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Bangladesh: The Army attacks Buddhism to facilitate illegal settlement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts
ACHR WEEKLY REVIEW, January 23, 2008
Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh -- On 25 January 2008, indigenous Jumma peoples are scheduled to hold a large religious gathering at Sarnath Arannyo Kuthir, a Buddhist temple at Karallyachari in Khagrachari Hill district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs).
The Bangladeshi authorities have banned the meeting. It is unclear if the meeting will go ahead. As we upload this Weekly Review, the Deputy Commissioner of Khagrachari district is holding a meeting with the local Jumma elders of Karallyachari to decide the fate of the religious gathering while the Bangladesh army personnel have been seizing the bikes and other vehicles. But if the meeting takes place it is likely that the government will use violence to suppress it.
The government’s actions at the temple are a microcosm of an ongoing and long established State policy to establish a homogenous Bengali Muslim society; a policy that implies the destruction of the identity of the indigenous Jumma peoples through a process of illegal and often violent settlement of the Bengali Muslim settlers.
With international community's attention focused on Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections the care-taker government is free to execute the ethnic cleansing policy in the CHTs without external interference.
Background to the Sarnath Arannyo Kuthir
The banning of the religious gathering comes as part of a pattern of wider attacks on the religion of the indigenous communities. On 14 January 2008, the Bangladesh Police arrested Reverend Arya Jyoti Bhikkhu, Head Priest of Sarnath Arannyo Kuthir, after a settler, Abdul Majid, son of late Akad Zaman from Karallyachari cluster village, filed a First Information Report (No. 1 of dated 11/1/2008) under sections 143, 447, 379, 427, 506 and 109 of the Bangladesh Penal Code.
The complainant accused about 500 indigenous peoples including Rev Aryo Joti Bhikkhu and Late(!) Tumbo Chakma of committing offences of illegal gathering, theft and destruction to private properties. In reality, it appears that these indigenous Jummas were making temporary houses to accommodate the Buddhist monks and the devotees within the temple premise.
On 21 January 2008, the Additional District Magistrate of Khagrachari Mr Manindra Kishor Majumder in a communication (je.pra.kha/je.em/tin-75/2008-63) ordered the Officer-in-Charge of Mahalachari Police Station area to issue show cause on the headmen and Karbaris (traditional village chiefs) of Karallyachari area as to why they had failed to notify the administration about the religious programme. He also ordered that the court examine the land documents of the temple and threatened legal action against the headmen and Karbaris if they failed to provide satisfactory documentation.
On 21 January 2008, Bangladesh army personnel prevented local people from constructing a makeshift bridge over the river Chengi at Karallyachari - Paujjyachari area under Mahalchari Police Station. The bridge was being prepared for the religious programme.
Targeting of the Buddhist temples
The events at Sarnath Arannyo Kuthir are not isolated. Across the CHTs, Buddhist temples have been targeted for destruction by the authorities. Indigenous Buddhist Chakmas and Marmas usually live in and around their temples. Once temples are destroyed the area can be more easily cleared for illegal plain settlers.
In August 2007, illegal settlers and the Bangladesh army personnel tried to take over the lands of the Sadhana Tila Buddhist temple of Babuchara area under Dighinala upazila in Khagrachari district. As national and international protest grew, the de-facto ruler of the country General Moeen U Ahmed visited Dighinala on 28 August 2007 and assured locals that the temple will not be destroyed.
On 12 September 2007, Khagrachari district authorities banned the “construction of new Mosque, Hindu temple and Buddhist temple” in Mahalchari sub-division without prior permission of the authorities. While the order does not specifically target any religious group, given the long history of well documented evidence of violations against the Jumma peoples the political reality is that the order is targeted at the indigenous peoples and their religion i.e. Buddhism.
On 5 November 2007, Major Qamruzzaman, Commander of Babuchara zone, summoned Sneha Moy Chakma and Santosh Jibon Chakma to his camp and ordered them not to use loudspeakers to announce the Katin Chivor Danotsav, the Buddhist festival that follows the end of the rain retreat of Buddhist monks.
On 31 December 2007, a group of army personnel led by Captain Sohel, Commander of Shuknachari Indra Singh Karbari Para camp of the Bangladesh Army, demolished Bhujulichuk Kuthir, a Buddhist meditation centre in Lakshmichari Upazila in Khagrachari district. Captain Shohel threatened witnesses on a prior attack that: “We will not tolerate any Buddha house here; we want only Allah's house”.
On 17 January 2008, the Commanding Officer of Baghaihat zone in Rangamati district threatened Reverend Dwip Bongshaw Bhikkhu, the Head Priest of Bishwa Moitri Bouddha Vihar at Hazachara village in Baghaihat. The Commanding officer threatened to demolish the temple if the priest did not leave.
The motivation for taking land of the Sadhana Tila Buddhist temple and its surrounding areas is simple: further illegal settlement. Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) is in possession of a letter dated 19 November 2007 issued by Md. Sulut Zaman, Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs (MoCHTA). It orders the Deputy Commissioner of Khagrachari district to illegally settle 812 families into the lands of the indigenous Jummas at Babuchara area, Baghaichari mouza under Dighinala upazila (sub- district) in Khagrachari district.
There are many other recent incidents of forcible land grabbing. In December 2007, illegal plain settlers led by Md. Wahab from Burighat under Rangamati district forcibly grabbed 25 acres of land belonging to the indigenous Jumma people at Hatimara village under Burighat Mouza in Rangamati district.
During March 2007-November 2007, a total of 399.22 acres of land belonging to 133 Jumma individuals and a primary school in 14 villages under four Unions of Mahalchari police station and Khagrachari Sadar police station under Kagrachari district have been illegally and forcibly grabbed by the illegal plain settlers with direct help from the army.
At a press conference in Dhaka on 19 January 2008, representatives of the Committee for Protection of Land in Bandarban called upon the government to cancel the ongoing process of acquiring 9,560 acres of land for the purpose of expansion of Ruma Garrison. The government is presently at the final stage of acquiring 9,560 acres of land for the purpose of expansion of Ruma Garrison in three Mouzas of Galenga, Pantola and Sengum under Ruma Upazilla in Bandarban. Out of the total land to be acquired, 1,569.06 acres belong to the indigenous peoples and 4,000 acres belong to the Forest Department. The project will lead to displacement of 4,315 indigenous persons from 644 families. Way back in 1988, a joint study team of Bandarban District Administration and the Bangladesh Military stated that the project would be disastrous for the local indigenous peoples.
Background to the CHTs crisis
The root of the CHTs crisis lies in the policies of the government of Bangladesh which seek to establish homogenous Bengali muslim society. This implies the destruction of the identity of the indigenous Jumma peoples. 'Jumma' is the collective name for the eleven tribes of the CHTs.
Over the last 50 years, hundreds of thousands of Bengali settlers have been moved onto Jumma land. Successive regimes in East Pakistan, and later Bangladesh have supported the influx of Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants into the 5,000 sq km Hill Tracts, which is sparsely populated in comparison to the rest of the country. The settlement has been carried out with varying degrees of violence, including in earlier periods massacre.
Today, as a result of the aggressive settlement policy, the Chittagong Hill Tracts has a population of 900,000 which is evenly divided between Muslim homesteaders and the indigenous Jummas.
On 2 December 1997, the government of Bangladesh and the Jummas signed a peace accord that brought an end to the long running insurgency. It committed the government to removing military camps from the region and to ending the illegal occupation of Jumma land by settlers and the army.
Since emergency rule was declared in Bangladesh in January 2007, arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings of Jummas have escalated. Jumma activists have been targeted by the Bangladesh military taking advantage of the emergency. Since the declaration of Emergency on 11 January 2007, at least 50 Jumma activists have been arrested, including 20 members of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS) and 10 members of United People's Democratic Front (UPDF).
False cases such as extortion, kidnapping, murder etc have been lodged against arrested jumma activists. During raids, the Bangladesh military plant arms and ammunitions and claim to have recovered the same from the houses of the indigenous activists to provide grounds for arrest. Most cases have been filed under Section 16(b) of the Emergency Power Rules of 2007 which denies release on bail to the accused during the enquiry, investigation and trial of the case.
The state has been carrying out illegal land grabbing in CHT since independence. There should be no doubt about the central government’s long term intentions in the CHT. The deliberate destruction of religious centres and intimidation of the priests is part of the political strategy to realize the aim.
The Army (the de facto government) is actively involved in the ongoing settlement policy. There is no protection under the law: the rule of law in Bangladesh is subverted to political interference, weak institutions and an indifference to human rights. And the history of grave violations of human rights and ongoing arrest and torture and extra-judicial execution of Jumma activists means any protest carries a high risk.
Jumma culture centres around the religion and the community derives a sense of protection from the religion. Attacking the religion is intended to dissipate Jumma communities. The attacks facilitate a climate of fear that undermines what remains of any organized peaceful resistance to the settlement policy.
The international community
Despite the increasing rate of illegal settlement and blatant human rights violations, international concern is hard to discern. Even Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International omitted reference to the CHTs in their Annual reports 2007.
In more ways than one, international community is responsible for the gradual extinction of indigenous Jumma peoples in Bangladesh. They had funded the programmes for implantation of plain settlers into the CHTs. While speaking about peace in the CHTs, they continue to remain mute witness as the government of Bangladesh continues to provide free rations only to the illegal plain settlers.
The failure to condemn state sponsored racism has given a free hand to the authorities in Dhaka to take measures that will eventually destroy the identity of the indigenous Jumma peoples.