Civil War: Bangladesh (1972-1997)

Milica Begovich. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Writings on Alexander’s invasion of India in 326 BCE contain the earliest historical references to organized political life in the Bangladesh area. Some historians suggested that Alexander the Great halted his conquest of lands to the east in anticipation of fierce resistance from the Gangaridai and Prasioi empires, located in the Bengal region (Ministry of Information n.d.). Since that time, the area has seen the rise and fall of many great kingdoms and principalities, including Pundra Vardhana (northern Bangladesh), Gauda (parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh), Dandabhukti (southern West Bengal), Karna Subarna (part of West Bengal), Varendra (northern Bangladesh), Rarh (southern areas of West Bengal), Summha Desa (southwestern West Bengal), Vanga (central Bangladesh), Vangala (southern Bangladesh), Harikela (Northeast Bangladesh), Chandradwipa (southern Bangladesh), Subarnabithi (central Bangladesh), Navyabakashika (central and southern Bangladesh), Lukhnauti (North Bengal and Bihar), and Samatata (eastern Bangladesh). Bangladesh continued to play an integral role throughout its history as a cultural, economic, and natural bridge between south Asia and Southeast Asia. The year 1757 marked the beginning of a 200-year period of British colonial rule, with the arrival of the East India Company (Cain and Hopkins, 1995). Imperialistic policies and exploitation of the country that directly fueled England’s Industrial Revolution left a devastating legacy for the people and the land, best summarized by historian R. C. Dutt:

The people of Bengal had been used to tyranny but had never lived under an oppression so far-reaching in its effects, extending to every village market and every manufacturer’s loom. They had been used to arbitrary acts from men in power but had never suffered from a system that touched their trades, their occupations, their lives so closely. The springs of their industry were stopped, the sources of their wealth dried up. (Bangladesh Sangbad Sanghsta, 2006)

Under the British, the Hindu middle class emerged as the greatest beneficiary of the colonial rule, much to the dismay of Muslim aristocracy, who were forced to seek support among the lower echelons of the society. This reinforced the rivalry between two religions, marking the onset of Bangladeshi Islamization, which persists even today. Muslims’ unrelenting demands for higher administrative status for Bengal and a guarantee of representation in politics for the Bengali population were continuously denied, culminating in the 1940 Pakistan Resolution at Lahore. The agreement called for geographically contiguous units to be “demarcated into regions which should be constituted with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary so that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority should be grouped to constitute ‘Independent States’ in which the constitutional units [shall] be autonomous and sovereign” (Pakistan Resolution of the Lahore Session of the All India Muslim League 1940).

Implying that South Asia consists of many nations, not merely two, the agreement explicitly signaled balkanization of the subcontinent. Like Woodrow Wilson’s promise of the right to self-determination to many of world’s minorities at the Paris Peace Conference of 1918, the Lahore Declaration promised everything to everyone.

Through the partition, areas in which Muslims had a numerical majority would constitute Pakistan, and those with non-Muslim majority would remain in India. A small, hilly region of East Bengal, the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), which the British annexed in 1860 and awarded a special administrative status in 1900 restricting the settlement of nontribals, was of little relevance in the partition process of the 1940s, because its population was neither Muslim nor Hindu (Arens and Chakma 2002).

In 1947, the British divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. East Bengal constitutionally became a province of Pakistan, separated from it by a 1,000-mile physical boundary. Territorial solutions did little to mitigate rising tensions in the region, which flowed from religious and linguistic differences of the majority populations within and among the two countries. As a result, the British Boundary Commission was set up in order to demarcate the boundaries in the high-risk areas of Bengal and Punjab. The commission awarded the CHT to Pakistan despite the region’s religious and demographic similarities to India (Zeigler 2001).

In the two decades that followed, East Pakistan Bengalis conducted a united campaign to reassert their unique cultural and linguistic identity, among their fellow religionists who spoke a different language. In 1966, the first political party, the Awami League, was created to defend and enforce these demands. The league adopted a six-point platform calling for a parliamentary government elected by universal adult suffrage, legislative representation on the basis of population, federal government in charge of foreign affairs and national defense, and provincial autonomy in domestic issues (Arens and Chakma 2002). The Bengalis’ effort culminated in a bloody war of independence in 1971, which they won; and the independent country of Bangladesh was born.

Economic stagnation during the decade following independence reflects the tumultuous political environment and the inability of successive nondemocratic leaders to develop and sustain any type of economic growth. The long-sought independence of Bangladesh, although providing a solution to one set of problems, essentially brought a new set of issues to the country along with the beginning of an endemic internal war. Natural disasters occurring during the 1970s combined with other factors—the breakdown of a democratic regime and the beginnings of military control of the state, undefined rights of minorities within the new country, repopulation of a large number of refugees from the 1971 war, and most important, the government’s failure to recognize previous agreements granting special status to more than thirty ethnie minorities living in Chittagong Hills Track (CHT)—set Bangladesh on a path to civil war.

As a result, the hillsides of southeast Bangladesh gave rise to the military organization Shanti Bahini (Peace Force), which abandoned peaceful solutions to the conflict and took up arms in order to protect the indigenous Jumma people in a war that in some respects is still going on. The irony is that, after decades of repression and denial of their cultural and political rights, Bengalis finally won independence for their country, and immediately turned to suppressing and denying those same rights to the minorities in the CHT. This situation provided the springboard for twenty-four years of civil war that persist to the present day. The war is said to have lasted twenty-four years as the Peace Agreement was signed in 1997. That fact notwithstanding, low-key violence and hostilities continue in Bangladesh today. As the literature on civil conflicts has not yet conclusively answered the question of what point constitutes the end of the war, we will take the year the peace agreement was signed as the endpoint, although this interpretation may not be factually correct.

Country Background

When he took over the independent Bangladesh in 1970, Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib) planned to establish a parliamentary democracy, rebuild the war-ravaged country, reestablish law and order, and reintegrate returning refugees. He quickly abandoned those plans, instead focusing on consolidating his power in a presidential democracy. Ensuing political disorder led to his assassination and a coup d’état, which resulted in a the new president-general, Ziaus Rahman (Zia), leader of the Islamic Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). His troubling contribution to the country’s development was redefinition of Bangladeshi nationalism as one race (Bengali), one religion (Islam), and one language (Bengali)—signifying assertion of the Muslim identity among Bengalis and intolerance of non-Islamic groupings within the country, much to the dismay of the largely Buddhist and Hindu CHT tribal people. This legacy is felt today, for Bangladesh remains an “Islamic democracy.” A succession of coups and military rule ensued up until the end of the Cold War, but any hopes that democracy may take hold in a new international system were shattered by a faltering economy, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, political polarization, and endemic corruption. Since 1990, the political power has shifted away from the BNP to the Awami League without any significant changes in economic development or political reforms toward democracy.

Bangladesh remains at or near the bottom of all international lists measuring economic and social growth, with 38 million people living below the poverty line. More than 50 percent of children are malnourished. During the period 2000–2004, Transparency International found Bangladesh to be the most corrupt state in the world. Nationwide political protests remain one of the strongest tools used by opposition parties to induce change. Coupled with excessive use of violence by law enforcement officers to keep protesters in check, riots have caused hundreds of deaths and many more injuries across the country. There is an almost total breakdown of the rule of law, complete disregard for the minority rights, and an increase in terrorist groups and activities that threaten any future attempts at democratic transition and economic development.

Conflict Background

The CHT, located between the Arakan hills of Burma and northeast India, are home to thirty ethnic communities. Collectively known as Jumma for their cultivation of jumma, a grain that is the country’s chief export, the tribes constitute 0.5 percent of the 141 million people in Bangladesh. In addition to religious differences, the indigenous people differ physically from the majority of Bengalis in that they are of Sino-Tibetan descent, with distinctively Mongoloid features. There are also linguistic disparities, as well as dissimilarities in social organization, marriage customs, and birth and death rites (Schendel 1995). Largest of the thirteen main Jumma nationalities are the Chakmas, who number an estimated 350,000 and occupy the central and northern parts of the CHT, including the capital, Rangamati (Anti-Slavery International 1989). The second-largest ethnic group are the Marmas, who number about 140,000 and live in the southern and northeastern parts of the CHT. Both ethnic minorities are Buddhist. The third-largest group are the Tripuras, who practice Hinduism, are related to similar peoples in the Tripura state of India, and inhabit mostly the northern part of the CHT. These three ethnic groups constitute an estimated 87 percent of the total Jumma population, which, according to the 1991 census, totaled 590,000.

Genesis of the post-independence civil war can be traced to the 1962 World Bank–sponsored commissioning of the Kaptai Hydroelectric Power Project, which resulted in the displacement of 100,000 people, or one-quarter of the CHT population, and the submerging of 40 percent of the region’s rich agricultural land (Mohsin and Ahmed 1996). The Pakistani government spent 12.5 million rupees (compared to the planned 240 million) for the rehabilitation and compensation of the people displaced as a result of the project. Aggravating the problem further, in 1964 the government annulled the CHT Regulation of 1900, withdrawing the region’s special administrative status. This decision was reaffirmed in the 1972 Bangladesh Constitution (Arens and Chakma 2002). When General Zia became the new president in 1975 through a military coup, democratic struggle for the CHT autonomy grew into a low-intensity armed conflict that evolved into a civil war, which has lasted to some extent to the present day.

Some 65,000 Chakma tribe members remain in India today, where they took refuge not only from the Kaptai Dam construction but also from the government forces in the civil war (Human Rights Congress on Bangladesh Minorities 2003). The Chakmas, who settled in the northeastern part of the country, disrupted the demographic structure of the three districts: Lohit, Changlang, and Papumpare. Adding to the tensions are numerous reports pointing to the nexus of the Chakma refugees with underground extremists operating in Tripura. There is currently no integrated regional approach or political willingness to resolve the refugee crisis.

Bangladesh’s independence brought about human rights abuses and large-scale massacres of the indigenous people of the CHT (United Nations Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights 1993). The government approved policies of “planned population transfer” whereby more than half a million Bengali plains settlers were moved into the CHT in an effort to displace the Jumma peoples. The initial settlement plan included the transfer of 400,000 Bengalis into the region, pushing the locals into areas of lower-quality agricultural land and forcing different tribes to coalesce into cluster villages that resembled concentration camps (Amnesty International 2000).

Shanti Bahini initially formed resistance against such encroachment of government-sponsored Bengali population transfers in the CHT (Huque 1998). As its tactics failed to prevent the further influx of Muslims into the region, Shanti Bahini’s goals evolved into outright demands for the region’s elevated autonomy. In some accounts, this dispute is compared to the American Indian campaigns, in which soldiers and white settlers pushed the Indians westward in an attempt to fulfill a nineteenth-century political philosophy of a “manifest destiny.” This philosophy held that the United States held a right to the conquest of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

In the mid-1970s, the Bangladesh government sanctioned military occupation of the region, causing a refugee spillover into neighboring India. The government persistently denies most of the charges of arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial execution, massacre, torture, and unlawful killing of the indigenous people. Instead, it claims that the tribes constitute less than 0.5 percent of the total population inhabiting more than 10 percent of the area of Bangladesh and that therefore an influx of settlers is inevitable and within their rights. The ongoing civil war continued until the formal peace agreement was signed in 1997, ending a twenty-four-year insurgency that claimed more than 8,500 soldiers, rebels, and civilians and caused an influx of more than half a million refugees into neighboring countries (PRIO 2004). In the eight years since the agreement, Bangladesh has yet to come to terms with the disastrous legacies of civil war; the legal, political, and economic bias toward the tribal people; and the sporadic acts of aggression and violence across the CHT—all of which stand in the way of the agreement’s implementation. The government has violated most of its key promises in the accords. The Bangladesh military, which remains a de facto authority in the region, surrounds the area, assisting in the construction of hundreds of mosques, Islamic religious schools (madrassas), and Muslim settlements. Any attempt to oppose the status quo ends in arrest, torture, and jail on charges of terror and extortion. The most threatening development remains the silent genocide: demographic manipulation of government-sponsored Muslim settlement, which resulted in the increase of the Muslim population in the CHT from 2 percent in 1947 to more than 60 percent in 2004. In one such operation in the early 1980s, Ali Haider Khan, deputy commissioner of the CHT, was authorized to implement the settlement of 100,000 Bengali families to the CHT (Peace Campaign Group 2000). Under the program, each family received between 2.5 and 5 acres of land, depending on location; preference was given to retired army personnel and former members of paramilitary forces.

Many international observers, indigenous representatives, and foreign officials within the country bear witness to severe human rights violations, degradation of democratic norms and standards, unlawful use of military force against civilians, systematic racial discrimination, ensuing ethnic cleansing in the CHT, communal attacks on tribal villages, suppression of free media, and politically motivated attacks on human rights activists, intellectuals, and opposition political leaders. Moreover, the 2001 election saw the rise of Islamic political parties backed by an 88-percent Muslim population in Bangladesh, confirming allegiance to the “Islamic State” (Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Part I, Article 2A). The country has since become the new “rest stop” for Taliban and al-Qaeda fugitives and has further strengthened its resolve in the Islamization of the CHT and the victimization of its citizens. In an effort to keep the war a secret, the government has denied or restricted the movement of peace activists and journalists throughout the region, and tourists who arrive by bus from the Chittagong port are allowed to spend no longer than twenty-four hours to a few days in the CHT.

The Insurgents

Efforts of the indigenous people to create an organized resistance movement within the CHT date back to the establishment of British colonial rule. The Chakmas, the largest of the thirty tribes populating the disputed region, demanded constitutional recognition of the CHT as a special administrative area within the British Empire. In 1900, the struggle resulted in a special ordinance that declared the CHT a special administrative area. This special status was annulled in the 1964 Pakistani constitution and in the subsequent 1972 Bangladesh constitution.

Sources: Levine 1999; Center for the Study of Civil War (n.d.); Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities 2003.
War: Shanti Bahini vs. government
Dates: August 1972–December 1997
Casualties: 8,500 (rough estimate)
Regime type prior to war: Parliamentary democracy
Regime type after war: Parliamentary democracy (BNP)
GDP/capita year war began in 1972: US $920.48
GDP/capita 5 years after war in 2000: US $1684.58
Insurgents: Shanti Bahini, UNDF
Issue: Privileged status for the CHT region
Rebel funding: Drugs, arms smuggling, ransom
Role of geography: Rebels hid in forested and hill areas
Role of resources: Not decisive or adequate enough to cite
Immediate outcome: 25-year civil war; treaty signed in 1997
Outcome after five years: Feeble peace with low-key, sporadic violence
Role of UN: UNDP in facilitating development
Role of regional organizations: None
Refugees: Estimated 60,000 remain outside country, some repatriated (action still in progress); 50,000 internally displaced persons
Prospects for peace: Not favorable
Table 1: Civil War in Bangladesh

Resulting Jumma resentment and dissatisfaction inspired the creation of a political party under the auspices of MP (member of Parliament) Manabendra Narayan Larma on February 15, 1972: Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS). The party viewed the emergence of Bangladesh on the basis of Bangladeshi and Islamic nationalism as an implicit threat to Jumma’s future political, social, and economic development. The party presented the Awami League with a four-point list, demanding (a) declaration of the CHT as an autonomous zone with its own assembly, (b) the incorporation of provisions similar to the 1900 CHT Ordinance into the Bangladesh constitution, (c) recognition and maintenance of the tribal kings’ offices, and (d) incorporation of provisions safeguarding the autonomy of the CHT into the Bangladesh constitution. The government not only ignored the list of demands but responded with a military offensive and a population transfer of Bengalis to the CHT. On the other hand, the CHT tribes, having exhausted the peaceful means of conflict resolution, turned to arms and violence. To that end, Shanti Bahini coordinated, implemented, supported, trained, and funded guerrilla warfare to preserve the special status of the region and the safety of its people. Although its success in achieving the organization’s goals remains debatable, Shanti Bahini provided the backbone of armed resistance to the Bangladesh government for decades until it was formally abolished in 1999.

Shanti Bahini was formed on January 7, 1973, a year after the PCJSS had exhausted all peaceful means of conflict resolution. Most of its members came from the three most numerous tribes in the region—the Chakma, the Tripura, and the Marma—who were also the most disadvantaged by the government’s regional policies. Although most legacies of the war for independence were harmful to the indigenous people, the leftover surplus of small arms, modern weapons technologies, and explosives were a great advantage to Shanti Bahini. Ideological fervor was augmented with the necessary military equipment, and the stage was set for an intense civil war.

Armed operations began in 1974, after a large number of tribal people were properly trained and equipped. In addition to the regular force, Shanti Bahini created a militia consisting of personnel less well-trained but capable enough of disturbing the peace and the lives of Bengali settlers in the CHT. In the ensuing two decades, the rebels conducted raids on the government forces surrounding the region, ambushes of government military officials, kidnappings of foreign nationals for ransom, forceful extortion of resources from the settlers, and acts of aggression against fellow tribesmen unsympathetic to their goal. Resisting them stood the army and the police, who also created, trained, and equipped the Village Defense Parties. Also known as Defense Police, these groupings were made up of Bengali settlers in the CHT.

After Larma’s assassination in 1983, the organization split into two factions, those who remained loyal to Larma’s goals and the Preeti group. The latter surrendered to the government in 1985, declaring a unilateral cease-fire and surrendering its weapons. The Larma group, under field commander Bodhipriya Larma, carried on activities against law enforcement and military personnel in the CHT, seeking autonomy for the region and halting of settlement. Bodhipriya initiated peace talks with the government in the early 1990s that eventually culminated in the agreement of 1997.


The CHT is located in southeastern Bangladesh, bordering India to the north and Myanmar to the east. It covers no more than 10 percent of the total land area of Bangladesh. Unlike the rest of the country, which is generally flat, the CHT terrain features numerous valleys, whose heavily forested ridges rise to more than 3,000 feet. The region is relatively resource rich, with an abundance of fruit, bamboo, timber, and gas deposits. Many Western oil giants have expressed the desire to commence exploration of the CHT gas reserves, Shell Oil among them.

Shanti Bahini used its geographical advantage to compensate for its relatively weak numerical strength. The indigenous people have lived in the area for centuries; they are far more familiar with the landscape than are the government’s forces, and they are thus able to execute insurgency from under the cover of the mountains and the forests. To that end, Shanti Bahini divided the CHT into two military zones (north and south), with each zone further split into three sectors and each sector into smaller areas. The headquarters and other logistically important rebel bases were located within the densest forests of the region.

The government’s response has been a public relations campaign declaring the problem in the CHT to be economic, not political. Government officials argue that the funds are desperately needed for the improvement of the standard of living and the economic infrastructure for indigenous people—a strategy that ultimately should bring about the end of hostilities. To that end, in 1976 the CHT Development Board was established to absorb and redirect foreign aid toward implementation of programs for the alleged economic development in the region. The contributions and financial aid poured in from many donors, including UNICEF, UNDP, and the Swedish and Australian governments. The real nature of the projects, however, was anti-insurgency development, including construction of road infrastructure to facilitate military deployment in remote areas of the region, deforestation to expose the rebel hideouts, and further military equipment for Bengali settlers to fight the insurgents. The true intentions of the CHT board and the Bangladeshi government were exposed in 1982, when the general officer in command of the 24th Infantry Division of the Bangladesh army was appointed the board’s chairman. He proceeded to further use funds provided by the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and others to achieve military goals in the region and to finance additional Bengali settlements.

As already shown, geography has been the key advantage of the rebels, providing a safe haven against the more sophisticated arms technology and numerical advantage of the government forces. Recently, Bangladesh has become the key transit point for illegal arms trade, most of which takes place through the Cox Bazar (Kamboj 2005). In the process, the country has been flooded with small arms and other, more developed weaponry readily available to the rebels. As they become better equipped, two interrelated factors stand to change: Geography stands to lose some of its relevance as the rebels’ primary advantage, as they may become capable of taking the conflict to the streets and other areas of the country.


The Bangladeshi government relied on four principal tactics to combat the CHT insurgency. First, it conducted arbitrary arrests, mass detentions, rapes, executions, torture, and kidnapping of indigenous people. International relief and human rights organizations fear that the true number of those who perished as a result will never be known. Second, the government encouraged forced population transfers of Bengalis into the region through generous allocations of land grants, cash, and rations. Bengali settlers now account for almost half the population. Although this program was secret at first, the government has admitted to the program’s implementation, aimed at artificially disrupting regional demographic balance. Third, the government sanctioned forced religious conversion and persecution through construction of mosques and madrassas, while encouraging destruction of Buddhist and Hindu temples. A Saudi government-funded nongovernmental organization (NGO), Al-Rabita, is a chief Islamic missionary institution in the country, receiving full state and military support in the Islamization of Bangladesh. Al-Rabita set up Islamic preaching centers and Islamic hospitals in the CHT, overtly promoting Islam and encouraging Jumma conversion. And fourth, the government committed massacres in the CHT—thirteen from 1980 to 1989—resulting in more than 3,000 civilian deaths and more than 100,000 refugees (Amnesty International 2000). The actual numbers will probably never be recovered.

On the rebel side, the tactic du jour is kidnapping. On February 16, 2001, three foreign nationals, engineers working in Bangladesh, were abducted by the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF), a group organized by former Larma faction members who did not support the signing of the 1997 agreement. In March of the same year, in one of several such instances that month, insurgents kidnapped three pro-Peace Treaty activists and injured several others (SATP 2001). These episodes are not likely to subside in the future, as the government persistently fails to address indigenous people’s grievances.

During the first few decades of the war, conflict was confined to the CHT. Manipulating geography to their advantage, the rebels relied chiefly on ambushing the government forces and conducting hit-and-run attacks on army personnel stationed in the area. This is likely to change. In addition to the small arms confiscated from the Bangladeshi and the capitulating Pakistani military, the rebels succeeded in acquiring some of the most advanced weapons technology. The sources of such sophisticated arms, including AK-47, silencer-fitted guns with telescopic viewfinders and antitank missiles, are still unknown or debated (A. Kumar 2003a). It is not known whether the government does not want to regulate the proliferation of arms in Bangladesh, or whether it is simply incapable of doing so. Recently, one significant seizure of illegal arms in the CHT region, on April 2, 2004, exposed 1,290 AK series rifles, 1.1 million rounds of ammunition, 25,020 grenades, 840 rockets, night vision goggles, and silencers for guns, in boxes labeled “made in China” (P. Kumar 2004). This confirms the recent UN research indicating the change in status of Bangladesh from a transit country to a country that is a user of illegally smuggled arms that are manufactured in illegal factories all over Bangladesh. The report further points out that there are an estimated 200,000 illegal firearms in the country and eighty syndicated terrorist and criminal groups. Additionally, some 600 to 700 illegal firearms enter the country each day (Kumar 2003a).

Experts claim that very few, if any, South Asian insurgency groups use such weaponry as high-velocity rockets. This equipment is more conducive to the classic warfare against a regular army, not the asymmetrical combat that has generally characterized the Bangladeshi civil war. With such weapons at their disposal, insurgents are now capable of taking the battle to the flatlands, creating chaos and panic among the Bengalis and executing attacks in public places or during demonstrations without being detected.

Causes of the War

Rarely has there been an instance of an armed conflict with respect to the occurrence of which one can point to a single cause. It is no different with the civil war in Bangladesh. At the present time, fewer than 1 percent of the country’s population, who live on an estimated 10 percent of the land, is seeking a special status for the region they live in. In contrast, the Bangladeshi government and its people remain reluctant to award any type of privileged constitutional standing to the CHT. The identity, cultural, and ethnic differences between the two sides have been reinforced by a combination of influences: historical factors; colonial, imperialistic, and governmental policies; the development of a “Bengali” nationalism; and the recent increase in the presence of Islamic fundamentalism in the country. These differences have played a key role in limiting the degree of interaction among the two sides, thereby impeding the growth of religious and ethnic tolerance and the growth of a functioning civil society. By extension, despite the signed peace accord in 1997, both sides remain hesitant to make the compromises that may help the country toward a sustained economic and political development. Nonetheless, the grand picture of the civil conflict in Bangladesh is not a simple one. The causes of the war include a number of factors that, combined, have led to a perpetual state of conflict and have retarded the country’s transition to peace.

The earliest period to which we can trace the roots of the conflict is when the UK granted independence to two successor states, India and Pakistan, a 1947 arrangement that left a bifurcated Muslim nation separated by more than a thousand miles. Under imperial rule, the CHT enjoyed a privileged administrative status, any type of Bengali settlement and migration was forbidden, and the region enjoyed limited self-government. Since the British left, the CHT has undergone a gradual stripping away of its special standing within the country as the prospects of eventual conflict grew proportionately with the diminishing rights of the indigenous people.

We can argue that the cause of the present-day civil war in Bangladesh dates to between 1957 and 1963, with the construction of the World Bank–sponsored Kaptai Dam near Rangmati. The Pakistani government sacrificed the interests of indigenous agricultural CHT population for a dependable source of energy. The project resulted in destruction of at least 54,000 acres of settled, arable land, cultivated mainly by the Chakma tribe, submergence of more than 400 square miles of additional land, and far-reaching negative economic, cultural, and social effects on the locals. An estimated 40,000 Chakma tribe members took refuge in neighboring India. Coupled with the construction, the Pakistani government encouraged the settlement of Bengalis in the area.

We can also argue that the progressive Islamization of Bangladesh has led to intolerance of any other religions and more violence against the groups resistant to Islam. Thus, the outbreak of the civil war was a natural consequence of policies that can be traced to the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulffikar Ali Bhutto. Allegedly, Bhutto believed that friendly relations between Bangladesh and India would pose a national security concern for Pakistan. To that end, he sought to spread Islamic fundamentalism throughout Bangladesh, driving a wedge between Bangladesh and its powerful, largely Hindu neighbor (S. Kumar 2005). This policy was strengthened in the late 1970s with the rise of the military leadership in Bangladesh, which proceeded to desecularize the Constitution of 1977 and lift the ban on communal and fundamentalist parties. When General Ershad came to power, declaring Islam the state religion in 1988, one can argue that the fate of the CHT people was sealed, as the choices available to them ranged from conversion to Islam to refuge in neighboring countries. Evidence shows that they overwhelmingly chose the latter option, joining the ranks of an estimated 20 million Bangladeshi immigrants. The mounting spread of Islam is most evident in the estimated 64,000 madrassas that are said to be the breeding ground for terrorists (Kamboj 2005).

Proliferation of Islamic education centers, largely financed by petrodollars from Saudi Arabia, is marked in the CHT region, where the fundamentalist group Harkat-ul-Jihad, an organization with Wahhabi and Taliban influences, equips and trains its followers to conduct armed raids against the tribes’ people. The group has since worked on establishing the Islamic Hukumat (Islamic Rule) in Bangladesh, and has provided support campaigns against such liberal and secular practices as music, dance, movies, and television. There are a number of other Islamic groups, one of which, Jamaat-i-Islami, holds two ministerial positions within the present BNP regime in Bangladeshi government.

It is no surprise that the government seeks Islamization of Bangladesh as a policy initiative geared toward establishing the country’s unified identity. Even though it is home to more than 140 million people, Bangladesh faces the significant security dilemmas that are often characteristic of smaller states. One such issue is its territorially and numerically powerful Hindu neighbor, India. Within that context, further Islamization of Bangladesh is one government’s available tool to prevent its identity from being subsumed by India. During its transition from Bengali to the identity of extremist Islamist nationalism, the Bangladeshi government faces two groups: non-Bengali speakers and non-Muslims, the majority of whom live in the CHT region. Fleeing government and terrorist forces, many non-Bengali and non-Muslim CHT people sought refuge in India, triggering a chronic refugee problem that persists to the present day.

On the other hand, we can also trace the conflict’s origin to 1971. Although Bangladeshi people sacrificed their lives to gain independence from Pakistan, the Jumma minorities remained largely indifferent to the cause of their countrymen. There is no single reason for this ambivalence, whether it be the relatively peaceful culture of the CHT tribes or Jumma’s expection of becoming a part of India. Additionally, some influential individuals among the CHT tribes sided with the Pakistani government, whereas others complained of being excluded from participation in the war. For one of those reasons or all of them combined, in the context of the Bangladeshi campaign for sovereignty, the Jummas’ intentions came to be perceived as disloyal. By extension, following the war for independence, the Bangladesh government and its people were quick to point a finger at the region and blame its people for treason and subversion. With its complete monopoly on the military and the police, the government was able to implement and enforce any policy it deemed necessary, including punishment of those who remained disloyal to the cause of independence. In the case of the CHT, that meant sanctioning population transfers into the region, denying the Jumma’s claim for elevated administrative status for the CHT, and employing aggression and hostility against the indigenous people.

Lastly, these events and subsequent developments in the region between the government and the CHT minorities unfolded against the background of a faltering economy with abundant but undeveloped resources, rampant corruption, nonexistent social benefits, an inefficient educational system, and successive military governments. In addition, Bangladesh’s relative lack of geostrategic importance warranted the noninvolvement of international community in the conflict, much to the satisfaction of the government, which was free to pursue its policies unfettered by outside influences.


Prior to the 1997 agreement, civil war in Bangladesh was fairly easy to explain: Shanti Bahini fought for the rights and autonomy of CHT, and the government struggled to prevent them from succeeding. In the postagreement period, the situation became a lot more complex. Sheik Hasina’s Awami League government, which won the national elections in 1996 and signed the 1997 agreement on government’s behalf, was replaced by the coalition of the BNP and the radical fundamentalist party Jamaat-i-Islami, both of which were against the agreement in the first place. On the side of the insurgents, there were now three factions: the United People’s Democratic Front, who views the agreement as an act of treason; the Parbatya Chattagram lana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS), who supported the agreement; and the indigenous people in general, who want peace, stability, order, and the rule of law to return to the country that has spent the last three decades entrenched in civil war. Most of the fighting in the area now occurs between the UPDF and the PCJSS on one side, while a low-key hostility and tension remain between the indigenous population and the Bengali settlers that can easily explode, given the proper trigger (such as the breakdown of internal order and law, a terrible economic situation, or an increase in radical fundamentalism), into large-scale violence at any point. In the five years after the agreement was signed, there were an estimated 300 victims; but things have grown more macabre since 2002, with confrontations and gunfire occurring daily.

Conflict Status

The Peace Agreement sought to mitigate three important issues. First, it stipulated the creation of the CHT Regional Council “comprising the Local Government Councils of the three Hill Districts,” which would have twenty-two members elected from the tribal population, with a special quota for each tribe. The council’s activities would include coordination of development activities in the area, general administration, provision of law and order, NGO activities, and disaster and relief management. Most important, the council would be entrusted with resolving land disputes, especially disputes between settlers and indigenous people regarding proper verification of land records in the region (Chittagong Hill Tracts Treaty 1997 , Article D.4). Second, the accord did not extend general amnesty to army and police personnel for past human rights violations, but it granted amnesty to those members of Shanti Bahini and PCJSS who surrendered their weapons. Third, the accord stipulated the need for speedy rehabilitation of tribal refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), who by definition are those displaced between August 1975 and August 1992.

More than eight years after the agreement that officially ended the civil war in Bangladesh, the country remains deeply entrenched in endemic political, social, and economic problems. In addition to those issues, the government’s lack of political willingness to implement the agreement’s provisions, coupled with growing resentment and tensions among an indigenous CHT population that grows more militarily able and better equipped as time goes by, threatens to push the country into another crisis. The agreement contains a number of weaknesses: There is no constitutional provision for ethnic identity or the councils, which consequently could be repealed at any point; there is no deadline for military withdrawal or implementation of the accord; and there is no provision for an independent monitoring institution to oversee implementation of the agreement.

Consequently, under no international or domestic pressure, the government has not fulfilled the four outstanding issues it promised in the accords:

  1. It has established the CHT regional council as promised, but the council is a de facto institution that remains void of any political power, autonomy, or legitimacy with which to solve one of the most pressing and contentious issues, the question of land;
  2. it has not repatriated the Jumma refugees and has not addressed the resettlement of the Bengali settlers who have inhabited the region through government-sponsored forced population transfers;
  3. it has not facilitated the return of the Chakmas’ ancestral lands taken over throughout the three decades of the conflict; and
  4. it has not reduced—but since 2002 has even stepped up—its military presence in the region. (A. Kumar 2003a).

The problem of IDPs can be likened to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, as both accentuate the grave prospects for solving the problem of land and property ownership. Refugees who wish to return to their homes often discover that, in the meantime, their houses have been taken over by members of another religion or side. The European Parliament has earmarked the funds for repatriation of Bengali settlers from the CHT back to the plains, but the government, despite voicing willingness to undertake such action given adequate funding, has yet to present a project proposal.

The BNP supports the status quo, the party having declared that the agreement was not in the interest of Bengali people. Keep in mind that the greater portion of its support comes from the fundamentalist Islamic groups and that its coalition partner is the radical Islamic group Jamaat-i-Islami; since its electoral win in 2001, the BNP has consistently acted against implementation of the 1997 accord. These issues constitute strong potential triggers capable of thrusting the country into another round of civil war.

Since 2001, the BNP set Bangladesh on the path of rapid Islamization, in the process providing safe haven for a number of international and domestic Islamic terrorist groups. Islamic outfits operating within Bangladesh won a de facto license to terrorize minority tribes in the country, mainly focusing on the CHT. The full support given to the Islamic groups by the local police effectively erodes the last line of defense of the indigenous people against the government. The divisional inspector general of police of Rajshahi, Noor Mohammad, has openly stated his support and has urged his colleagues to uphold the activities of the self-styled vigilante groups in the country (A. Kumar 2004). An estimated 305 minority attacks were reported in 2005; in 2004, eleven members of Hindu family in one CHT village were burned to death by an Islamic group (S. Kumar 2005). The government shows no signs of willingness or ability to maintain internal law and order. Proliferation of small arms and a flourishing drug trade are driving the crime rate up, justifying reports by the United Nations Development Program and Transparency International referring to Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world (Haokip 2002).

In addition, an estimated 20 million Bangladeshi immigrants have fled the country, about 15 million of whom have settled in India (Kamboj 2005). Instead of seeking to resolve the refugee problem, the Bangladesh government charged India with sheltering anti-Bangladesh groups, including the United People’s Democratic Front, which fights for CHT autonomy (Routray 2004). On September 20, 2004, Financial Express said, “There is mistrust and misunderstanding about India in Bangladesh. As a matter of fact, there is Indo-phobia not only in Bangladesh but in the region as well” (as quoted in Routray 2004).

There are no significant prospects for ending the refugee problem in a satisfactory way for any of the three sides—Bangladesh, India, or the refugees. Tensions have been rising within the two peaceful northeastern Indian states, Arunchal Pradesh and Mizoram, which are home to more than 60,000 Chakma and Hajong Buddhist refugees from the CHT region (Haokip, 2003). These indigenous people took refuge in the two republics as a result of the Kaptai Dam construction, and the subsequent civil war in the CHT became an added obstacle to their return. A significant portion, although not all, of the 60,000 consists of men and women fleeing the civil war and the subsequent failing life standards and lack of opportunity in Bangladesh. The increasing impatience of the citizens of Arunchal Pradesh and Mizoram about the issue has recently culminated in two significant events.

First, the All Arunachal Pradesh Student Union (AAPSU) served a quit notice to the refugees, threatening violence and agitation if they are not deported from the republic. The union’s members belong to the more radical elements of society, many of whom contributed to the formation of the Eastern India Liberation Tigers Front (EILTF). Their reaction was further aggravated by the decision of the Supreme Court of India to accept all Chakmas living in Arunachal Pradesh state as Indian citizens. Although the ruling does not guarantee citizenship rights, it lends legal credibility to all Chakmas who wish to stay in India.

In the second instance, the convener of the Core Committee on Deportation of Chakma Refugees, Domin Loya, conveyed an additional threat, claiming that New Delhi’s favorable stance on settling of refugees in the two republics may provoke large-scale violence and a civil war. Their statement implied not only a bilateral problem between Bangaldesh and India but the possibility of a larger national security problem if the issue is not resolved immediately: “If New Delhi [sic] try and impose an arbitrary decision asking Chakmas to be settled here, we would have to look for help from our lost brothers [implication for China] to fight for our rights” (Hoakip, 2003). In response to both threats, many of the young Chakma and Hajong indigenous people have crossed over to Bangladesh to engage in arms and drug smuggling.

Duration Tactics

South Asia is cradled between the Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent, two of the world’s key producers of psychotropic drugs. The Golden Crescent is the prime illicit opium-producing region in the world, located at the crossroads of central, south, and western Asia and overlapping three nations—Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. The Golden Triangle is the second-most important opium-producing area and also has been in the business longest (since the 1950s, as opposed to the Golden Crescent’s 1970s), straddling the mountains of three countries in southeast Asia: Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. As a consequence, rebel groups and government forces are able to extract enormous funds from the flourishing drug trade in an area where democratic norms and standards are difficult to come by and borders are porous. The flourishing drug trade has fostered a nexus of terrorist organizations, drug traffickers, and money launderers who, in addition to dealing a crushing blow to the rule of law, are also the key actors in regional civil wars. It is no different in Bangladesh, which is both the producer and a transit country for cannabis, heroin, opium, marijuana, and codeine-based cough syrups such as Phensedyl (Manohamaran 2003). Profits from illegal trade are used to bankroll the Islamization of the CHT on one side and continued insurgency on the other. Some studies showed an increase in the abuse of heroin since 1995 in Bangladesh and highlight the country’s producing capacity, with cannabis and poppy cultivation rife in the CHT (Haokip 2003).

External Military Intervention

Overwhelming international aid has recently targeted a reduction in population growth in Bangladesh in the hopes of enhancing economic development and indirectly halting the ongoing civil war (DaVanzo, Grammich, Nichiporuk, and Fair, 2004). The country features a high population density (nearly 1,100 per square kilometer), more than twice that of any other nation with at least 10 million people. It remains to be seen whether the government’s political commitment to this goal will contradict its pledge to the spread of Islam in the country. Due to rising tensions and the increase in confrontations, foreign aid is channeled into the country sparingly, and the international community remains largely aloof from the CHT conflict.

One of the more alarming trends in Bangladesh recently is the increase of foreign terrorist groups who, in addition to seeking a safe haven in Bangladesh, cooperate with the government in spreading Islam and forced conversion across the country. The most frequent point of entrance for the terrorist is the CHT, where many of them remain to support madrassas, terrorize the locals, smuggle drugs and arms, and train recruits in weapons handling (Sakhuja 2003). It is believed that 150 men belonging to the Taliban and al-Qaeda crossed into Bangladesh in 2001 through CHT, while Chittagong and Cox Bazar are two major transit points for arms smuggling. Time magazine dubbed Bangladesh a “hotbed of radical Islam,” whereas Far Eastern Economic Review was no less critical, depicting the country as a “cocoon of terror.”

Conflict Management Efforts

Bangladeshi civil war remained off the world’s radar for most of its duration until the signing of the 1997 agreement. The efforts to settle the conflict began in 1985, when the agreement between General Ershad’s government and a PCJSS breakaway faction resulted in surrender of the group’s 300 members, who in exchange received rehabilitation packages consisting of symbolic land rations (Amnesty International 2000). Leading PCJSS structures rejected the accord, and the conflict continued. One positive result was the beginning of communication between the two sides, which eventually resulted in the establishment of the three district elected councils in Rangmati, Khagrachari, and Bandarban with limited administrative and supervisory authority over some government departments, such as fisheries, agriculture, small and cottage industries, public health, and primary education. The PCJSS lobbied for the UN presence to oversee the withdrawal of the military and the Bengali settlers from the region. As the UN failed to respond, PCJSS announced a unilateral cease-fire in 1992, remaining in effect until the 1997 agreement between the National Committee on Chittagong Hill Tracts and the PCJSS in the presence of the highest government authorities in Bangladesh. One can only speculate whether the international community’s failure to oversee and support implementation of the agreement resulted in its failing legitimacy.


Two problems exist in Bangladesh relating to civil war. First, terrorism is on the rise, with alleged links between Bangladesh and Pakistan’s external intelligence agency (ISI) and international Islamic terrorist groups. Second, there is growing unrest in the CHT. The two reinforce one another. Under the government’s protection, terrorist groups ensure that arms and drug smuggling flourishes and madrassas proliferate. This poses a direct threat for the CHT non-Muslim. Since political dialogue ceased in 2001, the country has witnessed a breakdown of the rule of law and internal order that has subsequently hindered any chance of economic development.

Today, global broadcasting news agencies are focused on stories of nuclear talks with North Korea and the Iraqi war. The CHT population and stories of their multidecade appeal for recognition, peace, and stability have yet to reach a wide audience and provoke an urgent response and condemnation of human rights abuses.