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Bangladesh's ethnic tribe struggle to survive

Mar 11, 2010

Hundreds of Bangladeshi Buddhist monks have held peaceful protests across the world highlighting the violence against country’s indigenous people by the Bengali Muslim settlers. Human rights organisations have asked the government to stop this army backed violence and to implement the 1997 peace accord.

Bangladesh: Hundreds of Bangladeshi Buddhist student monks staged a peaceful rally outside the UN office in Bangkok, Thailand, on 5 March. The monks, largely members of the Jumma tribe from Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in Bangladesh, called for UN help amid a spate of violence against the country’s indigenous people.

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The monks also appealed to the Bangladeshi military and Bengali Muslim settlers in CHT to halt atrocities committed against the Jumma, which have left hundreds of tribal people homeless and others dead or injured.

The Bangkok protest was not an isolated event. Similar protest rallies were staged in late February by Jumma diaspora around the world, including in New Delhi, New York, Tokyo and London.

Violent clashes erupted between ethnic Jumma (largely Buddhists and Christians) minorities and Bengali settlers in the Khagrachhari and Rangamati districts in Chittagong Hill between 19-23 February, resulting in at least four deaths. Hundreds have reportedly been injured or displaced.

Reports claim that thousands of indigenous people were made homeless after arsonists supported by Bangladeshi soldiers burned down nearly 600 Jumma buildings, including residential houses, temples, churches and schools, during the violence.

The London-based Survival International, which advocates for tribal rights worldwide and has been long monitoring the CHT situation, believes that tension has been building in the region for some time, with settlers, supported by Bangladeshi soldiers, taking land from the Jumma tribal people.

Sophie Grig, senior campaigner with Survival International, told ISN Security Watch that “once the violence was triggered, [Bengali] settlers took the opportunity to burn down the houses of innocent Jumma villagers, and this happens because the army supports and encourages the settlers to resort to violence without restraint.”

In what she described as a “bitter truth,” Grig said that “soldiers have been involved in gross human rights violations in the CHT, with impunity, for many years.”

“It is established beyond any reasonable doubt about the army involvement, as the Bangladesh army is denying access to the sites to prevent the truth from coming out,” Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), told ISN Security Watch.

The Bangladeshi government has denied any involvement, direct or indirect, in the recent violence.

Fiddling with demographics

The Chittagong Hill Tracts covers areas comprising the Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban districts of Bangladesh and is flanked by two international borders, on the southeast by Myanmar and on the north by India. The region is heavily populated by Jumma and other indigenous tribes, including the Chakmas, Marmas, Garos, Mizos and Tripuris.

The region was plagued by decades of armed insurgency which formally ended in 1997 followed by a peace accord inked between the government and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS), a political platform of the tribal people which spearheaded the movement, along with its armed wing, the Shanti Bahini (SB).

According to the agreement, the government has to hand over control of administration and the three hill district councils to the CHT Regional Council, followed by a phased withdrawal of the army from the CHT.
However, 12 years later, the provisions of the peace pact have not been implemented.

During the height of the recent violence, Khagrachhari Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Abdullah was quoted in the local media as saying that “the ongoing crisis in the Hills will not go away unless the CHT Land Commission and CHT Refugee Affairs Taskforce become functional.”

Millions of people from the plain reportedly have been moved into the Hill Tracts over the decades in an attempt to either displace the indigenous Jumma tribes or change the demographic profile of the area.

Similar violence broke out in April 2008 when hundreds of settlers reportedly backed by Bangladeshi soldiers launched preemptive attacks on seven Jumma villages in the Sajek Union of Rangamati district, turning the hill town into a bloody battlefield.

The land-ownership rift

Ties between the Bengali Muslim settlers and the Indigenous tribal groups have been tense over land ownership, often leading to violent confrontations. The latest crisis originated in the remote Sajek valley reportedly over a land dispute.

It appears that land remains the main cause of conflict in the area. The non-implementation of a 1997 accord and the illegal appropriation of tribal lands by settlers continue to make the issue a violent one.

Muhammad Zamir, former Bangladesh ambassador and columnist, told ISN Security Watch that the “authorities responsible for protecting the different communities living in the CHTs have failed to perform their responsibilities.

Unresolved questions pertaining to land ownership are creating difficulties in CHT,” he said, adding that the Dhaka administration must urgently complete a regional land survey, as the “non-resolution of disputes [will lead to the] emergence of fresh contention.”

Vested interest in conflict

Observers believe that the situation has deteriorated over the years because successive governments fail to pay adequate attention to CHT issues. Administrative apathy and bias toward indigenous people have compounded the situation.

The New Delhi-based ACHR criticised the Dhaka administration for its inherent bias and the discriminatory approach of law-enforcement agencies. The ACHR accused the Bangladesh government of only arresting tribal figures in and around Khagrachhari district in the aftermath of last month’s violence.

Zamir aired similar views, saying that “one has to understand that during the period of the last political government [led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party], there was very little effort to move the process of constructive engagement forward. And that was unfortunately true during the last caretaker government as well,” he said.

Survival International’s Grig agrees. According to her, for many years there was “no political will to implement the peace accord.”

“There are vested interests in the CHT, within the army and the settler communities who do not want the accord to be implemented and who do not want the military to lose their control in the region,” she said.

Eerie calm

Meanwhile, relative calm has returned to the area after last month’s violence. However, fear looms large on the horizon that another spate of violence might erupt soon.

According to Grig, “it is essential that those responsible for the shooting of Jumma people are brought to justice, and it is equally imperative for the Jumma to regain trust in the government after these brutal attacks.”

“Until the Jumma have their land rights fully recognised and the CHT is demilitarised [as agreed in the Peace Accord], the Jumma people will not be able to feel safe on their own land,” she added.

However, Zamir was optimistic when he said that the present Sheikh Hasina government will be able to continue the devolution of the administrative process that will ease the situation.

Meanwhile, international organisations like the ACHR and Survival International urged the Bangladeshi government to put an end to “army backed violence” in the CHT, to withdraw the army camps from the region and to fully implement the 1997 peace accord.

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