Empowering People for Peace in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

woman in crowd
Trust-builder Namita Chakma seeking support for victims of communal violence. The CHT Development Facility supports over 149 community mediators like Namita to promote peace in Hill Tract communities. Photo: UNDP Bangladesh

As Nigar Sultana strides up the path to the local community center, she has an air of focus and determination about her. She has just received word through the Trust-builders Network of a recent outbreak in community violence, resulting in homes destroyed and villagers displaced.

“No one can wish such devastation, even on their sworn enemies,” she says.

Highlights

  • 149 volunteers are members of the Local Trust-builders Network.
  • The Local Trust-Builders Network mediated roughly 800 local level conflicts in 2014 alone, bringing the cumulative figure to over 1800 cases resolved.
  • Over 20,000 children have access to quality education, 3,500 community development committees have been established, 2.5 million patient cases treated and 115,000 households have been benefited in the region.

Nigar lives in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), a geographically rugged and culturally diverse part of the country that has been marked by over two decades of conflict. Despite the signing of the CHT Peace Accord in 1997, tensions remain between communities on issues surrounding land ownership, control of local resources, and human rights. Too often these tensions boil over into communal conflicts and violent encounters between neighboring villagers.

Nigar is part of the Local Trust-builders Network, a group of 149 trained volunteers from across the region who proactively promote conflict conciliation, positive dialogues, and the prevention of violence in the Hill Tracts. These supporters of regional harmony undergo intensive group training on best practices for effective dispute mediation and strategies for running campaigns with impact. They include, but are not limited to, teachers, traditional leaders, and members of the police force.

The Local Trust-Builders Network is one of many initiatives of the CHT Development Facility, implemented by UNDP in partnership with the European Union, Sweden, Denmark and Japan in support of the promotion of sustainable peace and development in the Hill Tracts. The project’s work is focused on strengthening the capacity of CHT institutions to effectively manage and deliver services and on communities to take charge of their own development, based on the principle of local participation.

The Trust-builders are women and men from different ethnic groups (the area has eleven indigenous/tribal groups as well as the Bengali population) and political persuasions, united under a common dream for peace in the region. This is something that resonates strongly with Trust-builder Shahena Akter.

“We mediate conflict situations so that parties are reaching a win-win outcome and no one feels like the loser,” she notes. “Conflict is removed and community bonds become stronger. In doing so, we are closer to peace.”

Thanks to mediation and negotiations brokered by Trust-builders, disagreements are increasingly being diffused without bloodshed.

Linkages between local administration, police and community groups has also been strengthened through the Network, facilitating information flow on potential or rumored conflicts and enabling law enforcement agencies to react quickly.

On the occasions that communal disagreements do become violent, the Trust-builder’s response has been rapid and targeted. For example, when conflict broke out in the Khagrachari district in late 2013, the devastation was profound. Over 900 households were affected, with many homes looted and others burnt. As a result of the violence roughly 4,800 people were displaced, with half fleeing to the Bangladesh-India border and a further 380 families seeking refuge in nearby areas.

As news of the violence reached the Local Trust-builders Network, the mediators were immediately mobilized. On the ground, they met with impacted villagers bearing witness to stories of heart break and destruction, playing a vital role in addressing psychological impacts and offering practical assistance through liaising with local administrators.

They were also central to subsequent reconciliation efforts, bringing communities together to discuss grievances, seek mutual understanding, and help displaced villagers return home.

It is this hope of ‘togetherness’ that keeps veteran Trust-builder Namita Chakma going. “It has been years since the signing of the CHT Accord. We try to be guardians of peace. We have lived in CHT long enough to really appreciate the meaning and need for it”.

As part of the CHT Development Facility’s work, UNDP is implementing a slate of projects with different stakeholders, ranging from traditional leaders through to legal aid bodies for victims of violence, to raise awareness on key social issues and mitigate conflict. 900 community policing forums across the region were reactivated, facilitating community participation in the discussion of public safety. Comprehensive training was given to 770 police on the CHT context, including regional specific laws and cultural differences in order to sensitize law enforcement agencies. CHTDF has engaged youth in football, martial arts and debate initiatives as vehicles for building unity, discipline and confidence across ethnic divides.

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