Asia-Pacific, Headlines

BANGLADESH-RIGHTS: Ethnic Minorities Appeal for Help Abroad

Prangtip Daorueng

BANGKOK, Mar 12 1997 (IPS) - Jyotirinda Chakma left his tribal village home in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), in south-east Bangladesh, to study journalism in Bulgaria and Germany in 1987.

He has not been back since. He says he will not be allowed to return by the Bangladesh government because he is politically active abroad in the armed struggle for greater autonomy being waged by ethnic minorities in the CHT.

Chakma was in Bangkok to enlist the support of human rights groups across the Asia-Pacific at an ‘International Peace Conference on Chittagong Hill Tracts’ organised in the Thai capital last month.

For 21 years, rebels in the CHT have been at war with Dhaka, which has deployed a third of the Bangladesh army in the area to counter the insurgency. Tens of thousands of tribals are sheltering in refugee camps in neighbouring India.

The CHT, occupies roughly 10 percent of the country, and borders India on the east and Burma in the south. It is the homeland of about 11 tribal communities, of Mongolian, Tibeto- Burman or Mon Khmer extraction, who call themselves the Jumma people. The majority belong to the Chakma tribe, and are ethnically separate from the country’s majority Bengalees who have always dominated the government.

The insurgency is led by the Jana Shanghati Samity (JSS) and its armed wing Shanti Bahini, founded in 1974 three years after Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan. Within two years, the JSS had turned its guns on the security forces because the then government refused to accept its people as ethnic minorities.

“India, Pakistan and now Bangladesh have persecuted the Jumma people politically, economically and culturally,” stated Subodh Bikash Chakma, a spokesman of the Jumma people in a paper prepared for the Bangkok conference. According to him, his people have suffered greatly — a charge supported by international rights organisations who have regularly hauled up the Bangladesh government for human rights abuses in the hill region.

Not surprisingly, the conference ran into trouble with Dhaka. The Thai Embassy there refused visas to 25 Bangladeshi delegates because of objections raised by the Bangladesh government which said the conference could be used as a platform to “villify the government of Bangladesh.”

“By organising the conference in Bangkok, we wanted human rights groups in Asia-Pacific to get involved in our situation,” said Kabita Chakma, co-ordinator of the Australia-based Jumma People Network of the Asia Pacific, one of the organisers.

“Apart from demanding equal political rights, we want the government to recognise our ethnic identity and culture,” she said. “Now all school lessons are in Bangla and our children have no chance of assimilating our culture at school. Besides, our education opportunities are shrinking as schools are shut down because of lack of teachers … Many children have had to stop their studies,”

The hill people of the CHT are a minority in their own land. Bengalee settlers comprise almost half the one million population of the border area. Many tribals are refugees in India, ousted by a dam and later by settlers from the plains who moved in under a government policy introduced in the mid-1970s.

The first refugees were those displaced by the Kaptai Dam, a hydro-electric project built in 1960. The dam submerged around 1,036 sq kms of land, which was 40 percent of the area’s agricultural land.

Roughly 40,000 Jumma people rendered homeless by the dam crossed the border into the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, while another 20,000 moved south into Burma. But the biggest exodus was in the 1980s at the height of the civil war, when the hill area was under the virtual control of the Bangladesh army, though the government did not declare martial law in CHT.

According to political scientist Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury from Rabindra University, Calcutta, who was among the participants, the refugee camps in India are beset with problems. There is not enough food, but the refugees cannot leave the camps to earn money. Neither are their children studying in camp schools allowed to take the final school-leaving examinations.

Also they live in fear of repatriation, he said. In 1992, then Bangladesh prime minister Khaleda Zia had negotiated a “trial” return of refugees with Indian officials, but the exercise was not a success. Those who returned did not always get what they were promised and the trickle stopped.

The withdrawal of the military, return of tribal lands and the reaffirmation of the rights of the indigenous communities, are among the demands of rebel leaders.

Last January, the Bangladesh government held a round of talks with rebel leaders in Dhaka. Though there was no breakthrough, observers said the talks brought the negotiations, which started in 1985, a little closer to its goal of restoring peace.

The army has eased its stranglehold in the last couple of years, and for four years a cease-fire has also been in operation. That has allowed both sides to bring down casualties, but representatives of the Jumma people said atrocities against civilians, particularly women, continue.

According to Kabita Chakma, Jumma people who are politically active continue to be kidnapped, murdered or jailed. The most recent case involves an activist, Kalpana Chakma, who disappeared from his home in CHT last June and is still missing.

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