KHAGRACHHARI, Bangladesh — A little-known war came to an end Tuesday in this remote corner of Asia, as hundreds of tribal fighters emerged from their jungle sanctuaries to swap their weapons for a promise of justice.
After 22 years of fighting, the first of 10,000 warriors from such tribes as the Chakma, Marma, Khumi and Mro walked into a hastily built soccer stadium here and put down their rifles to the cheers of thousands of villagers.
The ceremony, attended by the U.S. ambassador, marked an unusual close to a conflict that pitted the government of one of the world's poorest countries against 13 tribes struggling to preserve their way of life.
"There is no rebel army anymore," rebel leader Shantu Larma said, his disarmed soldiers behind him. "But peace is a relative thing. We will see if the government makes good on its promises."
The war in the Chittagong Hill Tracts--a rolling, forested stretch of southeastern Bangladesh--is one of more than half a dozen insurgencies now being waged by tribal peoples struggling for self-rule in this country and in northeastern India. In each, tribal groups, ethnically and linguistically distinct from the majority, are fighting to preserve their unique qualities in the face of overwhelming population pressures. The challenge has forced some to abandon the old ways and pick up modern weapons.
Here, the government of Bangladesh says it believes that it has come up with a formula that will preserve the tribes' way of life while keeping the country intact: It has granted them a measure of self-rule and put in place a framework to let them hold off the rush of Bengali settlers.
"I am aware that the people of the Hill Tracts have had to suffer all types of loss for a long time," Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajed told the surrendering rebels. "Let the old and worn be washed away."
How long the peace will hold is uncertain. Many tribal villagers and Bengali settlers who crowded into the soccer stadium cheered the truce, saying they are tired of a war that never brought them anything but hardship, tears and an estimated 20,000 dead.
"People are sick of the fighting," said Horikhisa Chakma, a tribal member whose grandfather's land was taken by Bengali settlers. "If the government is sincere, then the accord will work."
Others here--those who didn't attend the arms hand-over--hold little hope that the truce will do anything but momentarily stall the slow death of their culture. Nothing, they say, can prevent Bengali settlers from fleeing Bangladesh's overcrowded slums, pouring into the Hill Tracts and smothering their unique traditions.
"We are facing a crisis of existence," said Ananta Bihari Khisa, 61, a teacher and Chakma tribe member. "The Bengalis will come and occupy our land, bring their trade and commerce and government machinery. Our way of life will vanish."
The 13 tribes inhabiting the Chittagong Hill Tracts are set apart from Bangladesh's Bengali majority, which is predominantly Muslim, Bengali-speaking and of Indo-Aryan descent. The tribe members are mostly Buddhists, speak their own languages and are of Southeast Asian stock. Most important, in a desperately poor country of 125 million, their population in the Hill Tracts numbers only 500,000.
In the villages, spread out among the lush fertile hills of the region, dusty trails wind through clusters of huts made of mud and bamboo. Tribal land is owned communally. Marriages are arranged. Much of the land is cleared by cutting and burning.
Like the British administration--which engaged in the practice in the 19th century--the Bangladeshis began paying Bengalis to settle in the region in the mid-1970s, sparking the fighting. Many Bengalis came, pushing tribe members off their land and forcing about 56,000 of them into refugee camps in nearby India. While Bengalis made up only 14% of the Hill Tracts' population in the 1970s, they now make up half.
The main guerrilla group, the Shanti Bahini, sought full autonomy, a place in Bangladesh's Constitution and an expulsion of all Bengalis from the region. They found sanctuary in the forests and the refugee camps in India.
Atair Rahman was a civil engineer working in his native district of Kushtia in 1985 when the Bangladeshi government offered to move him and his family to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. When he arrived, he says, the Chakma and Marma tribespeople greeted him with anger and suspicion.
"They think they are the only people who have a right to live here," Rahman said. "We bought the land. It was our right."
Rahman's job is supervising the construction of roads and bridges through the Hill Tracts.
Some tribal members describe a brutal period when the arriving Bengali settlers threw them off their land. Smriti Biksh Chakma said he was 5 when his parents were killed by Bengali settlers in their village, Longadu, in 1975. Chakma says he never took up arms himself, but he counts four close friends whom he says were killed in fights with the Bangladeshi army.