July 21, 2004
I hope you all are aware that from time immemorial the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT in short), in the southeastern part of Bangladesh, has been the home to eleven indigenous peoples. They collectively identify themselves as the Jumma people, the first peoples of the CHT.
Like indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, the indigenous Jumma people of the CHT have been suppressed for centuries. Before the British annexed the region to Bengal, we were independent. Even during the British colonial period (1860-1947), the CHT was regarded as an "Excluded Area", in order to protect the indigenous Jumma people from economic exploitation by non-indigenous people and to preserve the indigenous peoples' socio-cultural and political institutions based on customary laws, community ownership of land and so on. In fact, several provisions of the CHT Regulation of 1900 functioned as a safeguard for the Jumma people and it prohibited immigration into the region and land ownership by non-indigenous people.
However, during the Pakistani period (1947-1971) and even after Bangladesh became independent in 1971, the entire CHT region was thrown open for unrestricted migration and acquisition of land titles by non-indigenous people, in violation of the letter and spirit of the 1900 Regulation. Although general Bangladeshi and CHT laws acknowledge the CHT peoples as "indigenous", this was not formally acknowledged in the national Constitution of Bangladesh, which was adopted in 1972.
As in many other parts of the world, the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh are facing serious human rights violations. In 1960, the Kaptai Dam flooded our lands and homes and even today many of our people remain un-rehabilitated. Our lands, forests and territories have been and are still being taken away without our free, prior and informed consent, to build so-called "Reserve Forests", "Protected Areas", "National Parks", "Eco-parks", Tourism, and even for establishing military bases and training centres. In some of the areas known as "Reserved Forests", not only are the original inhabitants regarded as encroachers and treated as serfs, but they are also victimized by assaults of Forest guards, arbitrary arrest and oppressive criminal cases.
Human rights violations including violence against Jumma women by the military continue unabated in the CHT until today. De facto military rule continues in the CHT based upon a secret government order known as "Operation Uttoran (Operation Upliftment). In September 2001, this order has replaced the earlier order known as "Operation Dabanal" (Operation Wild-fire) imposed in the CHT during the conflict period (1973-1997). Military interference with and dominance over general civil administration, indigenous social affairs, forest resources etc. continue.
For instance, in August 2003, more than 350 houses of indigenous Jummas of 14 villages within Mahalchari sub-district were burnt, Buddhist temples and statues of Lord Buddha were destroyed, and two people, including one eight-month old child were killed and 10 Jumma women were raped. All this happened within a few hours and was led by uniformed and armed soldiers of the Bangladesh military (21 East Bengal Regiment) and included Bengali settlers. This is very ironic, as Bangladesh now is the biggest contributor to the international UN Peacekeeping force. Moreover, we have been told that that Lt. Col. Abdul Awal. the concerned Zone Commander, had only recently returned to Bangladesh after completing UN peace-keeping duties abroad. We would like the United Nations to know about this and to ensure after careful scrutiny that those soldiers and officers involved in human rights violations in the CHT and elsewhere in Bangladesh are not allowed to join the UN as peacekeepers.
We have asked the government to conduct an impartial and independent inquiry into this communal attack and to take speedy action against the perpetrators of crime. However, the government has not taken any steps in this regard. Very recently, in May 2004, Bangladesh army and police arrested 50 unarmed and peaceful indigenous activists in Khagrachari. Among them 17 activists were tortured brutally in army camps by being hit with rifle butts, made to hang by their legs from a tree upside down, by applying electric shock, pushing injection needles, etc. Many were kept for 24 hours without food and water.
Mr. Chair and the distinguished delegates, some of you might already have heard that Mr. J. B. Larma, the President of my organization, PCJSS, who signed the historic CHT Accord in 1997, was not given permission by the Government of Bangladesh, to attend the 3rd session of the Permanent Forum.
All these incidents demonstrate how the Bangladesh Government is wantonly violating the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its citizens. We need international support to help convince the Bangladesh Government to stop its human rights violations of its indigenous peoples.
Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh. E-mail: email@example.com