The hilly jungles of this south-eastern pocket of Bangladesh offer tourists a brief relief from the din and bustle of urban life. The lush green hillsides that spill down into wide blue lakes, where fishermen can be seen casting their nets, is a scene of spectacular beauty.
But life of the locals in the three hill districts is not as serene as the lakes are. Rather, it is scarred by extortions by armed groups.
Law enforcement officials said local leaders of the Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS), JSS Sanskar, United People's Democratic Front (UPDF) and the UPDF (Democratic) are involved in the crime.
According to locals, the armed groups collect up to 10% extortion from all kinds of businesses, fishing and even selling anything in the market. The money goes to the pocket of the armed leaders to buy weapons, run the organisations, establish local supremacy and lead a luxurious life.
Locals said the groups forced people to pay. Otherwise, the armed cadres unleash torture – from looting the business goods to murdering the individuals who denied to pay. In the face of regular operations by the security forces, the groups now have switched to mobile banking to collect the money.
According to several intelligence agencies, the groups extorted around Tk1,200 crore in Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachari in the last three years. Of this, around Tk381 crore was extorted last year alone.
From October last year to October this year, 33 extortionists were caught red-handed by the law enforcers as Tk2.5 lakh was recovered from them.
According to various sources, representatives of the four regional armed groups used to collect the money themselves even a couple of years ago.
"Earlier, the place was fixed in advance and instructions were given as to where and from whom the representative would collect the money," one of the armed group representatives said while speaking on condition of anonymity.
According to him, the money would be collected at the prearranged time and delivered to the specified person.
But the extortions are now transacted through mobile banking to evade the security forces, he added.
The Business Standard talked to two businessmen who faced extortion, plus a bitter experience.
One of them, a timber trader, said the terrorists stopped his timber-laden truck as he protested against the extortion. Later he had to release the vehicle with a hefty amount of cash.
Another contractor said his workers were abducted as he refused to pay once.
"If you do not pay, you will not be able to continue the construction. After paying the extortion money, the groups will give you documents issued by them. That is the work permit you will need here in the hills," he claimed.
Mainstream politicians too said everyone is being held hostage by armed groups. A leader of Bandarban district Awami League said, "We have to pay even when we come to the market to sell our seasonal crops."
Mir Modhdasser Hossain, superintendent of police in Rangamati, said they are taking action whenever they get any complaint of extortion.
"Several have already been arrested as police are now working on a fresh list," he added.
Local law enforcement officials said the government set up a Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (Bscic) industrial city in the hill districts to boost socio-economic development and employment in the hills. But neither the ethnic people nor the Bengalis are getting benefits from that as the extortionists deter industrialisation.
According to intelligence reports, ethnic leaders have been directly and indirectly opposing the development of the tourism industry in Chattogram Hill Tracts so that their supremacy and dominance remain intact. As part of the plan, JSS and UPDF terrorists often carry out attacks on tourist vehicles.