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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Discord over CHT land intensifies

Courtesy: The Daily Star, Dhaka, Tuesday, December 28, 2010, Front Page
Web: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=167719

Discord over CHT land intensifies
Hearing stalled amid protests; indigenous communities demand for law amendment

Star Report

Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Committee's hearings, that were supposed to be inaugurated yesterday, are now in a limbo amid protests from indigenous communities and the government's stalling over making its position clear.

The indigenous communities are demanding that CHT Land Commission law be amended, as the current law gives the commission chairman absolute power to decide ownership of disputed lands. They are also demanding resignation of current Chairman Khademul Islam Chowdhury.

Meanwhile, the government is not making its position clear.

Khademul Islam however told The Daily Star last night that the government suspended the commission's activities for an indefinite period, although he did not receive any such letter.

"The move will stall implementation of the peace accord," he added.

A correspondent from Khagrachhari reported that the indigenous communities were demonstrating there yesterday morning as the Land Commission was about to start the inaugural session of the hearings.

Chief of CHT Peace Accord Implementation Committee Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury was present there for the inaugural session at 9:30am.

"The hearing was scheduled to start at 9:30 in the morning, but she stopped the activities of the commission at 9," Khademul said.

Mostafa Kamal, personal secretary to Sajeda Chowdhury, however said last night that the deputy leader of parliament neither suspended the activities of the land commission, nor did she give any hope to the indigenous communities regarding meeting their demands.

Member Secretary of the Land Commission Abdul Hamid said they so far received 3,933 applications for resolving land disputes in different upazilas of the three hill districts.

After scrutiny, 1,000 petitions were taken into cognisance, and were prepared for resolving legally, he added.

Disputes over land have been the central point of often violent conflicts between Bangalee settlers and the indigenous communities in the hill districts since the peace accord was signed in 1997.

Prior to that, the indigenous communities fought a bloody war of over two decades, protesting relocation of a large number of Bangalees there, and demanding self-determination.

The peace accord opened an opportunity for thousands of indigenous people to come back home from refugee camps in Tripura of India.

But still around 9,780 indigenous families, out of 12,222 who returned from Tripura are yet to get back their land.

Parbatya Chattagram Janasanghaty Samity (PCJSS) published an evaluation paper this year about the status of implementation of the CHT peace accord, where it mentioned that forty villages in the three hill districts are still occupied by Bangalee settlers, which used to be indigenous villages.

The report also said the present government cancelled lease allocations of 593 plots out of 2,000 on 50 thousand acres of land that had been given to Bangalee settlers.

New Bangalee settlements are still propping up on the hills, and forceful grabbing of indigenous land by the settlers is rampant, indigenous leaders said.

Now the indigenous communities fear that they will not get justice from the present land commission.

They say they lost confidence in the commission and its chairman, as he has been ignoring the demands of regional political and socio-cultural organisations, and of the traditional kings of the communities.

The commission chairman however said, "It is a matter of law that gives the chairman the power. It is possible to resolve the land disputes under the existing law."

Soon after taking office, the present Awami League government appointed retired High Court judge Khademul Islam Chowdhury as the chairman of CHT Land Commission.

According to the peace accord, the government must identify the original owners of land in CHT first, said CHT Regional Council Chairman Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, popularly known as Santu Larma.

"The chairman of the land commission is ignoring our demands. So the land disputes will not be resolved this way," said Santu Larma, at a media conference held in Dhaka last month.

The Land Commission Law was passed in the parliament in 2001 without any consultation with the CHT Regional Council, said indigenous community leaders.

The law incorporated 22 disputed provisions, they added.

Later a series of discussions between the government and PCJSS resolved most of those disputes, they said.

Now they want the government to amend the law before starting the land commission hearings for resolving the disputes.

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