Electoral/Political Party Reform: Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord (CHT)

B) Hill DISTRICT LOCAL GOVT. COUNCIL / HILL DISTRICT COUNCILS

9. The existing section 17 shall be replaced with the sentences mentioned as below:

A person shall, under the Act, be eligible to be enrolled in the electoral roll, if

(1) he is a citizen of Bangladesh;
(2) his age is not less than 18 years;
(3) he is not declared mentally unsound by any competent court;
(4) he is a permanent resident of Hill District.

Implementation History

1998

Minimum Implementation

The first three clauses of this provision date back to 1989 in the original Rangamati Hill District Council Act and did not involve any change to existing legislation. The 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Accord added clause 4, which stipulated that only certified permanent residents of the CHT could vote in CHT elections. The significance of adding clause 4 was that, if fully enforced, it would give the Jumma community an electoral majority in the CHT by preventing non-permanent residents (i.e., Bengali settlers) from voting in CHT elections. This would ensure that the elected representatives for the CHT were mostly tribal members. Because the Accord granted the Circle Chiefs the authority to decide permanent residency status, the addition of clause 4 would have given tribal leaders a large degree of control over who would be eligible to vote in CHT elections.

In 1998, clause 4 was added to existing legislation as called for by the Accord. The phrase “he is a permanent resident of Hill District” was inserted into the Rangamati Hill District Council Act by Act IX of 1998. Although the change was made, the resulting new law was not enforced, or could not be enforced, for two main reasons. First, the changes in the CHT Accord were in contradiction to the Bangladeshi national constitution. Faced with this contradiction, government officials in the CHT allowed residents of a district to retain their voting rights under the Bangladesh constitution. According to clause 2 (d), of Article 122 of the Bangladesh Constitution and Section 4 of the Electoral Rolls Ordinance of 1982, “A person has the right to be included in the voter list of a constituency determined for parliamentary elections, if he/she is a resident of that constituency or considered to be a resident of that constituency by law” and “a person shall be considered to be a resident of that constituency where he/she usually or generally lives."

The Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (English: United People's Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts), or PCJSS, in their own publications admitted that the electoral changes called for by the CHT Accord were not in accordance with the Bangladesh constitution. The PCJSS insisted that in order to fully implement clause 4, government officials had to violate the national constitution and take away the voting rights of several hundred thousand Bengali settlers residing in the CHT, many in government sponsored camps. The government thus far had been unwilling or incapable of enforcing the new law.

The second reason why the new law was not enforced had to do with the fact that tribal authorities did not gain the level of control over the granting of permanent residency certificates in the CHT as they expected. In other words, implementing electoral reform in the CHT depended upon the successful implementation of citizenship reform. Citizenship reform, however, was not implemented and this resulted in thousands of Bengali settlers being issued permanent residency certificates by CHT Deputy Commissioners, which in turn, allowed them to be put on voter registration lists. The crafters of the 1997 Accord counted on gaining control over CHT citizenship qualifications as part of their plan to prevent Bengali settlers from voting, but Bengali settlers and government officials found ways of getting around the provision.1

  • 1. See Citizenship reform for this agreement.
1999

Minimum Implementation

 In March 1999, the sixth meeting of the Task Force on Rehabilitation of Refugees and Internal Displaced Persons met to settle the issue of Bengali refugees returning to the CHT. The CHT Accord stipulated that only those owning land in the CHT and residing in the CHT would qualify for permanent residency. The PCJSS rejected any plans that gave Bengali refugees rehabilitation assistance to resettle back in the CHT. At the meeting, the government appointed Chair of the Task Force, Dipankar Talukdar, insisted that all internal refugees, tribal and non-tribal, should be rehabilitated. The PCJSS demanded that only tribal refugees be rehabilitated back to the CHT and that Bengalis be resettled by the government outside the CHT.2

Later that year in August of 1999, the Task Force reported on the number of refugees that had signed up for rehabilitation in the CHT. The Chair of the Task Force, Dipankar Talukdar, reported that “a total of 152,000 families, of which 83,525 are tribals and 68,475 are non-tribals, from the three hill districts of rangamati, khagrachhari and bandarban (sic) have filled out the government supplied forms to be entertained as internal refugees” (Xinhua News Agency, 1999). The chair indicated that non-tribal refugees displaced by the insurgency would be treated as internal refugees and rehabilitated.3

  • 2. “6th meeting of CHT Task Force ends without any decision,” The Independent, March 10, 1999.
  • 3. “80 pct of repatriated tribals rehabilitated in Bangladesh,” Xinhua News Agency, August 4, 1999.
2000

Minimum Implementation

 In 2000, the Task Force on Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons submitted a list of 90,208 indigenous families and 38,156 Bengali families to be rehabilitated. The PCJSS and Jumma Refugee Welfare Association rejected the list because it contained Bengali settlers who came to the CHT during the government sponsored transmigration program from 1979 to 1984. When the non-PCJSS members refused to exclude the Bengali settlers, the PCJSS and the Jumma Refugee Welfare Association boycotted the Task Force, thereby shutting it down.4

  • 4. "Study on the status of implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997, submitted by the Special Rapporteur," UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) (E/C.19/2011/6), February 18, 2011, accessed November 17, 2014, http://www.refworld.org/docid/4dbfb1262.html.
2001

Minimum Implementation

In 2001, these issues finally came to a head when thousands of non-permanent residents were included on the voter registration list for the 2001 national parliamentary elections. A UN Report on the CHT Accord summarized the incident:

"The Accord stipulates the preparation of a voter list comprising only the permanent residents of the three hill districts, that is, individuals having a specific address and legally valid ownership of land in the region. A voter list prepared prior to the 2001 parliamentary election, which included non-permanent Bengali settlers, was therefore rejected by PCJSS. Another matter is the issue of “permanent residents”. Given that a large percentage of the Government-sponsored Bengali settlers of the region have land-record documents, and given the question of whether many of the titles held by the settlers are valid in the first place, there are fears that many Bengali settlers will once again be included if a new voter list is prepared."5

On September 27, 2001, the PCJSS called for a general strike and announced that it would boycott the national election scheduled for the next week because tribal members were not being allowed to vote in CHT elections. The PCJSS stated to the press that since the 1997 Peace Accord, thousands of tribes people who had returned to the CHT were not eligible to vote because they lacked land titles.6

  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. “Former Bangladesh rebel group calls strike for election day,” Agence France Presse, September 27, 2001.
2002

Minimum Implementation

No developments observed this year.

2003

Minimum Implementation

No developments observed this year.

2004

Minimum Implementation

No developments observed this year.

2005

Minimum Implementation

No developments observed this year.

2006

Minimum Implementation

No developments observed this year.

2007

Minimum Implementation

According to several reports on the status of this provision, the “issue of the voter list…remains unresolved.”7

In summary, no developments on this issue seem to have been made from 2000 onwards. The PCJSS demanded that non-land owning Bengalis be denied permanent residency status and be stripped of voting rights in the CHT. They also maintained that government issued land titles from the transmigration period were not valid land titles. In sharp contrast, the CHT Deputy Commissioners continued to grant permanent residency status to Bengalis regardless of whether they owned land in the CHT. The 2011 PCJSS implementation report stated that, “at least 300,000 Bengali settlers who were brought into the three hill districts in the 80s by the government got enrolled in the recent voter list.” Given the magnitude of the problem, the volatility in the tracts between the two ethnic communities, and the continued military presence, this provision will likely remain unenforceable.

  • 7. "Study on the status of implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997."