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Bangladesh's Buddhist tribals seek Prime Minister's intervention

IANS, 22 February 2010

Dhaka, Bangladesh -- Bangladesh's Buddhist tribals Monday sought direct intervention of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina alleging that killing of five people and the burning of their homes and four prayer houses by Muslim settlers in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) was backed by the army.

The charges were levelled at a rally in Rangamati, headquarters of the southeastern district that is home to the indigenous people, and a memoramdum to the prime minister was submitted through Rangamati's deputy commissioner.

Demanding action against the commander of the army force stationed in the district, the tribals demanded that police replace army personnel.

Six human rights and civil society organisations also demanded "proper legal action through neutral investigation" against those responsible for last week's violence, Star Online, web site of The Daily Star said.

The organisations are Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust (BLAST), Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD), Nijera Kori, Brac's Legal Aid Programme, and Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB).

The Bangladesh government has said it will reconstruct the four prayer houses set ablaze during two days of violence against Buddhist tribals in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

Dipankar Talukdar, the minister in charge of the region, said this would be done "as soon as possible".

He also promised action against those responsible within seven days.

At least four prayer houses were burnt down, allegedly by Muslim settlers, in Gangaram Mukh area and nearby villages under Baghaichhari upazila (sub-district) in Rangamati during Saturday's arson attack, the website of The Daily Star said.

A mosque and a church at Gangaram Mukh, a Buddhist temple at Maitreepur and another in 'guccha gram' (cluster of villages) under Baghaichhari upazila in the district were set on fire.

CHT has witnessed recurring violence between the locals and the Muslim Bengali- speaking people settled as part of the policy of successive governments to control the turbulent area.

Although a Buddhist-majority district, CHT was allocated to Pakistan when the British divided India in 1947.

Hasina had reached an accord with the tribals during her earlier tenure. Most provisions of the accord, however, remain to be enforced.

Withdrawing army camps is one such provision and its implementation has divided political opinion.

Main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that had frozen the accord when it was in power is siding with the Muslim settlers.

Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, senior joint secretary general of BNP, said: "Army presence is essential for peaceful coexistence and security of all in Chittagong Hill Tracts."

"The decision of army pullout was a blunder. We had expressed our concern at that time saying army withdrawal might invite catastrophic consequences," he said and demanded re-evaluation of the CHT Peace Treaty.

However, the government and its allies and human rights groups want to continue with the accord.

Workers Party President Rashed Khan Menon, also a lawmaker, claimed the arson incident at Baghaichhari was part of a conspiracy to foil the CHT treaty and to create unrest.

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.

Prospects

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.



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