Ven. Karunalankar Bhikkhu
As we all know, Bangladesh is a country with various ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity. The major ethnic and religious group of the country is the Bengali Muslim (about 90%). The rest 10% population of the country belongs to religious minorities (Bengali Hindus, Bengali Buddhists and Bengali Christians) and indigenous ethnic groups. According to the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, there are about 50 indigenous peoples in the country. However, it is surprising and painful to say that there is no single law in the some 50 year-long history of the country for promotion and protection of the identity and rights of religious minorities and indigenous peoples!
Moreover, the 15th amendments of the Constitution (2012) together with the provision of “state religion” (Islam) clearly imposes the Bengali Muslim identity and culture on religious minorities and indigenous peoples! It is irrational, unrealistic and inconsistent with the diverse ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural realities of Bangladesh. Today, Bangladesh is meant to be only for the Bengali Muslims and for their identity and right to land, life, livelihood, security, peace and development. Religious minorities and indigenous peoples are practically discriminated, excluded, marginalized and persecuted in the country. It is against the ideas and ideals of the Bangladesh Liberation War and all civilized, free, secular and democratic societies.
For protection and promotion of the identity and rights of religious minorities and indigenous peoples and their security, peace and development, I humbly submit the following suggestions to this forum for consideration, adoption and necessary follow-up action:
1. To drop the “state-religion” status of Islam from the constitution of Bangladesh and make the country a secular state with restoration of the 1972 constitution.
2. To recognize the identity and rights of religious minorities and indigenous peoples in the constitution of Bangladesh in compliance with the concerned international standards such as, the UN Convention on the Rights of Minorities and the UN Declaration on the Rights of indigenous peoples.
3. To reserve electoral constituencies for religious minorities and indigenous peoples proportionate to their population size to enable them to represent their community interests to the Parliament and other local bodies and to all decision-making processes.
4. To make two separate Ministries — one for the Welfare and Development of Religious Minorities and one for the Welfare and Development of indigenous peoples in line with the Ministry of CHT Affairs (it may be noted that the provisions of the 1997 CHT Accord have not yet been implemented and realized).
5. To reserve quota in the government educational institutions and services and posts for religious minorities and indigenous peoples similar to one done in India for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.
6. To implement the 1997 CHT Accord in letter and spirit without any further delay for the empowerment of local indigenous people of CHT and their security, peace and development.
7. To lobby the UN Peacekeeping Operation Office for imposition of sanctions on Bangladesh military until the military rule in CHT is lifted and Bangladesh military servicemen involved in gross human rights abuses against local indigenous people are brought to justice.
8. To regularly monitor the human rights situation of regions minorities and indigenous peoples of Bangladesh and share reports on it with media, relevant UN international bodies and international human rights organizations and government agencies.
9) To request the government of India to use its influence over the government of Bangladesh for implementation of the CHT Accord and protection of the rights of religious minorities and indigenous peoples.
Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts Policy:
This policy encourages ethnic cleansing of the Jumma indigenous people of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) with state-sponsored ethnic Bengali demographic invasion and population explosion in the region.
Background to the Policy:
As a Member of Parliament and a representative of the Jumma indigenous people Manabendra Narayan Larma (1939-1983) submitted a memorandum to the first President of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920-1975), the father of the Present Prime Minister of Bangladesh Ms Sheikh Hasina, demanding constitutional recognition of the distinct identity of the Jumma indigenous people and provincial autonomy in CHT while the country’s constitution was being drafted in 1972. The President outright rejected his demand and advised him to go back to his home and to become a “Bengali”. He even threatened him to “flood” his homeland (CHT) “with hundreds of thousands of Bengalis” if he adhered to his demand.
After assassination of Sheikh Majubur Rahman in a military coup on 15 August 1975, Bangladesh plunged into a serious political instability and unrest, and the country’s power went to the grip of the two military dictators — Major General Ziaur Rahman (1977-1981) and Lt. General Hossain Muhammad Ershad (1982-90) — for 14 years (1977- 1990), when the Bangladesh’s CHT Policy, as mentioned above, was implemented in full swing amidst heavy militarization in CHT and Jumma indigenous people were subjected to gross human rights violations, including genocides and crimes against humanity, with complete impunity.
Under this policy the military regime moved over 500,000 ethnic Bengali Muslim settlers from plain areas of Bangladesh into CHT in the 1980s. It took the lives of about 20,000 Jumma indigenous people, mostly women, children and aged people in genocides and crimes against humanity perpetrated by jointly ethnic Bengali settlers and Bangladeshi military and displaced some 250,000 Jumma indigenous people from their ancestral land and forced 73,000 Jumma indigenous people to take shelter in the neighbouring Indian state of Tripura as refugees in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The policy is still in action even after signing of the CHT Accord between the Government of Bangladesh and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS = a political organization) of the Jumma indigenous people of CHT on 2 December 1997. It has resulted in a dramatic increase of non-indigenous population from some 6% in 1971 to well above 60% as of today. And its political, economic, social and cultural impact on the local Jumma indigenous people is very devastating. In fact, it is taking away the bread and breathe of Jumma indigenous people.
Status of Implementation of CHT Accord:
Dhaka has not complied with the Accord till today – even after 26 years – especially its key provisions such as, devolution of power to the CHT special Governance System with CHT Regional Council and three Hill District Councils, resolution of land disputes and restoration of the land right of Jumma indigenous people, withdrawal of 500+ “temporary” military and paramilitary camps from CHT, making a voter list with jumma indigenous and non-indigenous “permanent residents” of CHT and necessary rules for holding elections of the CHT Special Government Bodies, formation of a local police force with Jumma indigenous and non-indigenous “permanent residents” of CHT etc. On the other hand, she continues her demographic invasion, militarization and land-grabbing in the region. It is jeopardizing the life, livelihood, culture, security, peace and development of local Jumma indigenous people.
Human Rights Violations:
Further, the Government has imposed a ban/restriction on access of national and international human rights groups and media to CHT without prior permission of the Home Ministry. Members of Bangladeshi security forces and settlers continue to violate the human rights of Jumma indigenous people such as rape, extrajudicial killing, communal and racist attack often with impunity. There are hundreds of such cases apart from the 13 major genocides perpetrated by ethnic Bengali settlers and military forces during the period 1980s – today. Some examples of such human rights violations are cited below:
1. A group of Bangladeshi military led by Lt Ferdous abducted Ms Kalpana Chakma (22), organizing-Secretary of the Hill Women’s Federation on 12 June 1996 at mid-night from her residence in Baghaichari, Rangamati Hill District. None of the accused has been brought to justice till today. The whereabouts of Chakma are still unknown.
2. A group of Bangladesh military raped two Jumma indigenous sisters on 22 January 2018 in Rangamati Hill District. Military assaulted Chakma Queen Her Majesty Yan Yan seeking justice for the victims and forced her to silence her voice.
3. Romel Chakma, a Jumma indigenous student with visual disability was tortured to death by Bangladesh military forces led by Major Tanvir on 19 April 2017 in Naniachar Upazilla under Rangamati Hill District.
4. On June 2, 2017, Bangladesh security forces and ethnic Bengali settlers perpetrated a communal attack on Jumma indigenous people in Longudu under Rangamati Hill District. An old Jumma indigenous woman was burned to death and around 300 houses were burned down in this attack.
5. Ethnic Bengali settlers brutally killed after gang rape a Jumma indigenous girl Kirtika Tripura (10) on 28 July 2018 in her village at Noimile area in Khagrachari Hill District.
6. Two members of the Bangladesh Border Guard (BGB) raped two Jumma indigenous sisters, aged 12 and 17, on 22 August 2018 in Lama Upazilla under Bandarban Hill District.
7. On 18 August 2018 seven Jumma indigenous people, including three leaders of the Pahari Chatra Parishad (Hill Students’ Council), were killed and six Jumma indigenous people were injured in an attack of masked gunmen which is believed to be organized by the dirty department of Bangladesh military stationed in Khagrachari Hill District.
Tourism or Cultural Terrorism?
Another point of serious concern is that the Government is encouraging tourism in CHT without any consultation with the local Jumma indigenous authority and people. It may be mentioned that most of the industry is owned and managed by private sectors, mainly officers of Bangladesh military forces. Because of this policy of the Government military forces and other private companies belonging to ethnic Bengalis of plain areas are evicting marginalized Jumma indigenous people from their traditional land and polluting and damaging the indigenous culture and their natural environment.
Current Situation in CHT:
Over the last 26 years or so, Jumma indigenous people of CHT and their political, students, women, human and civil rights organizations have been on streets demanding proper implementation of the CHT Accord. Dhaka doesn’t take any trouble to listen their voice seriously. It has given rise to utter chaos and frustration in CHT. The situation is explosive. However, Dhaka’s security forces are in full control of it. Jumma Indigenous activists who overreact to the situation are arrested, tortured and sent to jail often implicating them with false charges of terror and other criminal activities. On the other hand, in-migration, settlement and empowerment of settlers have been going on in the region under a de facto military rule as per Dhaka’s plan. The CHT peace process is at stake.
The following measures are important, essential and urgent for a just solution to the problem and restoration of stability and peace in CHT:
1. Stop Bangladeshi demographic invasion, militarization and land-grabbing in CHT and rehabilitate all Bengali ethnic settlers outside the region — in their original locations. It may be mentioned that earlier the European Union committed to provide fund to the Government of Bangladesh, if it agrees, for rehabilitation of settlers outside CHT;
2. Implement the 1997 CHT Accord, especially those provisions which have been left unimplemented or violated [devolution of power to the CHT Local Government, resolution of land disputes and restoration of the land right of Jumma indigenous people, withdrawal of 500+ “temporary” military and paramilitary camps from CHT, making a voter list with jumma indigenous and non-indigenous “permanent residents” of CHT and necessary rules for holding elections of the CHT Local Government Bodies, formation of a local police force with Jumma indigenous and non-indigenous “permanent residents” of CHT etc.] in letter and spirit in a time-bound manner without any further delay and empower the Jumma indigenous people within its framework, or arguably beyond; and
3. Send an international human rights group to CHT to study the appalling human rights situation of Jumma Indigenous people.
We urge the Government of Bangladesh and the international community, especially the great peoples and government of India to take necessary steps on priority basis for realization of the above recommendations and promotion and protection of human rights and sustainable peace, security and development in CHT.
Karunalanker Bhikkhu: Chairperson of the Peace Campaign Group
Note: He presented the article at the international conference on “Human Rights Violations and Implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts” held in Kolkata on September 23, 2023, jointly organized by Campaign Against Atrocities on Minorities in Bangladesh (CAAMB) and All India Refugee Front.