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Tuesday, December 2, 1997 Published at 10:23 GMT

image: [ Frances Harrison in Dhaka ]Frances Harrison

Tribal rebels from the remote jungles of south-east Bangladesh have signed a historic peace treaty with the government, ending more than two decades of struggle for autonomy. The fifteen-page treaty gives preference to the tribal population in the new administration which is going to be formed. It also lays the way for land to be returned to tribal people if it has been illegally occupied by outsiders. As our Dhaka correspondent Francis Harrison reports, there will be many non-tribal people in the disputed Chittagong Hill Tracts region who will now be uneasy about their future:

The peace treaty is a detailed document which sets out the future administration for the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It envisages three district councils with sweeping powers to raise taxes and impose law and order.

The key issue is who can vote for these councils, where representation is already weighted in favour of tribal people. Successive military governments pursued a deliberate policy of settling poor Bengali farmers in tribal areas so as to dilute the long-running insurgency.

According to the treaty, these non-tribal people will only be eligible to vote if they can prove they have legal ownership of land and a permanent address in the region. Since many of the newcomers took over tribal land illegally, they run the risk of losing it now.

A committee will be formed to settle once and for all the numerous land disputes between tribal and non-tribal people. The treaty also gives wide- ranging privileges to the former rebels and their families.

The rebels will receive payment of about $1000 after surrendering their weapons and they will also be given immunity from past or future legal proceedings and from repaying any outstanding government loans. Through negotiations the tribal side has achieved many of the aims for which it fought in the jungle for so long, but the main opposition party in Bangladesh has already condemned the treaty as unconstitutional and contrary to the country's national interests.

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