Chittagong Hill Tract, Peoples of the

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Chittagong Hill Tract, Peoples of the

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) constitute a geographically mountainous region in eastern Bangladesh, comprising approximately 5,000 square miles, or roughly 10 percent of the country's total land area. Originally populated by thirteen independent, indigenous groups, each with a distinct culture and language, the CHT strategically borders India, Burma, and the Bay of Bengal. The combined indigenous tribal population, currently estimated at 500,000, constitutes less than one percent of Bangladesh's total population. Historically organized into kinship groups who held their land in common, the CHT peoples employed a swidden, or slash-and-burn agricultural practice that required frequent moves to rotate their rice and other crops.

The Bengalis, a predominately Islamic people speaking an Indo-European language, inhabit the plains adjacent to the CHT. Their south Asian culture contrasts with that of the indigenous hill tribes, who, although possessing a variety of languages and religions, are historically tied to south East Asian cultures. In the mid-eighteenth century, the British assumed control over the entire Indian subcontinent, opening the CHT area for the first time to outside businesses and influences. By 1860 the British, in a move to protect their tea plantations and other economic interests, formally annexed the CHT. In 1900, the British extension of administrative control ended one thousand years of political and cultural autonomy for the indigenous tribes.

With Pakistan's independence from Great Britain in 1947, the CHT region became the southernmost district of East Pakistan. Adopting western notions of political integration and development, the Pakistani government moved to assimilate the CHT peoples into the national mainstream. In 1955, Pakistan ended all remnants of CHT's administrative autonomy, and in 1964 terminated its special political status. During this same period, the Pakistani government constructed the Kaptai Dam on the Karnafuli River, submerging 400 square miles of agricultural and culturally significant CHT lands. More than 100,000 CHT peoples were displaced by the dam, although 99 percent of the electricity generated by it is used to power development projects outside of the CHT. Other federal policies prohibited rice production, the basis of the tribal economies, leading to famines and starvation among the previously self-sufficient communities. Equally destructive was Pakistan's decision to end British immigration restrictions and to encourage Bangladeshi resettlement in the area.

In 1971 Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan. Cognizant of the CHT's strategic location, gas, coal, copper, and timber resources, and its lower population density, the new Bengali government quickly asserted its control over the region. The 1972 Constitution imposed Bengali as the state language, Islam as the state religion, and Bangladeshi as the national identity. A massive, government-sponsored movement of Bangladeshis into the CHT region altered the population ratio from 98 percent indigenous in 1971 to fifty percent by 2000. To secure its policies, the government sent one-third of the entire Bangladeshi military to the CHT region. Backed by Saudi financial aid, the military employed pressure tactics to force the peoples' conversion to Islam. The indigenous peoples had grown increasingly angry over federal policies and rage over the military's indiscriminate rape of indigenous women, 40 percent under eighteen years of age.

By 1972 that anger had progressed to armed conflict. For the next twenty-five years, the hill people fought a guerilla war against the Bangladesh Army. In 1997 the war-weary hill peoples agreed to a peace accord followed a year later by the Rangamati Declaration. The success of the accord and declaration's promised changes are mixed. Legally described as a "tribal inhabited region," a twenty-two-member, indigenously elected regional council administers the CHT region, with locally elected councils supervising community affairs. As of 2002, however, a Bangladeshi remained as head of the Ministry of CHT Affairs, the federal agency responsible for the region, and the agreement to withdraw Bangladeshi settlers continued to be unfulfilled. The state retained control over the region's natural resources, and state policies preventing communal land ownership and swidden agricultural practices have persisted.

SEE ALSO Indigenous Peoples


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Sharon O'Brien