“Life Is Not Ours”: Attacks on indigenous Jumma peoples of Bangladesh and the need for international action


On 20th April 2008 as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues gathered in New York to hold its seventh session, hundreds of illegal plain settlers attacked seven indigenous Jumma villages in the Chittagtong Hill Tracts (CHTs) of Bangladesh. These villages -  Nursery Para, Baibachara, Purba Para, Nangal Mura, Retkaba, Simana para and Gangaram Mukh  of Sajek union under Baghaichari upazila (sub-district) in Rangamati district  were attacked for 4 hours from 9.30 pm to 1.30 am on 20 April 2008.  

According to the reports of four journalists from Khagrachari who visited the area on 21 April 2008 with local government officials, at least 500 houses in the 4 kilometer stretch from Baghaihat to Gangaram were burnt down. Several indigenous Jummas were wounded and an unknown number of women were raped by the perpetrators. Reports of the mayhem are still coming.  

Hundreds of people have been displaced and indigenous Jummas took shelter into the deep forest fearing further attack. Two members of the Rangamati Hill District Council, Deputy Commissioner of Rangamati Mohammad Nurul Amin, Police Superintendent of the district Abdul Baten visited the spot and provided Taka 100,000 (US 1600) to the Commanding Officer of Baghaihat Zone Lt. Col. Sajid Imtiaz to distribute to the victims. Only 10 victims including two women members of the Sajek union came to Baghaihat bazar to receive relief while others refused to come fearing retaliation.  

Tension has been mounting in the area since March 2008 when the Army began illegally settling new illegal settlers from plain districts onto the indigenous Jumma people's land at Baghaihat, Gangaram, Massalong areas under Sajek union. Having heard rumours of an impending attack, around 50 - 60 Jummas gathered in Gangaram Mukh village to discuss how to defend themselves. This information somehow leaked to the army who approached the villagers and told them not to worry. As Army personnel led by a Habilder, Harun kept the indigenous Jumma men talking, a group of Bengali settlers began the attack.  

The conditions for those attacked have already been precarious. There is a serious humanitarian crisis with many indigenous peoples in these villages starving as a result of bamboo flowering. The flowering of the bamboo has been accompanied by an unusual increase in rodent population which eat up other sources of food, including crops and stored food items leading to acute food shortage in the affected area. There has been no assistance from the government of Bangladesh to assist the affected indigenous peoples and with the burning down of the villages –everything has been destroyed.

 

ACHR’S EARLY WARNING 

On 25 January 2008, in its Weekly Review “Bangladesh: The Army attacks Buddhism to facilitate illegal settlement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts” available at http://www.achrweb.org/Review/2008/203-08.html, Asian Center for Human Rights highlighted the systematic action of the Bangladesh Army to forcibly evict indigenous Jumma people from their lands and the deliberate and illegal implantation of the plain settlers on their lands.  

In its earlier WEEKLY REVIEW “Bangladesh: Indigenous peoples living on the edges of riots” (http://www.achrweb.org/Review/2007/182-07.htm) Asian Centre for Human Rights had also highlighted the high levels of tension and the threat of a deterioration of the situation into riots. The riots were prevented only after Chief of Bangladesh Army and de facto ruler of the country, General Moeen U Ahmed visited Dighinala of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) on 28 August 2007.  

Since the imposition of the State of Emergency , the implantation of illegal plain settlers has intensified with the direct involvement of Bangladesh army. The Bangladesh Army has operated as the de facto government in the CHTs since 1976. The CHTs Accord of 1997 was supposed to have led to the withdrawal of military camps. But, successive governments failed to implement the provisions of the Accord.  

NEED FOR INTERNATIONAL ACTION 

This deliberate act of arson, looting, assault and rape, leading to the destruction of seven Jumma villages is reminiscent of similar attacks which forced over 70,000 indigenous Jumma peoples to cross the international border and seek refuge in India in 1985-1986. German anthropologist Wolfgang Mey’s report, “Genocide in the Chitttagong Hill Tracts” (IWGIA Document 51 of 1984) highlighted gross and flagrant human rights violations on the indigenous Jumma peoples. These violations were further proven by Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission in its report, “Life Is Not Ours” in 1991. The CHTs Commission headed by Prof Douglas Sanders had visited the indigenous Jumma refugee camps and the Chittagong Hill Tracts with the permission of the government of India and government of Bangladesh .  

The latest burning down of over 500 houses in the CHTs was barely covered in Bangladeshi press. It is unlikely to receive international attention either. Given the State of emergency, there cannot be any protests by indigenous Jumma peoples in the CHTs; the protest in mainland Bangladesh so far remain muted and confined to university campuses. It remains to be seen how the Bangladeshi civil liberties and human rights groups address the situation.  

Whether the State of Emergency is proclaimed or not, it makes little difference to indigenous Jumma peoples. In the CHTs, the army rules the roost and the civilian authority remains subservient to the Army. Yet, there is no denying that lifting of emergency will provide much needed political space in mainland Bangladesh.

The response of the international community including the United Nations with regard to the proclamation of State of Emergency in Bangladesh since 11 January 2007 remains disturbing. Bangladesh faces nothing which threatens the life of the nation as provided under Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but emergency remains in place.  

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is unlikely to be able to address such as the burning down of 7 villages in the CHTs. Lost in UN semantics, in the past, human rights violations such as the burning down of 500 villages were not referred in the Annual Sessional Report of the PFII which consistently focused on manufacturing recommendations.  

Therefore, the foreign diplomatic missions based in Dhaka particularly the European Union and Bangladeshi civil society organizations should undertake a visit to the affected areas to assess the extent of the damages caused and address immediate needs of those displaced. Unless international community undertakes such visits, attacks on indigenous Jumma people will only intensify.

 

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