Indigenous peoples are still left behind

Indigenous people, observing the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in CHT

Hill Voice, 9 August 2021, Special Report: Today, 9 August 2021, is the 27th International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This is a very important day for the millions of indigenous peoples who are oppressed and deprived in many ways in different parts of the world.

On 23 December 1994, the UN General Assembly decided to observe 9 August every year as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. In addition, the period 1995-2004 was first declared as the ‘First International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples’ and later the period 2005-2014 was declared as the ‘Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples’ aiming at addressing the issues of human rights, environment, development, education, health, culture and social and economic development of indigenous peoples worldwide, and at strengthening international cooperation.

Out of 90 countries of the world including Bangladesh, there are more than 400 million indigenous peoples comprising 5,000 ethnic groups. According to the 2011 census, the indigenous population of Bangladesh is 1 million 586 thousand 232 people. Among them 740 thousand 691 people in the plains and 845 thousand 541 people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). However, the indigenous peoples believe that in reality their population will be more than 3 million and there are more than 54 indigenous ethnic groups. Indigenous peoples feel that they are not properly counted or underrepresented in the census.

However, it is to be hoped that in an online webinar titled “Census 2021: Segregated and Inclusive Statistics of Indigenous Peoples” on 26 June 2021, MA Mannan, Honorable Planning Minister of the Government of Bangladesh, said, “If there are more than 50 indigenous ethnic groups recognized by the government, I will include them in the census next October.”If necessary, there will be an effort to conduct a special census for the indigenous peoples, he said.

As you know, on 13 September 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, one of the most important historical documents on the rights of indigenous peoples, with a huge majority of 144 votes. Only four countries voted against it. On the other hand, 11 countries including Bangladesh abstained from voting.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a living document of the existence, identity, dignity, human rights and self-determination of indigenous peoples. The adoption of this Declaration by the United Nations is regarded as a historic milestone and as an international recognition in the struggle of indigenous peoples around the world. The Declaration recognizes the indigenous peoples’ fundamental human rights, the right to self-determination, full rights to land, territory or natural resources, individual and collective ownership and control over land, political, economic, religious, cultural development, education and preservation of indigenous people’s own language and way of life. The Declaration states that free, prior and informed consent has to be taken from indigenous peoples before taking any programme that affects the livelihoods of indigenous peoples, indigenous territories and their resources,

It is to be mentioned that Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave a goodwill on Indigenous Day in 2009. In that message, she said, “the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be implemented.” Many ministers and leaders of his party, including the law minister, have spoken in favor of the rights of the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh on Indigenous Day. Not only that, former Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition Khaleda Zia also greeted the indigenous peoples on Indigenous Day. Besides, eminent personalities of the country including renowned intellectuals, journalists and writers have also been recognizing the indigenous peoples.

But the most unfortunate thing is that during the tenure of the present government, since 2011, the government has suddenly declared that there are no indigenous peoples in the country. Even the government and the administration started imposing various undemocratic orders and in some cases bans to prevent the use of the word ‘indigenous’ in the country. And Indigenous peoples are also treated hostilely regarding terminology of indigenous issues. Besides, the 15th amendment to the country’s constitution on 30 June 2011 ignored the demand for recognition of indigenous peoples as ‘indigenous’ and termed them as ‘tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities’ in disrespectful and misleading manner. And in the constitution, the people of Bangladesh have been arbitrarily termed as ‘Bengalis as a nation’.

It is significant to be mentioned here that four countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) who had voted against the Declaration, and three countries (Colombia, Samoa and Ukraine) who had abstained from voting during the adoption, expressed support to the Declaration, in the last 14 years since the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration. In addition, according to the Declaration, many states have made constitutional reforms to ensure the representation of indigenous peoples and to recognize the collective rights of indigenous peoples, enacting new laws or amending old ones.

On the other hand, it is a positive thing that though Bangladesh government abstained from voting when the UN adopted the Declaration in 2007, but the current government has pledged to implement the Declaration from the Sixth Five-Year Plan (2011-2015). But the government’s commitment is still limited to paper. According to the commitment, no visible initiative was taken by the government to establish the political, economic, social, cultural and land rights of the indigenous peoples of the country enshrined in the Declaration. Despite the global commitment not to leave anyone behind in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Bangladesh government has not properly involved the indigenous peoples in this regard. It goes without saying that indigenous peoples are still left behind from the mainstreaming in the holistic development of the country.

But it is very disappointing that the CHT Accord, which was signed in 1997 to resolve the long-standing political problem of CHT region, has not been implemented in the last 24 years. None of the basic provisions of the Accord have been fully implemented. Even though the present government, which signed the agreement, has been in power for more than 12 years, the implementation process of the Accord has not progressed at all. It is needless to say that at present, the government has completely stopped the implementation process of the Accord. Not only that, the government and the state forces in the CHT themselves are now constantly violating the Accord and implementing various plans contradictory to the Accord and against the interests of indigenous Jumma people.

Needless to say, today the Bangladesh government is not violating the CHT Accord, it is also implementing measures, projects and plans destructive to indigenous Jumma peoples with the military and civilian administration led by the army. Now, as before the Accord, almost all democratic activities of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) have been barred and the leaders and supporters of the PCJSS have been forced to flee from their areas and go into hiding by filing fabricated cases against them indiscriminately, arresting them, searching their homes, threatening and intimidating them. On the other hand, no action was taken to return the land to the indigenous Jumma people by resolving the land dispute as per the Accord. On the contrary, ignoring the opinions of the indigenous Jumma people, the government along with the state forces are unilaterally constructing hundreds of kilometers of roads, setting up luxury tourist centers, expanding old camps and setting up new camps while indigenous people’s land rights are being trampled and evicted from their lands.

Sajek border road Rajasthali-Thegador road are being built by destroying hundreds of plantations belonging to indigenous Jumma families and occupying their land. The army and BGB have set up luxury tourist centers by evicting the Jumma families in Sajek and Bandarban. On the other hand, despite massive protests at home and abroad, including by local indigenous people, the army and the controversial Sikdar group are building luxury tourist establishments, including five-star hotels, in the Chimbuk hills of Bandarban. As a result, there is a risk of occupation of approximately 1000 acres of traditional and cultivable land of indigenous Mro people. As a result, 6 villages of Mro people will be directly evicted and the traditional livelihoods, farm lands, plantations, holy places, crematory place and water sources of approximately 10,000 residents of 116 villages will be severely damaged. In addition, their protected habitats and biodiversity of the area will soon be affected.

Besides, various terrorist groups have been formed with the initiative of the army in the interest of suppressing the indigenous Jumma people and maintaining military rule. The conversion of Jumma people into Islam, infiltration of outsiders, occupation of land by settlers and expansion of settlers’ cluster villages are going on under the patronage of government and state forces. On the other hand, the voice of protest of the Jumma people has been blockaded aiming at strengthening the military rule and army authority in the entire hilly area.

It is not only the Jumma peoples of the CHT that are being hostile and deprived, but the human rights and existence of national entities of indigenous peoples of the plain lands has also reached a deplorable and catastrophic state today. In Dinajpur, Tangail, Moulvibazar, Patuakhali, Sitakunda, Cox’s Bazar and other plain areas where there are indigenous ethnic groups, various plots are being made to oppress them and evict them from their ancestral lands. Indigenous peoples are being evicted by influential land grabbers of majority people, government agencies or big companies, including the forest department, by carrying out various persecutions and attacks, confiscating resources, setting up eco-parks or various establishments and declaring protected forests.

Recently, 300-year-old Rakhine village comprising of six Rakhaine families at Maututiakhali (ChaAnipara) in Kalapara upazila of Patuakhali district was allegedly evicted by the Payra Port Authority. Establishments are being built by occupying the Buddhist temples, monasteries and religious properties of Rakhaine people. In May, Abul Khair’s Group was accused of trying to evict indigenous Tripura people who had lived for hundreds of years in the Tripura village of Sitakunda in Chittagong.

In the name of eco-tourism development in the indigenous peoples’ lands and ancient cemeteries in Telki village of Madhupur in Tangail district, arboretum plantation, rest houses and boundary walls are being made to push the indigenous peoples towards eviction and marginalization by destroying natural forest. The forest department has also been accused of conspiring to evict the indigenous peoples in Madhupur by declaring their homesteads and lands as national parks and so-called protected forests.

In May 2021, three betel leaf Jumfarm (traditional pan-punjee) of indigenous Khasi people were occupied and at least one thousand betel leaf trees were cut down by outsider miscreants in Shahbazpur union of Baralekha upazila under Moulvibazar district.

It has been alleged that five indigenous women were injured in an attack on the indigenous Mahato community on 19 January 2021 at Ghoraghat in Dinajpur district by land grabbers with the intention of evicting them. On 26 April 2021, three indigenous Santal people, including two women, were injured in a land dispute in Santal village of Barachandipur (Barkona) in Parbatipur upazila under Dinajpur district.

In fact, almost all such acts of oppression and human rights violations against indigenous people have been taking place on a regular basis. Many incidents are being suppressed as the news of the incidents did not come up in the media.

Today, a horrible transitional period of indigenous peoples in both hilly and plain areas is passing in Bangladesh. It is at such a time that today’s Indigenous Day has come before us.The United Nations has set the theme for International Day of the World’s Indigenous People this year –“Leaving No One Behind: Indigenous peoples and the call for a new social contract.” In the light of this, the theme set by the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum is “Do not leave anyone behind: call for new social commitments to establish indigenous peoples’ rights.”

It is needless to say, Bangladesh can never build a magnificent, diverse and prosperous future by depriving the indigenous peoples and pushing them towards misery. Indigenous peoples have made invaluable contribution to the progress of Bangladesh through the ages. We hope that the government will respect the rights and demands of indigenous peoples and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its call for establishment of their rights. We hope that the government will come forward with new initiatives to implement all the just demands and rights of the indigenous peoples and the promises made by the government including implementation of the CHT Accord, formation of separate land commissions and separate ministries to protect the land rights of the indigenous peoples of the plains, enactment of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, constitution recognition of all the rights of the indigenous peoples and will take initiative to take visible pragmatic steps in this regard.Besides, all the projects and initiatives destructive to indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and existences taken by the government and various government agencies will also be canceled.