Date: Tue, 23 Mar 1999 22:13:23 -0600 (CST)
From: Robert B Sands <>
Subject: RIGHTS SOUTH ASIA: Learning from Bangladeshs practical approach
Article: 58508
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <> from Bangladesh's practical approach

Learning from Bangladesh's practical approach

By Jehan Perera, The Island Newspaper, 24 February 1999

Bangladesh celebrates its 28th Independence anniversary on March 26. It is the only country in South Asia that had to wage a military struggle to obtain its freedom. In the liberation struggle against the state of united Pakistan, the people of Bangladesh saw their youth join the liberation forces as guerillas and irregular troops. They experienced the terrible destruction, killing, raping and pillage that accompanies a no-holds barred war. Today, it is the generation of freedom fighters who are at the helm of national affairs in Bangladesh. Not surprisingly, they look upon the struggles of other peoples for self-determination with a measure of understanding, having engaged in the same themselves.

The Bangladesh High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Ashraf Ud Doula would be an example. He was a freedom fighter in his youth, and joined the “Mukthi Bahini” in the 1971 war. In him are combined the two perspectives of a high level representative of a state and, on the other hand, a former guerilla who lost a limb in combat. The views of such a person about how best to deal with a guerilla movement that is opposing the state would invariably be very different from the conventional analyses employed by desk-bound governmental representatives. It is a fact that those who are called “terrorists” and are referred to as untrustworthy by one set of people are seen as fighting for a cause and honest by another set of people.

It is easy to wax eloquent about the rights of others in other countries, while violating the rights of people at home. For many years Bangladesh was caught up in this dilemma. A small community of people in Bangladesh wished to obtain autonomy and a protected status for themselves. The initial response of the state was to try and suppress them by force of arms. Especially in the immediate aftermath of the successful liberation war of 1971, and independence, there was a strong and fierce pride in Bengali nationalism. There was a sense that Bangladesh must have a centralised state and be one people and one country. But the realities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts called this notion of Bengali nationalism into question.

The example of Bangladesh shows that whatever may be the proportions of the majority and minority populations, when the minority rises in protest, no amount of physical coercion can suppress them. They have to be dealt with politically. In Bangladesh, the right to autonomy has not become an issue of separation, but rather of ensuring equal rights to a smaller national community. Interestingly, due to the pragmatic nature of Bangladesh's leaders, they did not become bogged down in endless conceptual debates on the rights of “nations,” “homelands” and “self-determination”, but arrived at a solution by which these values could be protected.


The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is located at the eastern extremity of Bangladesh and borders India. It constitutes about 10 percent of the territory of the country and has a population of little over 1 million, which is less than 1 percent of the population. It is populated by a non-Bengali people. They are called “tribals”. But they prefer to be known as hill people or “Jumma” people. The largest of the groups is the Chakmas who are largely Buddhist by religion. Across the border in India are a similar people in the states of Mizoram, Tripura etc.

During the partitioning of India, the middle classes of the hill people preferred to join India as it was ethnically diverse and secular. But the British rulers gave the CHT to Pakistan. Hill leaders who protested were harassed and fled to India. From then on India became the destination of refugee hill people, including the leaders of the militancy. They also became seen by the Bengali population as “pro-India” and “anti-national.”

The Liberation War of 1971 in which Bangladesh was formed, saw certain key leaders of the hill people supporting Pakistan rather than the Bengali liberation movement. For a second time, at a key junction the leadership of the hill people went against the sentiment of the people by whose side they lived. During and in the immediate aftermath of the war, many atrocities were perpetrated on the hill people in the name of getting rid of pro-Pakistan collaborators.

In June 1972, shortly after the liberation of Bangladesh, activists among the hill people formed the Parbatyo Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (Shanti Bahini). For a short time the leadership of the hill people worked together with the government of Bangladesh. But with the assassination of the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975, they went underground and declared armed struggle to secure a political solution to their problems.

The new leaders of Bangladesh were not happy with the position taken by the hill people during the Liberation War. They were also not prepared to respect the different identity of the hill people or give the region a special status. In addition, the government sent in about 400,000 Bengalis to settle down in the CHT, both to ease the pressure on the land in other parts of Bangladesh and to dilute the dominance of the hill people in the CHT. The population balance shifted dramatically. In the census of 1951, Bengalis were only 9 percent of the population; in the census of 1991 they were 49 percent of the population.

Some of the initial demands of the hill people were a) compensation for the approximately 100,000 people who were displaced by the construction of a giant hydro-electric dam; b) expulsion of the new Bengali settlers; c) reservation of 3 seats in the Parliament; d) declaration of an exclusive region for the hill people; and, e) a regional council with autonomy.

There are many parallels to be seen with Sri Lanka in the subsequent events that unfolded in Bangladesh. For instance, in 1980, President (General) Ziaur Rahman termed the problem to be an “economic” one. He called for “unconditional surrender of the miscreants.”

In 1987, President (General) Mohamed Ershad said “We may continue the fight but peace will not come.” He spoke of the need for a political solution. At peace talks held in December 1987, the government agreed to 26 points put forward by the Shanti Bahini, but refused to accept the following: a) to take back the Bengali settlers; b) to withdraw the army; c) to merge the three districts of the CHT to set up a single regional council with autonomy; and d) to exclude from the peace talks those whom it termed “national betrayers” (ie. those hill groups who opposed the Shanti Bahini).

Like the LTTE in Sri Lanka, the Shanti Bahini saw themselves as the “sole representatives” of the hill people; the government of Bangladesh attempted to sideline the Shanti Bahini by negotiating with the other hill groups. Thus, in February 1989, the government of President Ershad signed an agreement with prominent leaders of the CHT who were not from the Shanti Bahini. The government established three district councils with “limited autonomy.” This was rejected by the Shanti Bahini but accepted by the other hill groups.

Elections were held to these district councils. Polls observers were not permitted and the elections were rigged. The Shanti Bahini rejected the establishment of the three district councils and called for their dissolution. They demanded the formation of a merged regional council with a guarantee clause in the constitution. The armed conflict continued. Soon it became clear that there could be no peace in the CHT without the Shanti Bahini coming into the peace process.


The peace process entered a new phase with the formation of a non-military-based democratic government under Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. In 1992 the BNP government of Khaleda Zia formed a multi-party “Committee for CHT” formed with members of all mainstream political parties in Parliament, including the opposition Awami League. The Shanti Bahini also declared a ceasefire. The Shanti Bahini leader, Shantu Larma, came out in public for the first time since 1975 to hold talks with the 7-member Committee for CHT which was headed by a government minister. But despite several meetings, no final settlement was reached.

After a new government headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League came to power in 1995, they resumed talks with the Shanti Bahini. The government set up a “National Committee for CHT” with other political parties joining it, but the main opposition party, the BNP, boycotted the committee.

What is invaluable for Sri Lankans to note is that the new government under Sheikh Hasina did not proceed to throw away what the old government had negotiated like successive Sri Lankan governments have done. Instead it built on what had already been negotiated.

The new government also appointed a multi-party National Committee which negotiated with the Shanti Bahini just as its predecessor had done. This time the negotiations were successfully completed and the two parties signed a peace accord on December 2, 1997. Due to the peace accord's essential continuity with the past, the opposition protests against the accord would surely be seen as politically motivated by large sections of the population.

This may partly explain their reluctance to be mobilised in street demonstrations against it. In addition, other influential segments of Bengali society are aware that a peace settlement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts will be crucial in enabling the port city of Chittagong to benefit from being a hub of southeast Asian commerce and an economic powerhouse of the Bangladeshi economy. The dire consequences that the opposition predicted would result from the peace accord have not occurred.

They include mass street protests against the Accord, the need for passports to travel to the Chittagong Hill Tracts and massacres of Bengali settlers. The present position of the opposition is that the new legislation violates the “unitary” nature of the Bangladesh constitution and, hence, is unconstitutional.

The reason for the failure of the opposition protests against the peace accord is that the ordinary Bengali citizens prefer to live in a country at peace than at war. Besides the government did not have to go way out of the political mainstream in signing the peace accord.

They built on what the former government under Mrs Khaleda Zia had already negotiated with the Shanti Bahini. The peace accord has led to the formation of a single regional council for the CHT, which is an overarching body that coordinates the three district councils of the CHT. In addition, the government agreed to resettle the refugee hill people who had fled to India and to allocate them land and compensation. For its part, the Shanti Bahini agreed to disarm. They also agreed to take over an interim regional council without elections until such time as elections could be held.


What Sri Lanka has to learn from Bangladesh is not so much the content of the solution. The quantum of powers to be shared and reallocated between the centre and the regions will undoubtedly vary according to the specific circumstances in the two countries. What can be emulated however is the process that the conflicting parties in Bangladesh adopted in working out a political solution.

An important breakthrough was made when the government of Bangladesh stopped the futile task of attempting to militarily defeat and politically exclude the Shanti Bahini. They also did not try to monopolise the negotiation process and hog all the political credit for themselves.

They formed multi-party committees to negotiated directly with the Shanti Bahini. They accepted the fact that the ethnic problem was specific to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and so limited the devolution of powers to that region only, instead of applying it symmetrically to the whole country. The Sri Lankan approach to peace making stands in contrast to the Bangladesh approach in all these key areas.

The government is still trying to militarily defeat and isolate the LTTE. While several governments have tried to negotiate with the LTTE, no government has ever formed a multi party committee to negotiate with the LTTE. Another albatross around the country's neck is the notion that all provinces should be granted an equal amount of devolved power. This would leave the government deprived of much of is powers, and entails such a fundamental restructuring of the state, that both politicians and bureaucrats are nervous to countenance it. Even at this late stage the idea of asymmetrical devolution put forward by the opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe should be seriously considered instead of stubbornly being rejected.

Another important feature of the Bangladesh agreement was that the parties to the conflict did not get bogged down in quibbling about the meaning of divisive political terms such as “unitary”, “nation” and “self-determination.” Instead they got down to the discussions of a practical framework for governance. This appears to be the approach suggested by the government's leading thinker on the ethnic conflict, Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Prof G.L. Peiris.

In a speech he delivered last month at the Marga Institute's commemoration of the Nobel Peace Prize, Prof Peiris made a strong case against the two sides coming to agreement on a common set of principles. It seems that Prof Peiris's concern was that the debate over principles would revolve around the Thimpu Principles put forward by all the Tamil parties in 1985, which specified the issues of nation, homelands, self-determination and equality.

However, it is necessary that any political agreement should have a value-based vision underlying it. Where Sri Lanka is concerned the values that would have to underlie a political solution would be democracy and the equality of all peoples who live in the country, both as individuals and as members of distinct ethnic, religions and language groups. This way of approaching the problem can also be seen as integral to the Bangladesh approach to peacemaking. If not for far sighted political leadership on both sides of the divide, Bangladesh too may have got bogged down endlessly in its own ethnic war. The sooner that Sri Lanka's leaders emulate those of its SAARC neigbour, Bangladesh, the better it will be for its people.