Personal experience of Land Rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts
“Indigenous peoples are guardians of nature” said Ban Ki Moon.
On 12th June Amnesty published “Pushed to the Edge”, which details the human rights issues in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region (CHT) of South East Bangladesh that I experienced when I lived in Bandarban in 2011 and 2012.
The 12th of June is an important date for the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hills Tract (CHT). In 1996, 23-year old indigenous rights activist, Kalpana Chakma was forcibly abducted by security personnel from her home along with two of her brothers. The abductors were clearly identified by witnesses but have never been arrested. Kalpana has never been found
The Chittagong Hills Tract region was marred by conflict from 1976 to 1997 and tens of thousands of indigenous people crossed over to India to avoid the violence. After they left, many settlers began occupying vacated traditional lands, after encouragement by the government. Today, it is estimated 90 000 indigenous families remain internally displaced and have been left landless.
In 1997 the Bangladesh government signed a peace accord ending over 20 years of violence. But 16 years on, the provisions of the accord remain largely un-implemented. Instead, the Bangladesh government has continued to move settlers from other parts of the country to the region.
This migration project and the failure to address the land rights issue has fostered violent clashes between the indigenous people and settlers, resulting in the destruction of several villages, and has caused immense insecurity and suffering.
I lived in Bandarban in the CHT, for almost a year in 2010 and 2011. I would like to tell you about the beautiful scenery of jum-farmed hills, the 11 unique cultures and customs and the wonderful food but unfortunately there is no room for poetic gushing here. I experienced first hand the issues described in the report and saw the efforts made to hide the area from foreigners.
“Pushed to the Limit” confirms and gives examples of the shocking attitude of Bangladesh authorities towards the indigenous people that I regularly experienced. The authorities are shown as referring to them as “simple”, “backward” and in need of modernisation.
This attitude was prevalent in many interviews I had with security personnel. It is this attitude that is used to justify land grabbing and delays in implementing promises.
I saw the power and influence of the tobacco and rubber planters involved in land-grabbing. I heard of many incidents of violence against women and girls, most of which are certainly not reported. Often friends would say, “let me tell you my story” or “my sister’s story”. After listening, I would naively say, “Why didn’t you tell the police?”. Indigenous women are especially negatively affected through the loss of their land, one woman told Amnesty:
“We are now left with no land to farm and grow crops, or forest to go to for collecting fuel wood, and fruit. Life has become very hard as we have [the] army at very close proximity and I feel very insecure even walking short distances. Our home has become an insecure unsafe place to live in. I’m now constantly worried about getting food for my family and security of my children.”
I saw the corruption involved in the sale of permanent residency certificates. These certificates determine who is permitted to own land and were supposed to stop outsiders buying land. I witnessed the power of the land buying organisations, when truly stupid stories were invented about me in the press and in leaflets. Not because I said anything, but simply because I was there.
Organisations professing to promote the rights of settlers recently organised a three-day general strike (Hartals) in opposition to the provisions of the peace accord. The settlers are the pawns in this game, but the power of them as a mob was seen last September in the riots in Rangamati and the destruction of Buddhist and Hindu temples in nearby areas. Now that the settler population is approximately 50% of the CHT, these mobs become a powerful weapon in the hands of the land-grabbing corporations. Bengali nationalism and religious fervour can be used stir them up and they know that they can act with impunity.
This is why the situation is so urgent. The indigenous people are considered to be obstructing ‘progress’, the security services do not protect them and they are in danger of losing everything. Land grabbing incidents are being reported continuously.
Amnesty is calling on the government of Bangladesh to fully implement the promises it made in the 1997 peace accord, and to respect its obligations under international human rights law. The authorities must conduct thorough investigations into allegations of human rights violations including the abduction of Kalpana Chakma, and must fully recognize and protect the right of indigenous men and women to their traditional lands.
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