More than 98 percent of the people in Bangladesh are Bengalis (or Banglas). Other indigenous ethnic groups make up around 1.1 percent (2011 estimated) of the population. Bangladesh's government recognizes 27 indigenous ethnic groups under the 2010 Cultural Institution for Small Anthropological Groups Act; other sources estimate there are about 75 ethnic groups; critics of the 2011 census claim that it underestimates the size of Bangladesh's ethnic population [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

There are about 12 major tribes inhabiting the Chittagong Hill Tracts who are ethnically distinct from the Bengalis. Collectively, they total about one million people, Their facial features and language are closer to the Burmese. About 250,000 inhabitants of Bangladesh are Biharis, non-Bengali Muslims who migrated from India to what was then East Pakistan. In the coastal areas of Bangladesh, Arab, Portuguese, and Dutch settlers adopted the Bengali lifestyle and mixed with . [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Bangladesh was formerly East Pakistan. Under the British Bengal was divided into East Bengal (which became East Pakistan) and West Bengal, now part of India. Bangladesh is much more homogenous than West Bengal. Only one percent of the population identify themselves as non-Bengalis. These non-Bengalis are mostly tribal people who speak Tibeto-Burman languages and who live in the border regions of the country. Tribal groups can be found in the eastern frontier regions near Mynamar and Assam (India) and hilly regions of Sylhet, Mymenshingh, Rangmati, Khagrachari and Bandarban. Their facial features and language are closer to people living in Myanmar.

Biharis are the largest minority in Bangladesh. They are primarily the descendants of Urdu-speaking non-Bengali Muslim refugees from Bihar and other parts of northern India. They numbered about 1 million in 1971 but had decreased to around 600,000 by the late 1980s. They once dominated the upper levels of Bengali society. Many also held jobs on the railroads and in heavy industry. As such they stood to lose from Bangladesh independence and sided with Pakistan during the 1971 war. Hundreds of thousands of Biharis were repatriated to Pakistan after the war. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989]

Cultural Mix in Bangladesh

According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: The area that is now Bangladesh has a rich historical and cultural past, combining Dravidian, Indo-Aryan, Mongol/Mughul, Arab, Persian, Turkic, and west European cultures. Most Bangladeshis (about 88.3 percent) are Muslims, but Hindus constitute a sizable (10.5 percent) minority. There also are a small number of Buddhists, Christians, and animists. Sufi religious teachers succeeded in converting many Bengalis to Islam, even before the arrival of Muslim armies from the west. About 1200 AD, Muslim invaders established political control over the Bengal region. This political control also encouraged conversion to Islam. Since then, Islam has played a crucial role in the region's history and politics, with a Muslim majority emerging, particularly in the eastern region of Bengal.” [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

According to “Cities of the World”: “The great majority of the Bangladeshis are of mixed Aryan-Dravidian stock; however, many families can also track their ancestors back to the Middle East and central Asia. These Bengalis inhabit most of the broad plains of Bangladesh. The original tribal people, with less than 1 percent of the population, migrated hundreds of years ago from Burma, Thailand, Assam, and other areas in Southeast Asia. They possess oriental features and live mainly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and along the northern borders of the Dinajpur, Mymensingh, and Sylhet Districts. [Source:“Cities of the World” , The Gale Group Inc. 2002]

The first inhabitants of Bangladesh were thought to be short, curly haired proto-Australoids and proto-Mongoloids from the lower Himalayas. Stone Age tools found in Bangladesh indicate human habitation at least 20,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered relics in West Bengal that as old those found at Mohenjadro and Harappa from the Indus Valley civilization that dates to 3000 to 1500 B.C. Remnants of Copper Age settlements date back ro 2000 B.C.

Ancient Bengal was settled by Austroasiatics, Tibeto-Burmans, Dravidians and Indo-Aryans in consecutive waves of migration. Historians believe that Bengal, the area comprising present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, was settled in about 1000 B.C. by Dravidian-speaking peoples who were later known as the Bang. Their homeland bore various titles that reflected earlier tribal names, such as Vanga, Banga, Bangala, Bangal, and Bengal.

Indo-Aryans who came from central Asia and followed the Ganges invaded what is now Bangladesh in the 5th and 6th century B.C. The Aryan invaders spoke and Indo-European languages, which provide the basis for all the languages in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as English, French and Spanish. The Ayrans intermarried with the local population. Aryan society was led by a warrior aristocracy whose legendary deeds are recorded in Rig Veda. Dravidian immigrants from southeastern India arrived in Bangladesh around the same time as the Aryans. People also migrated from Tibet and Burma.

Ethnic Relations and Conflicts in Bangladesh

Although the government of Bangladesh is secular, discrimination against minorities and minority religions has led to conflict and violence. According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “The most significant social divide is between Muslims and Hindus. In 1947 millions of Hindus moved west into West Bengal, while millions of Muslims moved east into the newly created East Pakistan. Violence occurred as the columns of people moved past each other. Today, in most sections of the country, Hindus and Muslims live peacefully in adjacent areas and are connected by their economic roles and structures. Both groups view themselves as members of the same culture. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“From 1976 to 1998 there was sustained cultural conflict over the control of the southeastern Chittagong Hill Tracts. That area is home to a number of tribal groups that resisted the movement of Bangladeshi Muslims into their territory. In 1998, a peace accord granted those groups a degree of autonomy and self-governance. These tribal groups still do not identify themselves with the national culture.


About 250,000 inhabitants of Bangladesh are Biharis, non-Bengali Muslims who migrated from India to what was then East Pakistan. Biharis are primarily the descendants of Urdu-speaking non-Bengali Muslim refugees from Bihar and other parts of northern India. They numbered about 1 million in 1971 but had decreased to around 600,000 by the late 1980s. They once dominated the upper levels of Bengali society. Many also held jobs on the railroads and in heavy industry. As such they stood to lose from Bangladesh independence and sided with Pakistan during the 1971 war. Hundreds of thousands of Biharis were repatriated to Pakistan after the war. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The Biharis are called Biharis because many originated from the state of Bihar in India. They have traditionally spoken Urdu while the native Bengalis speak Bengali and never really fit in. When war broke ut in 1971 it seemed natural that they would take the side of West Pakistan, as many other Urdu-speakers lived there. During and after war many Biharis migrated to Pakistan. In 1979, around 50,000 made the journey by walking across India on foot. In the early 1990s, about 65,000 refugees fled from Bangladesh to India. Most were Biharis.

History of the Biharis

Biharis fled from India to the eastern wing of Pakistan after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 to escape Hindu persecution. Before Bangladesh was created they where regarded as better educated than the native Bengalis. Many had government positions.

After East and West Pakistan were created in 1947, West Pakistanis tended to favor Urdu-speaking Biharis, considering them to be less prone to labor agitation than the Bengalis. This preference became more pronounced after explosive labor clashes between the Biharis and Bengalis at the Narayaganj jute mill in 1954.

The Bihari, it was said, often looked down on the Bengalis. Some gave support to the West Pakistani military when it brutally cracked down on East Pakistan . At Commilla Barracks outside of Dhaka perhaps 100,000 civilians were killed by Pakistani troops and Bengali and Bihari collaborators and the buried in mass graves. Armed Bengali "freedom fighters" fought Bihari civilians, particularly after Indian troops withdrew from Bangladesh in March, 1972. In August 1973, India and Pakistan reached an agreement on the release of Pakistani prisoners-of-war and the exchange of hostage populations in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — especially of the Bengalis in Pakistan and the Biharis in Bangladesh. After this Pakistan officially recognized Bangladesh in February, 1974.

Condemned for collaborating with the West Pakistanis during the 1971 war of liberations, the million or so Biharis that lived in Bangladesh at that time were brutalized and forced to suffer. If Pakistan had won the war they would have been regarded as heros. Instead they became traitors. Many Biharis who want to leave remained trapped in Bangladesh. As of 2000, about 240,000 Biharis lived in Bangladesh, many of them live in 66 refugee camps. They have largely been forgotten.

Biharis, Discrimination and Their Refugee Camps

No country — Bangladesh, Pakistan or India — wants the Biharis who had their homes and jobs taken over by Bengalis. Many Biharis were robbed of their property and then forced to live in squalid refugee camps outside of Dhaka. One National Geographic photographer took a picture of anguished man who watched his three sons die of malnutrition within minutes of each other.

Initially the Bihari refugee camps looked like tent cities made from burlap, plastic and corrugated metal. In Dhaka, some 18,000 Biharis were corralled on a two-acre schoolyard, where they were given little food and water and had to endure poor sanitation and polluted water. The people in these camps survived on food allotments of less than 500 calories a day.

Biharis who "accepted the sovereignty of Bangladesh" were promised a return to normal life but this was a long time in coming because their hands were said to be "stained with the blood of the Bengalis."

As of the early 2000s, Biharis are known as the "stranded Pakistanis of Bangladesh." The refugee camps by then resembled squalid villages. They had their own shops, schools and businesses. They did not qualify for United Nations refugee aid because they were not technically refugees (they were waiting to flee but had not fled). Pakistan has had many other problems to worry about and has not been very welcoming to the Biharis.

Bangladesh's Last Armenian

Michael Joseph Martin the last member of Dhaka's once thriving Armenian community, which had a 300-year history, died at the age of 89 in May 2020. Shafiqul Alam of AFP wrote: “Martin spent decades as custodian of the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection which was founded in 1781 in what was once the heart of the Armenian community in Dhaka. Armen Arslanian, the church's warden who is based abroad, said Martin "was instrumental in maintaining the survival of the Armenian Church in Dhaka. “Without the many personal sacrifices and complete devotion to the church, the premises and the history of the Armenians in Dhaka would not have survived today," he added as he announced Martin had died on April 11. [Source: Shafiqul Alam, AFP, May 9, 2020]

“The Bangladeshi capital was once home to hundreds of Armenians who first arrived in the 16th century and became major traders, lawyers and public officials in the city. The marble tombstones he tended display family names such as Sarkies, Manook and Aratoon from a time when Armenians were Dhaka's wealthiest merchants with palatial homes who traded jute, spices, indigo and leather. “The earliest surviving Armenian tombstone is that of Khojah Avietes Lazar who died in Dhaka on June 7, 1714, this makes the known Armenian presence in Bangladesh to be over 300 years, similar to that of the community in Kolkata," Liz Chater, who did extensive research on the Armenian presence in South Asia, told AFP, .

Martin came to Dhaka in 1942 following in the footsteps of his father who had settled in the region decades earlier. He was originally a trader. Martin — whose Armenian name was Mikel Housep Martirossian — went on to look after the church and its graveyard where 400 people are buried, including his wife who died in 2006.When their children left the country, Martin became the sole remaining Armenian in Dhaka and lived alone in a mansion in the church grounds. “When I walk, sometimes I feel spirits moving around. These are the spirits of my ancestors. They were noble men and women, now resting in peace," Martin told AFP, in an interview published in January 2009.

“Martin had said the Armenians, persecuted elsewhere, were embraced in what is now Bangladesh first by the Mughals in the 16th and 17th centuries and then by the British Empire. “Their numbers fluctuated with the prospects in trading in Dhaka," Muntasir Mamun, a historian at Dhaka University, told AFP, in 2009. But they dominated business. "They were the who's who in town. They celebrated all their religious festivals with pomp and style," he said. The decline came after the British left India and the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 with Dhaka becoming the capital of East Pakistan and then Bangladesh after it gained independence in 1971.

“In his last years Martin worried about who would take over as the church caretaker after his death. “This is a blessed place and God won't leave it unprotected and uncared for," Martin said. “When I die, maybe one of my three daughters will fly in from Canada to keep our presence here alive," Martin said, speaking broken Bengali with a thick accent. “Or perhaps other Armenians will come from somewhere else." The present warden of the Armenian Church visits Bangladesh every two to three months.

Tribal People of Bangladesh

There are about a million tribal people in Bangladesh. They live mainly in the eastern frontier regions near Mynamar and Assam (India) and hilly regions of Sylhet, Mymenshingh, Rangmati, Khagrachari and Bandarban. There are about 12 major tribes inhabiting the Chittagong Hill Tracts who are ethnically distinct from the Bengalis. The four largest tribal peoples in the 14,245 square kilometers (5,500 square mile) Hill Tracts are the Chakmas, Marmas, Tripuras and Murongs.

The facial features and language of the tribal groups in Bangladesh are closer to people living in Myanmar. The government's policy of resettling Bengalis in the tribal regions, which is much less densely populated than Bangladesh as a whole, has led to racial and religious disturbances and a small-scale tribal insurgencies.

Bangladesh's tribal population consisted of 897,828 persons, just over 1 percent of the total population, at the time of the 1981 census. They lived primarily in the Chittagong Hills and in the regions of Mymensingh, Sylhet, and Rajshahi. The majority of the tribal population (778,425) lived in rural settings, where many practiced shifting cultivation. Most tribal people were of SinoTibetan descent and had distinctive Mongoloid features. They differed in their social organization, marriage customs, birth and death rites, food, and other social customs from the people of the rest of the country. They spoke Tibeto-Burman languages. In the mid-1980s, the percentage distribution of tribal population by religion was Hindu 24, Buddhist 44, Christian 13, and others 19. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Tribal groups that live outside main tribal regions in the east and northeast parts of the country include Santals in Rajshahi and Dinajpur, and Khasis, Garos, and Khajons in Mymensingh and Sylhet regions. Primarily poor peasants, these people all belonged to groups in the adjoining tribal areas of India.

Tribal peoples living in the narrow belt of rain forest in Chittagong region live in bamboo huts raised on platforms or treetops. Practitioners of slash and burn agriculture, these people cultivate the slopes of high hills, raise pigs, chickens and cattle. Rangamati is a district in the Hill Tracts known for its religious and ethnic harmony and tolerance. Many tribal peoples in the Hill Tracts smoke tobacco and marijuana from long bamboo bongs.

Four Largest Tribal Groups of Bangladesh

The four largest tribes were the Chakmas, Marmas (or Maghs), Tipperas (or Tipras), and Mru (Murung). The tribes tended to intermingle and could be distinguished from one another more by differences in their dialect, dress, and customs than by tribal cohesion. Only the Chakmas and Marmas displayed formal tribal organization, although all groups contained distinct clans. By far the largest tribe, the Chakmas were of mixed origin but reflected more Bengali influence than any other tribe. Unlike the other tribes, the Chakmas and Marmas generally lived in the highland valleys. Most Chakmas were Buddhists, but some practiced Hinduism or animism.

Of Burmese ancestry, the Marmas regarded Burma as the center of their cultural life. Members of the Marma tribe disliked the more widely used term Maghs, which had come to mean pirates. Although several religions, including Islam, were represented among the Marmas, nearly all of the Marmas were Buddhists.

The Tipperas were nearly all Hindus and accounted for virtually the entire Hindu population of the Chittagong Hills. They had migrated gradually from the northern Chittagong Hills. The northern Tipperas were influenced by Bengali culture. A small southern section known as the Mrungs showed considerably less Bengali influence.

Political Organization of the Tribal Hill Region

Mohammed Habibur Rahman wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ The entire hill region of Southeastern Bangladesh (which is divided into the three political and administrative districts of Rangamati, Khagrachhari, and Bandarban) is also divided into three circles, each having its own indigenous name: Mong Circle, Chakma Circle, and Bohmang Circle. Each circle, with a multiethnic population, is headed by a raja or indigenous chief, who is responsible for the collection of revenue and for regulating the internal affairs of villages within his circle. The Chakma Circle is headed by a Chakma raja (the Mong and Bohmong circles by Marma rajas). Unlike the situation in the other two circles, Chakma Circle's chieftaincy is strictly hereditary. [Source: Mohammed Habibur Rahman “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

“Each circle is subdivided into numerous mouza or "revenue villages" (also known as gram, or "villages"), each under a headman. He is appointed by the district commissioner on the basis of the recommendation of the local circle chief. The post of headman is not in theory hereditary, but in practice usually it is. The headman has, among other things, to collect revenue and maintain peace and discipline within his mouza. Finally, each mouza comprises about five to ten para (also called adam ). These are hamlets, each with its own karbari or hamlet chief. He is appointed by the circle chief, in consultation with the concerned headman. The post of karbari also is usually hereditary, but not necessarily so. Each hamlet comprises a number of clusters of households. The head of a household or family is usually a senior male member, the husband or father. |~|

“In addition to these traditional political arrangements (circle, village, and hamlet, each having a chief or head), the local government system (imposed by the central government) has been in operation since 1960. For the convenience of administration, Bangladesh is split into four divisions, each under a divisional commissioner. Each one is further subdivided into zila, or districts. The administrative head of a zila is called a deputy commissioner. Each zila consists of Several upazila or subdistricts, headed by an elected upazila chairman (elected by the people). He is assisted by a government officer known as upazila nirbahi, the officer who is the chief executive there. Each upazila consists of several union parishad or councils. An elected Chairman heads a union parishad. Several gram make up a union parishad. This administrative setup is also found in the districts of the hill Region. The Chakma and other ethnic minority hill people are increasingly accepting this local governmental system Because the government undertakes development projects through this structure. |~|

Mru (Murung)

The Mru (also known as the Murung, Murang, Mro, Murong, Taung Mro, Mrung, and Mrucha) refer to the tribes who live in the border regions between Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India. A a sub-group of the Chin people, they reside in the Chittagong Hills in southeast Bangladesh, primarily in Bandarban District and Rangamati Hill District. In India, they live in West Bengal. A few live in western Myanmar and northern Rakhine State in Myanmar. The Mru are divided into five distinct linguistic and cultural sub-groups: the Anok, Tshüngma, Dömrong, Dopteng, and Rümma.

There are about 22,000 Mru, making them fourth largest hill tribe group in the Hill Tracts. The Mru rarely mix with other hill tribes and they have a long running feud with the Chakmas. The Mru have traditionally lived in the jungles, bamboo forests and deforested hills of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Unlike other hill tribes that have been assimilated somewhat into Bangladeshi society, many Mru have refused to change their primitive way of life.

The Mru, considered the original inhabitants of the Chittagong Hills, have traditionally lived on hilltops and often fortified their villages. They had no written language of their own, but some could read Burmese and Bangla scripts. Most of them claim to be Buddhists, but their religious practices are largely animistic. The Mru claim their religious texts were written on banana leaves that were eaten by a crow.

The Mru fear that the Bengalis will drive them off of their land. Mru land has already been deforested by Bengalis timber companies and swallowed up by dams and reservoirs built by the government. "We wish to live in peace in our mountains, according to our customs," one Mru tribe member told National Geographic.

See Separate Article CHIN PEOPLE factsanddetails.com

Mru Life and Customs

The Mru live in bamboo-and-thatch huts mounted on stilts on high hills. They practice slash and burn agriculture and eat highland rice and vegetables supplemented by fish. Pigs and chickens, traditionally kept for sacrifices, are housed in pens under the houses.

The Mru smoke dark, strong home-grown tobacco in bamboo pipes; propose marriage within their clan under the light of the full moon. Villages are led by a head man.

Some Mru women go around virtually naked, wearing nothing except home-spun cloth skirts with belts made of red beads and coins, and necklaces made from beads and silver. They sometimes wear bells in their ears. Using a twirling spindle, Mru women have traditionally made their own cotton yarn.

Some men go around naked except for loincloths and turbans. They were regarded as lazy, often doing little more than playing the flute and tending cattle. "Eating, sleeping and breeding is the job we do," one village headman told Reuter. "The Murongs are a peaceful tribe, having no political ambition like the Chakmas," one government official told Reuter. "They are true children of nature.”


The Santhals work the tea plantations. They are a group native that lives in Assam. They migrated there from the Jharkhand region during the mid 19th century to work in Assam’s tea plantation. They claim they are being harassed and driven out of the area by Bodo separatists who want to lay claim to the areas where they live. Attacks on Santhal villages began in 1993. As of the early 2000s, 20,000 Santhals lived in refugee camps and 1,000 people had been killed in fighting between them and Bodo separatists. Santhals have threatened to take up arms unless the government does more to help them out.

The Santals (also known as the Santhals) are the largest of the tribal populations in South Asia. There are around 8.3 million of them and they live mostly in Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa. They used to be hunters and gatherers but now are mostly farmers and are employed as farm laborers throughout India. They are believed to be to be related to the same people who founded the Champa Kingdom in Vietnam and Cambodia. Santal rebellions against the British left thousands dead in the 1850s. Writing was introduced to them in 19th century by Norwegian missionaries. Santals are the backbone behind the Jharkhand “tribalist “ movement and political party (See Above). [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Santals have animist beliefs which involve idols and evil spirits. The Santal believe in a pantheon of spirits known as bongas, many of which are linked to certain clans. Disease and ill fortune are often blamed on sorcery. Accusations of witchcraft are fairly common. In the old days people accused of witchcraft were often killed. These days they are often forced into a settlement decided by a village council. Healers often use their own blood in healing ceremonies. Cases of human sacrifice were reported in the 19th century.

See Separate Article TRIBES OF ORISSA AND BIHAR factsanddetails.com


The Khasi are a Khmer people that live primarily in and around the Khasi Hills and Shillong, a hill station in the state of Meghalaya, south of Assam, in northeast India. Also known as the Cassia, Cossyah, Kasia, Kassia, Kassya, Kasya, Khasia, Khasiah, Khasso, Khosia, Ki Khasia, they may have originally come to India from Cambodia and are a matrilineal culture. From the mid 16th century to the British annexation of the area in the mid 19th century the Khasis controlled a couple dozen small kingdoms. The British began its efforts to take over the region after British subjects were seized for human sacrifices. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

There are about 1 million Khasis. They practice both wet-land rice farming and slash-and-burn agriculture. Cattle and hoes are used to prepare land to grow a variety of crops. They also fish with poison, trap birds with snares, raise goats and chickens for sacrifice and have hunted wild dogs, leopards, deer and tigers. They produce a number of goods with village level cottage industries and trade widely with other peoples. A few live in Bangladesh.

Khasis have traditionally been divided into three classes: nobles commoners and slaves. Wealth has traditionally been measured by the possession of decorative gongs and the hosting of large feasts with dancing and music from drums, guitars, wooden pipes and flutes. Wealthy men are allowed to wear turbans and armlets above their elbows. Head hunting was once widely practiced to honor the war god U Syngkai Bamon and criminals were sometimes punished by confining them to a bamboo platform under which chillies were burnt.


Tribal Autonomy and Assimilation

Some of the hill tribes in the Chittagong Hills want more autonomy. Some want to go as far as establishing a "Bangladesh within Bangladesh." The Mru fear that the Bengalis will drive them off of their land. Mru land has already been deforested by Bengalis timber companies and swallowed up by dams and reservoirs built by the government. "We wish to live in peace in our mountains, according to our customs," one Mru tribe member told National Geographic.

The Bangladesh government has set schools in southeast Bangladesh in an effort to get educate the tribal people there about the modern world so that they drop their demands for political autonomy. The majority of the Chakma tribes can now read and write. Some have even earned post-graduate university degrees.

Many Bengali settlers have moved into Chakma territory. They were given land and financial assistance from the government and now make up about half the population in the area. In some cases the settlers occupied land formally lived on by Chakma who fled to India to escaped from violence.


Jumma is a term used to describe 11 different ethnic groups of Mongolian-Tibetan-Chinese origin who differ from the Bengalis, who dominate Bangladesh and are of South Asian origin. The Jumma speak languages that are very different from the Bengali Bangladeshis. They have their own social customs and legal system. Many are Buddhists. There are between 600,000 and 700,000 of them.

The Jumma have been campaigning for the right of self determination. The Jumma are sometimes the victims of attacks. In one attack in the early 2000s, 400 houses in a village were set on fire, Buddhist temples were vandalized, an old man was stabbed, a nine-month-old baby was killed and nine women were gang raped by men in military and civilian clothes.

Chakma account for about half of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) indigenous Jumma population and 30 percent of the total population of the area (many non-tribal settlers have moved in). When Pakistan and India were divided in 1947, the people who lived in CHT expected to become part of India. Instead, the region was given to Pakistan. People in the CHT — mostly Buddhist Chakmas — were unhappy about this as they viewed themselves as more culturally akin to the Hindu peoples of India than the Muslims of Pakistan. In 1971, Bangladesh won independence and freed itself from East Pakistan. The Chakma felt just as alienated from the Bangladesh government as they had from Pakistan.

Facing increasing numbers of Muslim migrants in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and erosion of tribal identity as the area was opened to economic development, tribal groups formed a political party (PSJSS or Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti) to fight for their rights. (The tribal peoples of the area now refer to themselves collectively as the Jumma people or the Jumma nation.)

Birth of the Chittagong Hill Tribal Insurgency

Rebels from the Shanti Bahini ("Peace Force"), a groups of insurgents, made up of mostly Chakma tribesmen, have fought a revolt for autonomy off and on since 1973 that has claimed an estimated 8,500 lives. D. O. Lodrick wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “The problems in the Chittagong Hill tracts can be traced back to the completion of a dam at Kaptai near Rangamati between 1957 and 1963 when the area was a part of East Pakistan. [Source: D. O. Lodrick, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

At least 54,000 acres of settled cultivable land, mostly farmed by the Chakma tribe, were lost in 1957 when the government began the construction of the Karnaphuli hydroelectric project. Over 400 square miles of land were submerged with far-reaching effects on the economy and life-style of the tribal people there. Some 100,000 people lost their homes and prime agricultural lands. Compensation for lost land was inadequate and over 40,000 Chakma tribals crossed the border into India where the majority have sought Indian citizenship. At the same time, the Pakistan Government announced its intention to open up the area for economic development and encouraged poor Bengali families to settle there. This policy was even more vigorously pursued by the Bangladeshi government. Conflict over land together with the threat of assimilation into the majority culture of Bangladesh, provide the background to the armed conflict between Chakmas and Bangladeshis. *\

“The Shanti Bahini was the name of the military wing of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS) — the United People's Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It was formed in 1972, shortly after the creation of Bangladesh following the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, to preserve the rights of the tribal people in south-eastern Bangladesh, and fought for many years against the central government. In February 1972, a tribal delegation called on Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to put forward four basic demands: autonomy for the Chittagong Hill Tracts, together with provisions for a separate legislative body; retention of the provision of the 1900 Regulation that allowed a form of self government; the continuation of the offices of the traditional tribal chiefs; a constitutional provision restricting amendment of the 1900 Regulation; and the imposition of a ban on the influx of non-tribals into the area. All the demands were rejected and the 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh made no provision for any special status for the Chittagong Hill Tracts. *\

Fighting in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

Chakmas and other tribal insurgents engaged in guerrilla warfare against the government. This, in turn, has led to reprisals by the police and Bangladeshi Army. Both Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department have reported human rights violations against civilians in the tribal area. Tens of thousands of Chakma fled to India and Myanmar. In 1979 the Bangladeshi government sent in a large number of troops to Chakma areas. The Bangladeshi government spent about $100 million to maintain 30,000 troops and auxiliary troops in the Hill Tracts area.

D. O. Lodrick wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “The Shanti Bahini did not become militarily active until the mid-1970s when it began to attack military and paramilitary personnel and their bases in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, as well as non-tribal settlers, resulting in hundreds of deaths and the abduction of foreign nationals for ransom money. Violent army operations in the Chittagong Hill Tracts began in March 1980 when it was reported that 22 soldiers were ambushed by the Shanti Bahini in the village of Kaukhali west of Rangamati where Bengali families were being resettled. The army retaliated by deliberately firing on two groups of unarmed tribal people killing a number of villagers after they were ordered to line up. [Source: D. O. Lodrick, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

“From then on, Bengali settlers began to attack the tribal people apparently at the instigation of the army or in conjunction with the operations of army personnel. The army reportedly recruited armed groups known as Village Defense Parties (VDP — also called village defense police) from the new settlers and provided them with firearms to resist the Shanti Bahini. Official figures indicate that more than 8,500 rebels, soldiers and civilians were killed during two decades of insurgency. The number of civilians killed is estimated at 2,500, with Amnesty International, the human rights organization, reporting serious violations of human rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts by Bangladeshi military personnel, including rape, torture, indiscriminate shooting, assaults on women, capture of farmland by Muslim settlers, and the killing of Chakma. *\

“Rebels and Bangladeshi security officials say that, after the assassination in 1976 of Sheikh Mujabir Rahman, India secretly provided arms and money to the tribal insurgents fighting in the area. The rebels, who were mostly Buddhists, say they were being persecuted and pushed off their fertile lands by an influx of ethnic Bengali Bangladeshis, who are overwhelmingly Muslim. "We are not separatists and we do not want armed intervention by India," said Mr. Chakma, a rebel spokesman. He said they wanted a stop to Muslim settlers, protection of the region's (Chittagong Hill Tract's) demographic character, free elections, and extensive economic and political powers. *\

Uneasy Peace Deal with the Chittagong Hill Tribal Insurgency

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Bangladesh government signed a peace treaty with tribal leaders of the Shanti Bahini in 1997 bringing an end to 22-year conflict that had claimed thousands of lives. The treaty required the Bangladeshi military to close down its camps and leave and settlers to return land. But not all the terms of the agreement have been met. Suspicions remain high. each year around a hundred people in the region are killed In 2000, three European aid workers (two Danes and a Briton) were kidnapped by suspected tribal rebels, unhappy with the 1997 agreement, at Guniapara in the southeastern Chittagong Hill tracts. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of $1.6 million. The government refused to pay the ransom but offered the rebels amnesty of they let the hostages go. The hostages were set free. In February 2001, tribal groups took three Europeans hostage in southeast Bangladesh.

D. O. Lodrick wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “In August 1992, the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti declared a unilateral cease-fire for three months, which remained in force indefinitely until the signing of the peace accord with the Bangladeshi government on 2 December 1997, although some organizations such as the Hill Students Council, Hill Peoples Council, and Hill Women's Federation opposed the peace deal and formed the United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF), a dissident political party. The main provisions of the Peace Accord included the establishment of a Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council with its Chairman, who would be a tribal, having the status of a state minister. Any new laws in connection with the Chittagong Hill Tracts were to be enacted in consultation with and on the advice of the Regional Council. No amnesty was to be provided to the army and police personnel for past human rights violations, but there was no commitment in the Accord that past human rights violations by the law enforcement personnel or the Bengali settler groups close to the army would be addressed. However, a general amnesty was to be extended in the accord to the former members of the Shanti Bahini who surrendered their weapons. The Accord committed both sides to "uphold the characteristics of tribal creed and culture." *\

“Although the government has amended some existing laws to provide for the implementation of the Peace Accord, the Accord is currently in tatters. It was opposed by opposition groups at the time of signing and the current unstable political situation in Bangladesh has not helped matters (a caretaker government is in power to oversee general elections scheduled for the end of 2008). In August 2007 the High Court directed the government of Bangladesh to explain why the Accord should not be declared "illegal," and it has already set aside certain provisions of the Accord by directing the authorities to allow the illegal plains settlers who were implanted into the Chittagong Hill Tracts to register themselves in the voters' list. Few instances of past human rights violations have been investigated, and the main provisions of the Peace Accord have yet to be implemented. *\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Bangladesh Tourism Board, Bangladesh National Portal (www.bangladesh.gov.bd), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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