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Insurgency in the Chittagong Hills

Probably the longest running source of domestic violence has been the tribal insurgency that has festered in the remote Chittagong Hill Tracts (see Glossary) since the late 1970s (see Ethnicity and Linguistic Diversity , ch. 2). Spearheaded by the predominantly Chakma guerrilla band known as the Shanti Bahini (Peace Force), in the late 1980s the rebels were still seeking autonomous status for the Chittagong Hills, the expulsion of Bengali settlers from traditional tribal lands, the restoration of tribal rights and privileges enjoyed under British and Pakistani rule and subsequently repealed by the Mujib government, and the withdrawal of the army from the Chittagong Hills. With an estimated strength of 2,000 lightly armed guerrillas, the Shanti Bahini carried out attacks against Bengali settlers, government facilities, and army convoys.

Through the late 1980s, military pacification efforts had been ineffective and often brutal. The Twenty-fourth Infantry Division, headquartered in Chittagong, was the army's largest formation with four infantry brigades and a specialized counterinsurgency unit based at Khagrachari. It mounted reprisal raids against civilian tribespeople as warnings against further attacks. Observers through 1986 estimated that about 400 security personnel had lost their lives in the Chittagong Hills; the civilian death toll was estimated at around 2,000. According to a September 1986 report by Amnesty International, the army regularly engaged in "unlawful killings and torture," acts that are specifically prohibited under the Constitution and various international accords to which Bangladesh is a party. Another human rights organization termed the army's Chittagong Hills campaign "genocide." Some commentators allege that the army has been overly zealous in stamping out the insurgency because the tribespeople are not Muslims.

In the late 1980s, the Chittagong Hills remained off-limits to all outsiders without a special permit. Details of the fighting therefore have been sketchy. Ershad, like his predecessors, denied reports of human rights violations and maintained that tribal rights would be safeguarded if the Shanti Bahini laid down their arms, accepted government offers of amnesty and rehabilitation, and participated in elections. Aside from the domestic implications of widespread violence in the Chittagong Hills, the fighting also had serious regional consequences. Bangladesh has frequently asserted that India has aided the Shanti Bahini by offering arms assistance, military training, and bases. India has denied the charges and has countered that Bangladesh Army operations in the Chittagong Hills have precipitated a massive exodus of Chakma refugees into the Indian state of Tripura.

Data as of September 1988