DEEPAK ACHARJEE, back from Chittagong Hill Tracts The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) have been a happy hunting ground for extortionists, all members of terrorist groups in the three hill districts of Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachhari, for years, sources in the local administration and law enforcement agencies said. Money is forcibly collected from businessmen, local people and employees in the name of three regional political organisations—the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF), Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS)-Santu and the Jana Samhati Samiti (reformists).
It is alleged that about Tk. 40.41 crore are collected annually as funds for conducting activities of the three local parties, the sources added.
The highest amount of Tk. 19.53 crore are collected in Khagrachhari, and Tk. 13.28 crore and Tk. 7.46 crore in Bandarbans and Rangamati, respectively.
In Khagrachhari, Tk. 9.95 crore are collected by UPDF activists, Tk. 7.46 crore by JSS (reformists) and Tk 2.12 crore by JSS (Santu) activists.
In Bandarban, JSS activists collect Tk. 11.63 crore, the MNP Tk. 71 lakh and other terrorist groups Tk. 94 lakh.
In Rangamati, Tk. 5 crore are collected by JSS activists, Tk. 2.24 crore by UPDF activists and Tk. 22 lakh by the JSS (reformists) annually.
Moreover, the groups are allegedly involved in criminal activities like killing, abduction and snatching to raise funds for smuggling in modern and sophisticated foreign arms.
Sources said extortionists under the banner of the UPDF are dominating over others in Khagrachhari, while members of the UPDF, JSS and the JSS (reformists) are active in Bandarban and JSS men in the Rangamati area.
According to locals and law enforcement agencies, the extortionists collect money at a fixed rate. If anybody refuses to pay up, he/she is assaulted or even killed.
There are 300 buses in the three hill districts. A bus owner has to pay Tk. 500 each to the UPDF, JSS and the JSS (reformists) annually.
A truck owner pays Tk. 6,000 to each of the local groups annually, while the owner of a jeep, popularly referred to as “Chander Gari”, must also pay money to these groups. A motorcycle owner has to cough up Tk. 500 for each of the groups.
The sources said dealers in pharmaceuticals have a fixed rate ranging between Tk. 5,000 and Tk. 40,000 for each party. Mobile phone companies like Rabi, Teletalk, Grameen, Airtel and Banglalink too are not spared and the rate is fixed.
Farmers have to pay a fixed rate of 10 per cent of the total cost of producing the crops. In some areas, the amount depends on the land area. A land owner has to pay Tk. 300 per bigha annually.
As many as 10 per cent of the price of selling a cow or a goat has to be paid to these groups. A fisherman has to pay Tk. 8,000 to Tk. 45,000 annually to the extortionists.
Each rich family in the hills has to pay Tk. 600, a middle-income family Tk. 500 and a low-income family Tk. 300. After selling a bunch of bananas, a farmer has to pay Tk. 6 to Tk. 10 to the extortionists.
It is alleged that leaders of the UPDF, JSS and the JSS (reformists) are allegedly controlling the development work in the hills. Each contractor has to pay 10 per cent of the total contract value of a work order to local party leaders before starting the construction work.
Sources said that in the past one year at least 349 activists of the three rival groups have been killed or injured in clashes among the groups for establishing supremacy.
On August 10 last year, joint forces arrested a “toll” collector along with three firearms and 18 rounds of bullet from Lakkhaichori upzila of Khagrachhari. They also seized “toll” collection slips and money.
On December 12, miscreants destroyed 82,000 pineapple trees of a Bengalee family in Naniarchar upazila of Rangamati. They also destroyed two lakh pineapple trees in Bagaichari upazila of Rangamati on August 1 last year.
The superintendent of police in Khagrachhari, Md Majid Ali, said a number of extortionists, mostly activists of the three local political parties, have been arrested.
“People have to come forward to stop extortion. Without their (hill people) help, we can’t stop it. For this, people need to inform us when anyone demands a toll. People never inform law enforcers about extortion. If the extortionists come to know that he or she has informed law enforcement agencies, they kill the person,” he added.
The deputy commissioner (DC) of Khagrachhari, Md Wahiduzzaman, said local people are angry over toll collection. “But they do not file any complaint before law enforcement agencies as they fear for their lives,” he added.
Mangal Chakma, a spokesperson of the PCJSS, said they are not collecting money from local people and businessmen. “Locals are cooperating with us. We’re not collecting massive tolls from them,” he added.
The state minister for CHT Affairs, Bir Bahadur Ushwe Sing, told The Independent that he has heard that a section of the people are carrying out illegal activities under the banner of the local political parties. The whole thing is quite unfortunate, he said.
The state minister also said a section of local party activists is involved in criminal activities across the hills, leaving the local people in a mess.
The CHT, spread over 5,093 square miles, covers Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban districts. The region is flanked by two international borders, to the south-east by Myanmar and on the north by India. The region is heavily populated by Jumma and other tribal people including the Chakmas, Marmas, Garos, Mizos and the Tripuras.
- Source: The Independent