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Cablegate: Usg Development Activities in Chittagong Hill

VZCZCXRO0290
RR RUEHCI
DE RUEHKA #1254/01 3420804
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 070804Z DEC 08
FM AMEMBASSY DHAKA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 7861
INFO RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD 2485
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI 0965
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU 9984
RUEHLM/AMEMBASSY COLOMBO 8745
RUEHGO/AMEMBASSY RANGOON 2696
RUEHCI/AMCONSUL KOLKATA 1591

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 DHAKA 001254

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM BG
SUBJECT: USG DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES IN CHITTAGONG HILL
TRACTS TO ADDRESS SIMMERING ETHNIC TENSIONS

-------
SUMMARY
-------

1. (SBU) Political and civil society leaders in the
strategic Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) described to
Ambassador Moriarty simmering ethnic tensions that
continued to plague the region. Land disputes remain
the main area of contention between local tribal
groups and Bengali settlers. The campaign for the
December 29 Parliament elections could further
polarize the communities given the disparate views of
local leaders of the major parties. In inaugurating
the first development project fully funded by USAID in
the region, the Ambassador strongly signaled the U.S.
GovernmentQs desire to help mitigate underlying local
problems that fuel the ethnic tension. Stability in
the Chittagong Hill Tracts is important to ensure
terrorists from neighboring India and Burma do not use
the region as a safe haven.

-----------------------------------------
USG LAUNCHES INAUGURAL PROGRAM IN THE CHT
-----------------------------------------

2. (SBU) On November 18, Ambassador Moriarty launched
the Integrated Protected Area Co-management project,
the first U.S. Government program in the region since
Bangladesh independence in 1971. This program, with a
total value of USD 13 million, will focus on
sustainable natural resource management and
biodiversity conservation, while promoting equitable
economic growth and environmental governance. These
development issues are at the heart of the land
disputes between indigenous tribes and Bengalis who
have moved to the Hill Tracts from elsewhere in
overpopulated Bangladesh.

--------------------------------------
A LONG HISTORY OF LAND RIGHTS DISPUTES
--------------------------------------

3. (U) The Chittagong Hill Tracts comprise an area of
13,180 square kilometers in southeastern Bangladesh
and borders India and Myanmar. About half the regionQs
1.5 million people belong to indigenous ethnic groups
that mainly follow Theravada Buddhism. Bengali Muslims
account for most of the rest of the population. Many
of the Bengalis arrived from densely populated regions
of Bangladesh as part of a massive government
resettlement drive in the 1970s and 1980s. The state
gave the settlers title to local land, leading to a
resistance movement led by the Shanti Bahini guerilla
force. The Government deployed more than 80,000
security personnel during the 1970s, turning the
region into a militarized zone. The military presence
remains strong.

4. (U) The Government of Bangladesh and tribal
communities signed a Peace Accord in 1997 but it still
has not been fully implemented. The Accord stipulated
the transfer of all government offices to minority-led
District Councils, but the critical Forest Department
and the Bangladesh Fisheries Development Corporation
offices are among several remaining outside the
councilsQ control. The government still appoints
members of Regional Councils and District Councils,
although the Accord calls for their election.
Additionally, a Land Commission established in 2001 to
determine ownership of CHT land has yet to be formed.

5. (U) Another land issue stems from the migration of
indigenous communities to remote Hill Tracts areas in
fear of attacks by Bengali settlers. Many tribal
groups have moved into reserve forests and other
protected areas, where they live under constant threat
of eviction by the Forest Department. Illegal logging
by the military, traders, government officials and
Bengali settlers also have pushed indigenous farmers
deeper into the countryside and even into neighboring
countries. The degradation of the rain forest poses a
clear threat to the itinerant hillside cultivation
practiced for generations by the indigenous
population.

DHAKA 00001254 002 OF 002

6. (SBU) During his visits to indigenous communities,
Ambassador Moriarty heard several accounts of Bengali
settlers grabbing land farmed by tribesmen. Cultivable
land is scarce in the hilltops, and tribal villagers
with titles to their land recounted how Bengali
settlers showed up with documents claiming ownership.
Villagers acknowledged that in a number of recent
cases, judgments have gone in favor of the indigenous
population when the disputes were brought to court.

--------------------------------------------- ----
NATIONAL ELECTIONS COULD EXACERBATE LOCAL TENSION
--------------------------------------------- ----

7. (SBU) The stark political differences in the Hill
Tracts were on display during a November 19 dinner
among the Ambassador and local leaders of the
countryQs two major parties, the Awami League, and the
Bangladesh National Party (BNP). Rangamati District
BNP President Zahir Ahmed, a Bengali Muslim, supported
equal access to local land and government positions
for settlers. Dipankar Talukdar, a former Member of
Parliament for the Awami League who is from a local
tribe, advocated equal rights with protection of
minorities. He acknowledged that his relatively
moderate views were unpopular among indigenous people.
Both politicians displayed considerable anger and
resentment at how QunfairlyQ their supporters were
being treated by the other side. Nurul Alam Siddique,
representing the JamaQat party was also present at the
dinner but he was silent for most of the discussion.

8. (SBU) Ethnic tension could increase should
campaigning further polarize the Bengali and
indigenous populations before the December 29
Parliament elections. Among those preaching calm is
Sadhanananda Mohathera, popularly called the QBono
Bhante.Q The wizened 88-year-old is revered by all
people of the Hill Tracts regardless of their
religious faith. He preaches the Buddhist philosophy
of non-violence and is an important stabilizing force
in the region. He told the Ambassador that the
indigenous people of the Hills had to figure out a way
to live with the Bengalis: Qwe have no choice.

---------------------------------------
COMMENT: U.S. PRESENCE CAN HELP THE CHT
---------------------------------------

9. (SBU) The Chittagong Hill Tracts is a land in
conflict. The divide among Bengali settlers and tribal
hill-people can easily flare given the regionQs
extreme poverty and disparate views over fundamental
rights and access to land. The new USG presence
through USAID-funded development activity should help
tribal communities bring about long-lasting change
that will strengthen their fragile livelihoods.
Embassy personnel will make regular trips to the
Chittagong Hill Tracts to monitor the new development
work and to encourage all sides to settle differences
peaceably and through respectful negotiations.
Creating a more stable environment will discourage
both domestic and international terrorists from using
the Chittagong Hill Tracts as a safe haven.

PASI

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