Military securitisation of domestic tourism in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) — which obtained their name under British colonial rule in 1860 — are a region in the southeastern corner of Bangladesh, inhabited by the indigenous Jumma people, which comprise several subgroups, such as the Chakma, Mro and Marma. The Jumma have a long history of resistance against external forces, dating back to colonial times. In 1997, a twenty-year long armed conflict between the Government of Bangladesh and the United People’s Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and its armed wing, the Shanti Bahini, over the issue of autonomy and land rights of the Jumma people finally came to an end. During this long civil conflict, the Bangladesh military had burned homes of the Jumma, carried out mass killings and strategically placed hundreds of thousands of Bengali settlers on Jumma land near their military bases (IWGIA, 2012; Ahmed, 2017). This strategy changed the demography of the CHT; where the Jumma people made up 98 per cent of the population in 1947, their share had dropped to 51 per cent in 1991 (Mohsin, 1997, cited in Ahmed, 2017).

Twenty years after the 1997 Peace Accord, the Government of Bangladesh announced 2016 as the ‘Tourism Year’ and started a three-year promotional campaign for tourism, including in the CHT which has become a popular destination for domestic tourists (Ahmed, 2017). Under the Bangladesh Army Welfare Trust the military maintains a fair share of the tourism industry, owning Radisson Hotels in the capital Dhaka and the port city of Chittagong along with deluxe golf courses. It also holds a range of tourism facilities in the CHT. It is therefore not surprising that the military has not reduced its presence in CHT despite the Peace Accord, which promised to demilitarise the region (Ahmed, 2017). According to the IWGIA (2012), one third of the country’s armed forces remained in CHT, despite its low population density. Thereby, the military plays a dual function of running a major portion of the tourism sector in the CHT as well as securitising the region for visitors from other parts of the country. When middle-class Bengalis visit the area as tourists, their major concern is their own safety, hence they gladly accept a high level of securitisation by the military and the associated narrative of preserving Bangladesh’s sovereignty and border security (Ahmed, 2017).

According to Jumma advocacy organisations, at least 688ha of land has been allocated to build tourist resorts, resulting in the eviction of more than 700 Jumma families from 26 villages (Chakma and Chakma, 2015, cited in Ahmed, 2017). The process of forced land acquisition involves powerful developers with links to state authorities asking the District Commissioner to declare the land as ‘khas’ which means ‘state-owned’ (Adnan and Dastidar, 2010, p. 141). The ‘khas’ status renders occupancy by Indigenous people illegal and frees the land for acquisition under private property laws (Chakma, 2017). Cultural erasure is also present, as local names for important places are changed into Bengali terms (Ahmed, 2017). One example of tourism development that has involved dispossession, eviction and other human rights violations is the Nilgiri Resort in the Bandarban Hill District, a luxury tourist resort on a mountain hilltop established and run by the Bangladesh military' (IWGIA, 2012). This development entailed the forceful displacement of about 200 Mro and Marma families by the military, which destroyed villagers’ orchards that were their main livelihood source as well as several shops and a school (Chakma, 2017; Ahmed, 2017). Another military-run tourism facility is the nearby Nilachar Lodge, four kilometres from Bandarban town (IWGIA, 2012).

A Jumma activist and blogger lists a number of other tourism businesses run by the Bangladesh military' in CHT. These are:

  • • Neel Giri Tourist spot in Bandarban district (acquisition of approximately 243ha (600 acres) by the Bangladesh Army);
  • • Dim Pahar in Bandarban district (acquisition of approximately 202ha (500 acres) by the Bangladesh Army);
  • • Lake Paradise at Kaptai, Rangamati district (run by the Bangladesh Navy);
  • • Jibtoly Resort at Kaptai, Rangamati district (run by the Bangladesh Army);
  • • Agitator at Baghaichari, Rangamati district (run by Border Guards Bangladesh);
  • • Heritage Park at Changi Bridge, Khagrachari district (run by Ansar — a paramilitary auxiliary force responsible for the preservation of internal security and law enforcement - and Village Defence Party — an enforcement unit at the level of individual villages and urban towns); and
  • • Rui Lui valley on Sajek Hill, Rangamati district (run by the Bangladesh Army).
  • (Tripura, 2016)

Ironically, an important source of capital for the business wing of the Bangladesh military, which runs the extensive tourism facilities, are funds earned from its UN peacekeeping missions (IWGIA, 2012). The World Bank is also playing its part through a proposed US$360 million sub-regional connectivityproject between India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh (World Bank, 2016). The Ministry for CHT Affairs (MOCHTA) which was established through a provision under the CHT Accord with a mandate of implementing the Accord has become more involved in promoting tourism and cultural aspects related to the CHT and engaging in joint ventures with the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism (Ahmed, 2017). Future plans are to attract more foreign tourists to the CHT, who thus far have been deterred by the various travel warnings that are in place due to the tense security situation.

The majority of Jumma people do not benefit from this military-led tourism development, as expressed by the following statement of a Jumma student activist:

You don’t need a gun to kill me ... You can kill me just through doing your form of ‘development’ ... The kind of development you are doing through tourism has evicted Jumma people from their land ... We want an end to this process. For us, each of the tourist spot [sic] is a weapon against us.

(cited in Ahmed, 2017, p. 121)

To resolve the numerous cases of land disputes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act was promulgated in 2001, with further amendments by the government in October 2016. By the end of 2017, the reconstituted land commission had received more than 22,800 complaints, but has yet to solve any of the land conflicts due to a lack of human and material resources and the absence of any supplementary rules to the Act that would guide its implementation (Chakma, 2018). Meanwhile, in 2017, a total of 141 Indigenous human rights defenders and indigenous villagers were reportedly arrested or detained by government forces (Kapaeeng Foundation, 2018).

In some cases, resistance by local people against destructive tourism developments has been successful, particularly when organised with the help of civil society groups in CHT and the capital Dhaka. Ahmed (2017) reports the case of the Alutila Special Tourism Zone which the Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority (BEZA) under the Prime Minister’s Office had planned on about 283 hectares of land in Khagrachari district. Although the government marked it as ‘khas’ (state) land, the area has been inhabited by more than 500 indigenous families in 21 villages for generations, which would have faced eviction (New Age, 2016). The families joined forces with two Jumma political groups and activist networks in Dhaka to protest the government’s plan, which was eventually cancelled by MOCHTA in October 2016 (The Daily Star, 2016). Nevertheless, the indigenous people of the CHT continue to live in constant fear of eviction from their homes and ancestral lands.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic did not prevent tourism developers from further grabbing land from Indigenous communities. In October 2020, villagers from eight Mro communities in Bandarban Hill District submitted a memorandum to the country’s Prime Minister, alleging that officials of a welfare organisation and a large business entity have jointly encroached on their farmland, village forest, cremation grounds and fruit orchards during the pandemic to construct a five-star hotel that would lead to the eviction of hundreds of families from their ancestral territory (Barua, 2020).

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