Local sources claim that multiple tribal terrorist groups are holding hundreds of thousands of people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts as hostages. These groups are active in controlling and influencing their areas through various sabotage and terrorist activities, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, attacks, and counter-attacks.
Everybody in the three hilly regions of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT)—Khagrachari, Bandarban, and Rangamati—knows the Bangladesh Army and its involvement in peacekeeping. As the army's importance in societal development in the strategically located CHT is now well recognized, it has become a source of trust and harmony for the people of the region.
The CHT covers roughly one-tenth of Bangladesh's land area and is distinct from the rest of Bangladesh. Only one percent of the total population of Bangladesh lives in the three hill districts. The hilly areas of Chittagong were once unprotected; tt was a sanctuary for terrorists and extremists. After coming to power for the first time in 1996, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took the initiative to restore peace in the troubled region. The historic CHT peace accord was signed on December 2, 1997, following multiple rounds of talks between the government and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity.
Terrorist activities in the hills decreased immediately after this agreement. However, despite the peace accord, militant tribal groups in the hills are still active. There are four factions within the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity, and occasionally they engage in criminal activity. Many places in the hills were undeveloped. Walking was unthinkable. However, the army members worked day and night in the hilly areas and revolutionized the communication system there.
In addition to ensuring the stability of the CHT following the peace accord, members of the Bangladesh Army and the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) have been involved in the socio-economic development of the region's vast population. They are trying to solve food problems, deliver medical services, and assist poor people to become self-sufficient by providing financial grants, distributing educational materials to poor students, providing clean water to ease the suffering of the locals in remote areas, and setting up small-scale factories for the employment of unemployed individuals.
When people all over the country are busy saving their lives due to COVID-19, members of the Bangladesh Army have set an example by bringing people from remote areas of Khagrachari, Bandarban, and Rangamati to hospitals. An epidemic of diarrhea and other water-borne diseases occurred in the remote hilly area of Khagrachhari Sadar Upazila, called Hajapara, a few days ago. After receiving the news that several youths, old women, and children had fallen seriously ill, the Bangladesh Army personnel rushed there quickly after walking for several hours on a remote mountain road. A temporary medical camp was constructed, and 150–160 epidemic patients were treated.
Apart from maintaining peace and order in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Bangladesh Army has been continuously conducting development projects to improve the quality of life of the people living there. According to media reports, in the last three years, the Bangladesh Army has distributed winter clothes to more than 50,000 people in three hill districts under the 24th Infantry Division. In addition, various types of relief materials have been distributed among at least one lakh people, and various financial grants have been given to 20,000 people. Free eye camps are being conducted regularly. In these eye camps, various types of eye services, including cataract surgery, are provided to the elderly mountain people and Bengalis of remote hilly areas.
Previously, many mountain children died due to measles in the Rangamati and Bandarban areas. The army's contribution to the humanitarian work of saving the lives of mountaineers affected by measles by risking their own lives and providing fresh water, providing food, conducting temporary medical camps, and managing the treatment of the sick in these affected areas is highly appreciated. At various times, there are instances of pregnant women being brought to field hospitals from remote areas of the mountains by helicopter and being cured along with giving birth.
Improving local lives
More than 250 educational institutions have been built in the hills in the last three years under the supervision of the army to disseminate the light of education. The army has also stepped up to safeguard religious harmony. Over 220 religious structures have been built in three hill districts in the previous three years. They have taken timely steps toward the mental development of children. Many schools do not have textbooks or other materials. The force distributed a significant number of different types of educational materials, school dresses, and sports materials to the students in various educational institutions.
To make the underprivileged people of the hilly areas self-reliant, the army is providing free computers and sewing machines and providing training. The backward hill women are dreaming of becoming self-reliant now.
The CHT was once dark. However, remote mountains are now blazing with electric light. In the three hill districts, development work is now underway under the supervision of the army. According to official data, road connectivity in the three hill districts was 2,803 km in 1997; today, road connectivity under the supervision of the Army Engineering Corps is 7,949 km. There were only 24 hospital clinics in the three districts before the peace accord; presently, more than 270 public-private hospitals and community-level clinics have been constructed. A border road has also been built. All of this has been made possible under the Bangladesh Army's supervision.
The Guimara Sena Region took the initiative to open a blanket and bag factory in October 2021. Locals in that neighborhood now have jobs thanks to it. Bengali and Pahari people's ability to sustain their families grew as a result of their employment as laborers. Remote hilly tracts are seeing growth, and marginal farmers are assisting in this development by profiting from the transportation of different fruits and agricultural products from these remote areas.
Fight terrorism and restore peace
Local sources claim that multiple tribal terrorist groups are holding hundreds of thousands of people in the CHT as hostages. These groups are active in controlling and influencing their areas through various sabotage and terrorist activities, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, attacks, and counter-attacks. The annual income of these terrorist groups from various sectors is more than 500 crore takas. More than 700 people have been killed in such conflicts in Khagrachari in the last 20 years. Besides, at least 45 people have died in Rangamati in the last 5 years.
In their efforts to bring peace to the CHT, numerous army personnel have perished from snakebite, malaria, mosquito bites, and attacks by wild animals. Some people are permanently paralyzed. Armed local terrorists killed several army personnel who were serving their country and making sure the hills' residents were protected.
The government has invested thousands of crores of takas in the development of the CHT. Yet, these terrorist organizations occasionally hamper the area's development efforts. Millions of Bengali and hill people have demanded that the army camp remain in the designated territories. They claimed that the army's actions had made the people of these remote hills much happier.
(The author is a security and strategic affairs analyst based in Dhaka. Views are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)