How indigenous peoples in Bangladesh struggle for their rights

October 25, 2015
Fadang Randal.

Fadang Randal is a representative of the United People's Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti — PCJSS), who visited Australia in September. He spoke to Green Left Weekly's Tony Iltis

* * *

The PCJSS is working for the social and political rights of the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

We are very much concerned now with the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord — a treaty signed in 1997 between the government and the PCJSS.

This treaty ended a bitter armed struggle between the government forces and indigenous people in the region.

Our organisation was the first political platform in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, going back to the 1960s, before Bangladesh was separated from Pakistan.

In the 1960s there was a dam built in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, called the Kaptai Dam. The impact of that dam was that more than 100,000 people had to go to India as refugees. At that time our veteran leader, MN Larma, protested against that dam. He was jailed, but later on created a political organisation.

After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, this organisation demanded provincial autonomy in the constitution of Bangladesh and they met the then-prime minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But this demand was disregarded. Sheikh Mujibur told the indigenous people to just become Bengali. Larma walked out of that meeting.

After he came back to the Chittagong Hill Tracts the PCJSS was founded, on 15 February, 1972.

In 1975, Sheikh Mujibur was assassinated in a military coup. There was no longer any democratic space for the indigenous rights movement. Our people went underground and took up arms.

So we had a very bitter armed struggle from 1975 until this treaty, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord, was signed on December 2, 1997.

There was a dream of peace and stability in the region. But after the signing of the Accord, the government took few steps to implement it.

District Councils were supposed to be empowered with responsibilities that used to be with the central government. A new Regional Council was to be established. But this has not been implemented yet.

Traditional institutions were supposed to be made responsible for land management and social justice. The internally displaced persons, who were displaced during the armed struggle, were supposed to be resettled but this has still not been done.

The government is reluctant to implement these points.

We are working with the government, UN agencies, NGOs, intellectuals and our community so that they are aware of their rights, aware of this treaty – how the implementation process is going – and we are putting pressure on the government to implement it.

We are also working for the recognition of the indigenous peoples in the constitution of Bangladesh, but the government is continuously saying that we don't have any indigenous peoples in our country.

The indigenous peoples in Bangladesh, including in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, are also making demands about the language issue. In the treaty there was supposed to be separate board for education in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and schools were supposed to be provide education in the students' mother language. But this has not been implemented. The media is still all in the national language, Bengali.

The military dictators had a program of transmigration. They settled poor Bengali people from other parts of Bangladesh and evicted the indigenous people from their land. The military was directly engaged in making people flee. They tortured indigenous people, and opened fire on communities, forcing them to flee.

This began during the armed struggle but these settlers are still there. When the treaty was being negotiated, there was oral agreement that these settlers would leave the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

In 1947, the population of the Chittagong Hill Tracts was 97.5% indigenous. In 1971 it was still 96%. This dramatically changed after the transmigration program – in 2001 it was 53%. Now it is 50%. The intention of this transmigration program is to change the demographics of the Chittagong Hill Tracts so that the indigenous peoples will be a minority.

Also, there were more than 500 temporary military camps established during the armed struggle. According to the treaty, these camps should be put back into the big cantonments that are in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But this has not been done. We are seeing many new camps being activated.

The military have economic and political interests in the region and may be putting pressure on the government so that they cannot be withdrawn to the cantonments.

There is an operation called Operation Uttoron, through which the military are controlling the Chittagong Hill Tracts in every respect. The military can interfere in the civil administration. They can arrest any person they want.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord is recognised by the international community. For signing the Accord, Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina was awarded the UNESCO Peace Prize. The UN human rights council recommended in 2013 the implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord.

The government keeps on saying it is implementing the Accord, but we do not see it being implemented. Rather we see it is making laws in violation of the treaty and the transmigration process is still going on.

The European Union has promised that whatever money is needed to relocate settlers out of the Chittagong Hill Tracts will be provided by the EU. But the government is not taking this funding.

There are still many human rights violations going on. There is a lot of violence against women: many women have been raped, some of them even killed – by settlers as well as the military. The perpetrators are not arrested.

There are communal attacks against indigenous communities, to drive the people from their land. The military and other administrative officials take part directly and indirectly.

There's also an organisation that emerged after the treaty called the United People's Democratic Front (UPDF). They opposed the treaty saying it was not enough, saying “We want full autonomy”. Their concept of “full autonomy” is not clear.

But this organisation was funded and patronised by the military – the objective was to hinder the implementation of the treaty.

The military has provided it with arms, with which it kills the pro-Accord activists, and gives them money. It is creating very unstable conditions in the Chittagong Hill Tracts allowing the military to say there is still armed struggle in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The UPDF are extorting money from people throughout the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It abducted three foreigners and got a huge amount of money as ransom and the government helped it. It is also attack settlers – it takes money from everybody.

Transmigration is also having a huge effect on the environment. There is huge deforestation, causing a huge amount of soil erosion and other environmental damage.

Land is a big issue in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Land rights should be given back to the people and land that has been taken away should be returned.

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.