Two decades of armed struggle came to an end with the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts peace accord on 2 December 1997. Bangladesh government signed this accord with the hill party Jana Sanghati Samity (JSS). This day 25 years ago gave rise to hope among the hill people and everyone else as well.

Today, Friday, marked the silver jubilee of the CHT peace accord. This day could certainly have been celebrated by all concerned with much fanfare and festivity.

However, JSS has commemorated this day by holding a discussion meet, with a call to join the 'greater movement for the proper and full implementation of the accord'. The discussion was organised at the Liberation War Museum in the capital city by JSS and Bangladesh Adivasi Forum on the occasion of 25 years of the accord.

The banner at the event called for all to join the movement. On behalf of JSS, the accord had been signed by the party chief and CHT regional council chairman Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Shantu Larma. His voice too echoed pain.

Shantu Larma said, "The accord was a sacred document to me. I signed the deal on behalf of the hill people. I wanted to see its successful implementation every single day, every month, every year. We have come 25 years since signing the accord. I feel these have been wasted years of my life. I could have contributed to the development and prosperity of the people of this country, but that was not so."

While speaking at the event today, Friday, Shantu Larma repeatedly went back 25 years in time. He spoke of the hill people's struggle for autonomy. He highlighted various features of the accord before the media and others in the packed auditorium. He said that the trust and belief with which he had signed the treaty with the government, was now fruitless to him.

SS president Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Shantu Larma speaks at a discussion marking 25 years of the CHT peace accord
Ashraful Alam
Chittagong Hill Tracts is a colony of Bangladesh. The ruling class of this country has dominated and exploited CNT even more than Pakistan dominated and exploited Bangladesh
Shantu Larma, President, JSS

He said, "I have a liability. But these 25 years have been fruitless. This is a matter of indescribable suffering. The CHT deal did not materialise. In fact, the government and the ruling quarters have ensured that the people forget all about it."

Awami League was in power in 1997. And now it has been in power for a stretch of 14 years. That is why naturally there are more expectations from the party that signed the agreement, Shantu Larma contended. Yet, he said, it was this government that had dashed the hopes to the ground.

The JSS leader went on to say, "The government did not allow us to speak. We have been restricted. We had wanted to speak out at home and abroad about the problems of the hills and of the indigenous people of the plains. But the government has obstructed that. Chittagong Hill Tracts is a colony of Bangladesh. The ruling class of this country has dominated and exploited CHT even more than Pakistan dominated and exploited Bangladesh."

Shantu Larma is the chairman of the CHT Regional Council, formed by means of the accord. According to the accord, this council was to be the focal point of all activities of the hill region. But, he alleged, now other administration runs the region. He said, "It is like a different system of rule exists in the hills. The hill men and women suffer under this rule. The efforts to grab the property of the hill people continue and increase by the day. They are being made into refugees."

"My village home is in Panchhari (an upazila in Khagrachhari district). I cannot go to my village home. I myself am a refugee."

Shanti Larma questioned who had created the armed groups in the hills. He said, "These groups had been formed to destroy Jana Sanghati Samity once and for all. These groups carry out extortion to the tune of millions of taka. They are killing people. The educated people of this country have no idea about all this. These groups are contradictory to the accord."

He said that intelligence agents followed him around, adding, "They wait wherever I go and follow me. The government has given people for my security, so why these people? Their motive is not good."

Shantu Larma went on to say, "Some claim that Shantu Larma has not surrendered all the arms and ammunition. I surrendered the arms and ammunition 25 years ago, and still they say this. Firearms of 25 years ago would be nothing but scrap iron now."

In his speech, Shantu Larma repeatedly reminded the government of his despair and anger at the accord not being implemented and the problems of the hill remaining unresolved. He said, "If the accord is not implemented, the problems of the hills will worsen. The hill people cannot forget this accord. As this deal has not been implemented, there are considerations of launching a greater movement. I do not know what turn this movement will take."

Also speaking at the meeting, Rashed Khan Menon said this struggle to implement the CHT accord was not of the hill people alone, but a concerted struggle.

He said the prime minister Sheikh Hasina received the UNESCO peace price for this accord. It must not be allowed to fail. Sheikh Hasina no longer is in the same position as the day she signed the accord. She is now among the world leaders. That is why the accord needs her farsighted intervention.

Rashed Khan Menon MP speaks at a discussion marking 25 years of the CHT peace accord
Ashraful Alam

Woman movement leader Khushi Kabir said, "We note that instead of being implemented, this accord is gradually falling behind. Persons have vested interest in not allowing CHT to have its own identity."

Prothom Alo's joint editor Sohrab Hassan said, "Our basic problem is the lack of democracy. On this day of the agreement, we see the Jana Sanghati Samity speaking one way and the government in another."

Bangladesh Adivasi Forum general secretary Sanjeeb Drong said there is so much news in the media -- that 110 bridges have been inaugurated, that there is a complex in Dhaka, that many culverts are being made. There is a ministry, a regional council, and three zila parishads. But the people of the hill tracts are not at peace. In these 25 years there has been no ordinance to run the CHT regional council the three zila parishads.