Hana Shams Ahmed
Published in Himal on 15 June 2011.
This piece argues that the Bangladesh government’s continued failure to protect its indigenous peoples has forced them to seek international help.
This year, Bangladesh was a subject of heated discussion at the tenth session, held between 16-27 May, of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). The starting point was a report commissioned by the Permanent Forum. Written by former member of the Permanent Forum Lars-Anders Baer, who went to Bangladesh last year as a Special Rapporteur, the report entitled ‘Study on the status of implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997’ received statements of solidarity from the delegates.
The Permanent Forum, established in July 2000 by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), is a high-level advisory body that deals with indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights. This is the first UN Forum where indigenous peoples directly represent their own interests. It consists of 16 members, half of whom are nominated by the government and the other half by the indigenous peoples, who advise and report directly to the ECOSOC. It reports and makes recommendations to the ECOSOC, raises awareness and promotes coordination of activities relating to indigenous peoples within the UN system, and prepares and disseminates information on indigenous issues. The members meet once each year for ten working days. Governments, UN bodies and agencies, intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, and organisations of indigenous peoples participate as observers. In 2010, at the ninth session of the Forum, Chakma Raja Devasish Roy was selected, from the Asia region, as one of the 16 indigenous expert members for the period of 2011-2013.
From the very beginning, indigenous peoples’ representatives from Bangladesh have been participating at the Permanent Forum sessions. However, this is the first time that the 1997 CHT accord has been a focus of deliberation and dedicated discussion. After the presentation by Special Rapporteur Baer, observer countries, international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), and other national and international human rights organisations voiced their support to the recommendations proposed by the study and urged the government of Bangladesh to accelerate its efforts in implementing the CHT Accord.
Although representatives of the Bangladesh government, including the state minister for CHT affairs, and other indigenous members of the parliament were scheduled to participate in the Forum discussion, they cancelled at the last moment, and Iqbal Ahmed, the First Secretary of the Bangladesh mission to the UN, responded to the report. The thrust of Ahmed’s argument was that there were ‘no indigenous peoples in Bangladesh’ and as such the implementation of the Accord should not have been a topic for the Forum to discuss. He then went on to discuss the structural work that had so far been done by the government, including setting up of the Regional Council, the Hill Districts Councils, the Land Commission and the National Committee for Implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord. He concluded by saying:
This statement has been delivered for better understanding of everyone present here on the issue which is clearly ‘non-indigenous’ in nature. This effort, hence, should not be misconstrued as a recognition of the authority of the Forum to discuss the issue of CHT affairs. We urge upon the Forum to dedicate its valuable time to discuss issues related to millions of indigenous people all over the world and not waste time on issues politically concocted by some enthusiastic quarters with questionable motives.
Despite one of the members of the Forum, Raja Devasish Roy, being an indigenous person from Bangladesh, it was rather surprising for the first secretary to say that there were no indigenous peoples in the country. Of course this argument has been used before. Although both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have used the word ‘adivasi’ (indigenous) in their commemorative statements, and many older government laws use the phrase ‘indigenous hill-men’, the present government has categorically refused to recognise the existence of indigenous peoples in the national and international platforms. In April 2010, Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, following a declaration made earlier by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)-led government, stated that Bangladesh did not have any indigenous population. The Ministry for CHT Affairs also reflected this denial on a memo, in which it instructed district-level officials to stop using the terms ‘adivasi’ or ‘indigenous’ in government documents; replacing the terms with the word ‘upajati’ (sub-ethnicity) instead.
Although in their election manifesto, 2008, the Awami League (AL), which now leads the government, had promised to implement the 1997 CHT Accord in full, the Chittagong Hill Tracts continue to be a militarized area, where arson attacks against the indigenous people are frequent. The security forces including the army, police and the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), are alleged to be covert supporters of these attacks. In the face of such hostility by a government that was initially seen as secular and minority-friendly, the next option for the indigenous population has been to take their issues to the international community through the UN Permanent Forum.
In response to the government’s disavowal of the existence of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh, indigenous expert member Roy said:
It is important to bear in mind the asymmetry in the status of the two parties to an accord: the state party and the non-state party. If the state reneges on its promises, what can the non-state party do but approach the United Nations? The Permanent Forum is mandated to deal with issues of indigenous peoples, irrespective of terms the governments use to refer to their indigenous peoples: ‘tribes’ or ‘ethnic minorities’ or otherwise.
The first secretary in his statement had objected to two specific recommendations Special Rapporteur Baer made in his report, calling them ‘out of context’. Both of the recommendations were in regards to the UN peacekeeping forces from Bangladesh. While section 56 of the study recommended that the Department of Peacekeeping Operations of the UN Secretariat (UNPKO) ‘develop a mechanism to strictly monitor and screen the human rights records of national army personnel prior to allowing them to participate in peacekeeping operations under the auspices of the United Nations’, section 58(a) recommended that it also ‘prevent human rights violators and alleged human rights violators within the security forces of Bangladesh from participating in international peacekeeping activities under the auspices of the United Nations’. Bangladesh has been sending troops as part of the UN Peacekeeping Operations since 1988 (the year the UNPKO won the Nobel Peace Prize) and is currently the top Troop Contributing Country (TCC). It has participated in 46 UN peacekeeping missions in 32 countries with approximately 100,000 uniformed personnel. This has been lauded both abroad and at home, and has been a source of considerable pride for the military, the state and citizens.
At the same time, however, indigenous peoples in CHT continue to bring allegations against the Bangladesh Army of its biased stance and actions against them, and of abetting or tolerating human rights violations in the area. For example, in February 2010, settlers burned more than 400 homes of indigenous people in villages across Baghaihat, Rangamati to the ground. The army personnel, who were present in the area in the Baghaihat zone, are accused to have done nothing to stop the arsonists and working instead as a ‘shield’ to protect the settlers. Non-cooperation from the government meant that no independent investigations were conducted into this case. Apart from biased views and actions, the army is also accused of displacing indigenous people from their lands to increase requisitioned land for military garrisons in the CHT.
In the CHT Accord of 1997, an agreement to dismantle all temporary military camps, apart from the six designated cantonments, from the area was reached. A promise to form a functioning Land Commission, which would resolve all land disputes, was also made. However, the present Land Commission and its Chairman’s blatant ‘pro-Bengali’ bias, combined with the continued racial and communal bias displayed by the Bangladesh government and regional administration has meant that the leaders of the indigenous peoples have run out of hope that the Accord will ever be implemented.
Time too is running out for the implementation of the Accord during the tenure of the present AL-led government. The Permanent Forum has provided the Jumma (collective name for the indigenous hill peoples in the CHT) with a platform to reach out to indigenous peoples from different parts of the world and put pressure on the government to implement the accord. However, first, the Government of Bangladesh should recognise that it is its own failure that it could not take concrete steps to execute the clauses of the fourteen-year-old accord and that it could not alter its continued anti-indigenous peoples attitude – which led to the internationalisation of the issue in the first place. Overused statements containing phrases like ‘politically concocted’ will not succeed in shifting the blame.