point in its economic history not only because of its dependency on Chinese finance, but also due to a combination of domestic factors, such as sheer misgovernance, corruption, and nepotism.

Panning out the current crisis

Today, people in Sri Lanka are facing a shortage of food, fuel and other essential commodities. Power blackouts and inflation became a new normal, and the people are out in the streets protesting for the removal of the current regime from power. Data show that forex reserves dipped 70% in the past two years and foreign debt more than doubled in the ten years from 2010 to 2020, and the situation further exacerbated during the pandemic.

For the first time since independence, last month, Sri Lanka announced that it would default on all of its external sovereign debt, amounting to $51 billion, after running out of forex reserves. The country now badly needs a debt-restructuring plan with hopes of a bailout by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). New Delhi and Beijing have also stepped up their efforts to save Sri Lanka from complete bankruptcy.

This unprecedented crisis began to manifest at least two years back and intensified towards the end of 2021. The government ignored the early indications and, in fact, made it worse. The current majoritarian and populist regime of the Rajapaksas took a series of blunders and policy mis-steps since they came back to power in 2019, which requires another essay’s column space to explain in detail.

The Rajapaksas also happen to be heavily pro-China in their outlook since the concluding phase of the civil war. Even though Sri Lanka’s economic trouble predates the current regime, it was during their first stint, amid the civil war, that the government availed massive loans from China to invest in various projects leading to an increase in the build-up of Chinese clout in the affairs of the island. India still has persisting concerns on the treatment of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, many of whom still awaits justice for the war-time atrocities committed on them by the government and continues to be under constant surveillance.

The way ahead for Indian diplomacy

Turning a blind eye on China’s efforts to make further economic in-roads into Sri Lanka will have serious strategic repercussions for India in the near future. India should continue to collaborate with Japan and other like-minded countries to offer joint projects in Sri Lanka as it is with the case of the Colombo Port’s West Container Terminal development project. India continues to be the most approachable country for Sri Lanka even in these challenging times.

This crisis reminded Sri Lanka of the perils of unchecked loans and brought the genuineness of ‘seemingly liberal’ Chinese loans into question. It is highly likely that the current crisis may further push Colombo to the Chinese side, particularly if India, Japan and the West do not adequately address Sri Lanka’s concerns. Being geographically the closest, India has to take the lead in stepping in and offer sustainable solutions to prevent such an eventuality, and a permanent Chinese naval presence in its backyard is not something it wishes to see. India’s robust private sector can also contribute in this building economic resilience in the island through bona fide investments, particularly in the sectors of Information Technology, heavy industries, urban infrastructure, and consumer goods.

Moreover, regional platforms sans China such as the BIMSTEC and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) have to be utilised to offer sustainable economic, developmental and technological alternatives to Sri Lanka, and most importantly, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) needs to be rejuvenated to ensure prompt and collective response to issues of regional importance and to support each other members in times of crisis. It would also serve as a counterweight to Chinese aspirations and recent moves to form alternative regional mechanisms that could further undermine India’s role in the region.

It is getting clearer day by day that a drastic power transition is underway in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region in the past decade and the relative positions of India and China in those dynamics vis-à-vis smaller countries will have far-reaching consequences for regional peace and stability.

Bejoy Sebastian is an independent journalist based in India who regularly writes, tweets, and blogs on issues relating to international affairs and geopolitics, particularly of the Asia-Pacific region. He also has an added interest in documentary photography. Previously, his bylines have appeared in The Diplomat, The Kochi Post, and Delhi Post.

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South Asia

Growing insecurity in Rohingya Refugee Camps: A Threat to South Asian Security?



A young Rohingya girl holds her brother outside a youth club in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. © UNHCR/Vincent Tremeau

5 years have passed since the Rohingya refugee influx in August, 2017.  Bangladesh is currently hosting 1.2 million Rohingya refugees in 34 camps in its southern district of Cox’s Bazar. The increasing rate of trans-border crime in those bordering camps is not only making the Rohingya refugees vulnerable and prone to crimes but also threatening South Asian security as a whole. The Rohingya community leader’s speech of “We don’t want to stay in the camps. It’s hell.” in the ‘Go Home’ campaign in 20th June, 2022, made us rethink about the security situation in the camps and how the safety and security of Rohingya refugees is linked to South Asian Security.

Security Situation inside the Rohingya Camps

More than 1,200,000 Rohingya refugees are now living in the camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar, making it the largest refugee settlement in the world. While Bangladesh has the ninth-highest population density in the world, around 40,000 to 70,000 refugees are living in per square kilometre in the Rohingya camps, which is 40 times higher than the average population density in Bangladesh. With no sign of repatriation combined with the lack of economic alternatives for Rohingyas and the difficulty in maintaining law and order in overcrowded camps, frustrated Rohingyas are increasingly becoming involved in criminal activities or being targeted by criminal groups.

Currently, around 14 armed criminal gangs are operating in the camps, in which seven gangs known as Hakim Bahini, Hasan Bahini, Sadeq Bahini, Nurul Alam Bahini, Nur Mohammad Bahini and Hamid Bahini are in Teknaf and seven gangs named Munna Bahini, Asad Bahini, Jamal Bahini, Manu Bahini, Rahim Bahini, Kamal Bahini, and Giyas Bahini are active in Ukhiya camps.

According to law enforcement agencies at least 10 groups among these are engaged in 12 types of crimes including murder, rape, kidnapping, drug smuggling and human trafficking. The fighting over controlling the camps among the armed gangs is also deteriorating the security situation inside the camps. A Rohingya refugee in the camps said in an interview, “Everything seems calm in daytime. After sunset, the situation becomes fully different.” As there is no police or army surveillance from 4 pm to 8 am, camps come under the control of gangs at night. They are equipped with weapons like lead meat choppers, knives and other made weapons.

According to Prothom Alo report citing the police, in the last two and half years, more than 50 Rohingyas have been killed in clashes between Rohingya armed gangs over establishing supremacy in the camp area, drugs and gold smuggling, money laundering and extortion.  Recently, the Armed Police Battalion (APBn) has recovered M16 assault rifles with 491 bullets from a camp in Ukhiya which indicates the worsening security situation in the camps. At night Rohingya women are also taken from their houses & are return in the morning. At least 59 women have been raped in the Rohingya camp. As crimes often go unpunished, no one in the camps has the courage to speak against the criminals. Sometimes, for ensuring own security, Rohingyas themselves, including children become engaged with smuggling, narcotics trafficking and other crimes.

As of May 2022,a total of 12,97 cases have been filed against 3,023 Rohingyas. Among them, 73 cases are in charge of murder, 762 are narcotics cases, 28 cases are filed on the allegation of human trafficking, 87 for illegal weapons, 65 are rape charges, 35 for kidnapping and ransom, 10 for robberies, and 89 are other cases related to crime and violence.

Besides, it is believed that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgent group are also active in Rohingya camps and made contract with a Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). ARSA is not only relying on arms like AK-47s, M-22s, M-21s and M-16 rifles but also gaining support through other means. More than 500 madrassas in the Rohingya camps are  said to be controlled by an ARSA affiliates which will help ARSA to gain sympathy, spread propaganda and extend their network.

A Threat to South Asian Security

Since Cox’s Bazar provides a strategic route for smuggling and a shelter to Rohingyas refugees who have lack of economic alternatives, the bordering Rohingyas camps are turning into a breeding place for criminalities and the insecurity in the camps can threaten the security of the whole region.

Cox’s Bazar is used as a direct route from eastern India to Nepal for arms smugglers to reach Indian and Nepali buyer. United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), an insurgent group seeking independence from India, also buys arms from China and smuggles them using Bangladeshi ports and overland to India.

The Naaf river, the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, is also the busiest drug route in the region. Almost 80% of Yaba enter in Bangladesh through Naikhyangchhari and 70% of them are stored in Rohingya camps before distributing them and Rohingyas are increasingly getting involved in peddling yaba for their survival.

Besides, drug trafficking, Rohingyas are also taking part in trans-border crimes, including human trafficking, extremism, arms fighting and the camps can be a potential base for extremist activities and the insecurity in the camps and border could transcend to Bangladesh anytime and create insecurity for the whole region of South Asia. As there is a growing concern over the recruitment of refugees by the extremist networks like Hizb-ut Tahrir and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), as well as by radical Islamist groups like HeI. It is also reported that the influence of HeI is growing among the traumatized and frustrated Rohingyas which could fuel militancy not only in Bangladesh but also across the South Asian region. Along with this, the Rohingya militant groups bordering Myanmar i.e.  Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO), Rohingya National Alliance (RNA), the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF), and Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) could also recruit from Rohingyas and threaten regional security.

From security perspective, ensuring the security of Rohingyas is directly linked to the security of the region Though Bangladesh has taken several measures to ensure the security of these displaced people, it is tough to maintain law and order in the densely populated camps near the border. Therefore, safe, sustainable and dignified return of these displaced people is the only solution. Since Rohingya refugees have also expressed their desire to go home through the “Go Home” campaign, in which thousands of Rohingyas in Ukhiya & Teknaf camps staged demonstration on World Refugee Day demanding their repatriation back to Myanmar. Bangladesh as well as the international community should act together to facilitate Rohingya repatriation to ensure the security of Rohingyas as well as the South Asian region before its too late.

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South Asia

Rohingya repatriation between Myanmar-Bangladesh



Rohingya refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Myanmar (file photo). IOM/Mohammed

Refugees find themselves in a situation of limbo because of the prolonged refugee scenario. They are neither eligible for repatriation nor do they qualify as citizens of the host nation or a third country. However, they must deal with the harsh reality of the nature of vicious politics because of the complexity of state systems and the institutional weaknesses of international institutions.

Prolonged refugees, according to UNHCR (2004), are trapped in an impenetrable and protracted condition of limbo. Despite not being in danger or facing threats, they significantly lack access to basic rights, financial aid, and support for their psychological and social needs. As they are pushed toward outside help, they feel unable to escape the core of forced dependence.

Are Rohingya refugees in some way contributing to an ongoing, serious refugee crisis? In relation to the Rohingya crisis, statistics from UNHCR shows that more than 0.7 million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in 2017. There are 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the prime minister of Bangladesh stated in 2018 during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly.

For this South Asian emerging nation in 2017, the flow of this deluge was nothing new. These migrants have been entering Bangladesh since the 1970s after being forcibly uprooted by the military dictatorship.

According to a survey, there were around 0.25 million refugees in Bangladesh throughout the 1990s. Nearly 0.02 million people were returned after the 2000s, but the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) and the Bangladeshi government’s inability to settle their differences has made this process difficult to complete.

The world’s most persecuted minority, who is clearly stateless and has strong proof of persecution and genocide on account of race, ethnicity, and religion, is currently being cared for by Bangladesh. The responses of international organizations like the UN and its branches like the ICJ and IOM are not positive enough for Bangladesh in this regard to produce a permanent solution.

West African nation Gambia filed a 35-page application with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in November 2019 against Myanmar. The ICJ’s extraordinary victory in the Gambia v. Myanmar case regarding the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Rohingya people is the first of its kind. This was founded on an “erga omnes” premise, which periodically reports on the situation of the Rohingya.

However, Bangladesh continues to push for international organizations to take humanitarian action through the UN. Though this worry might attract their attention and drive them to consider ensuring human rights for these forcibly displaced persons, it has instead placed a heavy load on Bangladesh.

Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, issued a warning to the international bodies regarding the Rohingya crisis just a few days ago during his visit to Bangladesh in December 2021. Bangladesh “cannot and should not bear this duty alone,” he said, urging foreign groups to express grave concern. He went on to say that Myanmar, not Bangladesh, was the origin of the conflict and where it will ultimately be resolved.

Bangladesh, a developing nation with a population of 160 million, is being horribly impacted by the Rohingya people in terms of social, economic, and political spheres. Rohingyas have been in a condition of limbo since at least 2017, which is now more than five years ago.

They have been relocated, assisted, and given security by Bangladesh and several international organizations, but they still yearn for a long-lasting solution.

Bangladesh has been taking every action imaginable to bring the Rohingya refugees’ home. Since the 2017 refugee inflow, the Bangladeshi government has worked with various international groups to promote peaceful voluntary repatriation; however, the Myanmar military junta has consistently resisted these efforts. Refugees from the Rohingya minority are currently suffering greatly as a result of the political unrest in Myanmar.

As Cox’s Bazar’s refugee camps are already overflowing with 1.1 million Rohingya refugees, the Bangladesh is moving them to Bhasan Char in order to provide for them improved living conditions.

International organizations had doubts regarding the safety and security of the Island; however, Bangladesh eventually persuaded them to cooperate. Bangladesh was left with no choice but to relocate some Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char. Bangladesh now faces a security danger from overcrowded camps. The Rohingya camps in Bangladesh are home to numerous terrorist and armed rebel organizations. One of them is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Despite the issues, Bangladesh has continued to push for bilateral discussions while also applying international pressure to the junta.

Myanmar, on the other hand, is a lawless state that disobeys international law and order. The arrangements established for the peaceful return of Rohingya refugees were broken.

In Myanmar, the regime has been increasingly hostile since the military takeover. Myanmar is utterly unwilling to help the Rohingya refugees develop a strong sense of desire for return. There is no “supranational” authority in anarchy, which is advantageous for Myanmar. It is now time for the international community to recognize that the Rohingya refugee crisis has grown into a regional security issue.

Myanmar-related news indicates a new genocide. the country’s rebel and protest groups are being repressed by the military junta with violence.

The Myanmar military is still buying new weapons from China and Russia, including the SU-30SME multi-role heavy fighter, the YAK-130 light attack advanced jet trainer, the K-8W advanced trainer, and Ming class attack submarine, among others, despite an arms embargo. The world community is concerned that these weapons could accidentally attack defenseless populations. A peaceful voluntary return will face further obstacles as a result of internal unrest in Myanmar.

The Rohingya catastrophe, which forced 1.1 million individuals to leave their country of birth due to state-sponsored persecution, was of a size that is easy to comprehend. When the state commits the crime, the environment becomes more hostile. The main duty of the state is to uphold the rights and interests of its citizens.

Refugees are currently skeptical of the military junta in Myanmar. They have a long and painful history of persecuting people. Therefore, persuading the refugees to return home voluntarily won’t be simple. Myanmar must extend their hands in mutually beneficial ways. More discussions between international parties, including the Rohingya, will build confidence and facilitate a peaceful voluntary return of the Rohingya refugees. Humanity and peace should ultimately triumph over all other factors.

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South Asia

Why the implementation of the CHT peace agreement is still elusive?



When the “Top boxer” of Bangladesh, for the past eight years, Sura Krishna Chakma raised the national flag of Bangladesh in the first-ever professional boxing tournament held in last month, it reminds the contribution of the UK Ching Marma and other minority people who fought valiantly in the Liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971.

Bangladesh began its independence journey with a population that is ethnically homogeneous, with less than 1% of the population being ethnically diverse. However, Bangladesh had struggled to deal with Chittagong Hill Tracts’ (CHT) tribal people as they have been waging an insurgency movement for autonomy. Later, Peace Accord was signed aiming to end the conflict in 1997. But, after 25 years of its signature, the treaty is still failing to instil trust among national political parties and factional groups. Currently, the situation in the CHT area is a complex mix of conflicts and negotiations. The area is also beset by ethnic tensions between indigenous communities and groups, interferences from neighbouring states, widespread poverty, resource scarcity, and low literacy rates.

Why peace in the CHT is still elusive?

In recent years, remote areas of CHT have become more prone to violence due to the involvement of various active groups in the area. The four ethnic political groups – PCJSS, Jana Samhati Samiti (Reformist-MN Larma), United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) and UPDF (Ganatantrik) – in the region appear to be at odds with one another. They have no ideological disagreements but are involved in inter-conflict for narrow self-interest rather than protecting the minority rights. All factions have specific armed wings with advanced weapons such as rocket launchers, automatic sniper rifles, and heavy machine guns, according to law enforcement. They extort wood trade, cooking markets, livestock markets, transportation, and a variety of other services, each on their own turf. Ransom for the abduction of ethnic groups and Bangalis are also a major source of income. Contractors also have to pay at the rate of 10 percent of the original budget. To stay safe, locals were forced to maintain good relationships with all parties. They are compelled to pay monthly tributes to remain in their homes. There are even reports of indigenous women being abducted and raped by rival groups. They are so vulnerable and frightened that they do not even move after the sunset. The inter-group conflicts have claimed more than 1100 lives since the signing of the peace accord. Although according to the terms of the accord, the guerrillas were to surrender and surrender their weapons but many haven’t surrendered arms yet.

What’s to blame for the present unrest?

The agreement’s lethargic implementation has reignited separatist tendencies among the Paharis. Recently, the Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF), an insurgent organization of small ethnic group, demanded a separate state in CHT with full autonomy and threatened strict armed movement. Prior to this, The UPDF, a breakaway group, continues to oppose the treaty and seeks full regional autonomy.

The most pressing concern in CHT, however, is extensive Christianization among the tribal population. ‘Evangelization’ is generally carried out by the missionaries through a number of NGOs operating under the umbrella of “development partner.” Christian missionaries use money and other worldly trappings to entice poor tribal people to become Christians. So far, 4344 families in CHT became Christian in the last two decades and the number of churches increased dramatically from 274 in 1998 to 644 in 2022. It’s worth noting that more than a third of the Bandarban district’s tribal population is now Christian.

Impact of the Peace Accord on the Situation of ethnic People

Certainly, the Peace Accord made room and rendered opportunities for the CHT’s development. In these 25 years, comprehensive and systematic development efforts have contributed to the socio-economic development of the Pahari people, which immensely contributed in reducing the gap between the Pahari and Bengalis. Many tribes are well-integrated into mainstream middle-class Bangladeshi society, with officers and ambassadors serving in Bangladesh’s military and diplomatic corps.

With its contrasting topography of hilly terrains, immense lakes, wide-open spaces, as well as rich ethnic and cultural diversity, tourism industry flourished in the CHT. Tourism boosted due to the infrastructural projects connecting the remote and mystic parts with the main areas of the country and security ensured by the law enforcement agencies from the precarious hilly terrain to the remote bordering area. The treaty also integrated the CHT people into the mainstream economy, while permitting them to retain their specific ethnic and cultural identities.

The ‘Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Organisation Act 2010’ was passed in order to safeguard and foster the cultural expressions of Bangladesh’s small ethnic groups. Small ethnic groups’ rights are now more recognized by the government in Bangladesh than before. The development allocation per capita in the CHT districts is significantly higher than in the rest other districts. The government has amended some laws to allow for the implementation of the peace accord mainly the formation of the ‘CHT Regional Council’ and the ‘Ministry of CHT Affairs’, establishing the ‘Land commission’ to deal with conflicts over land and natural resource rights. The government is also gradually reducing military camps. The number decreased from 546 to 206. Another feature of post-agreement development in the hills has been the influx of development partners and the extension of NGOs and INGOs in the CHT area.

Way Forward

The first and foremost, the Bangladesh Government must take into cognizance the factors behind the failure of establishing peace in CHT areas to ensure peace in the hilly region. Secondly, the implementation of the remaining articles should also need to be prioritized. So far, out of 78 provisions, 48 provisions of the Accord have been implemented. Hill people strongly believe that the implementation of the Accord is the key to solving problems in the CHT. Thirdly, it is crucial to control the armed factions to evict violence and restore peace to CHT on an urgent basis. Fourthly, both the Hill and the Bengali people emphasize that land disputes need to be resolved immediately. And finally, there is a need for consolidating the progress achieved so far.

Nevertheless, an established misconception is prevailing among the hilly people that their voices are not heard and they are treated differently from the rest of the Bengalis. To eradicate this misconception and build trust and harmony, more initiatives should be undertaken by the government.

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