Bangladesh: Indigenous People engulfed in Chittagong Hill Tracts land conflict

The Bangladeshi government’s failure to address the contentious issue of land rights in the eastern Chittagong Hill Tracts region, has left tens of thousands landless and fostered a cycle of violent clashes between Pahari Indigenous people and Bengali settlers, Amnesty International said in a new report released today.

 The 60-page report, Pushed to the Edge, documents how the Pahari are still waiting for the government to live up to the terms of an accord signed more than 15 years ago, by restoring their traditional lands to them.

 Amnesty International Researcher on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, Andrew Erueti, said:

“That the Pahari Indigenous People are being denied their traditional lands, or adequate compensation for land taken away from them, is a clear violation of international human rights law.

“For many Pahari Indigenous people, in particular in rural areas, their traditional lands are linked to, not just their livelihood, but also their very way of life. It is inconceivable that after 15 years the Land Commission set up to restore Pahari to their lands is not operational.

“This violence is likely to continue as long as these serious land disputes remain unresolved. It is also indicative of the Bangladeshi authorities’ failure to adequately protect Pahari people at risk, despite the huge security presence in the region.”

The Chittagong Hill Tracts region in south-eastern Bangladesh has for decades been the site of internal armed conflict following Pahari demands for greater autonomy and the protection of their traditional lands. Tens of thousands of Pahari fled their traditional lands during fierce fighting between Bangladesh’s armed forces and Pahari insurgents.

Thousands of Bengali settlers then moved to the Chittagong Hill Tracts land vacated by the Pahari fleeing the violence during and after the conflict, and the Bangali settlers have gradually occupied and encroached on the traditional Pahari land, giving rise to renewed violent clashes. During the conflict, the settlers – mostly landless families from the plains districts – were encouraged to move to the Chittagong Hill Tracts with offers of land as part of a counter-insurgency strategy.

A 1997 Peace Accord included a series of reforms to restore Pahari traditional lands to them, but these have been only partially fulfilled, despite repeated promises by the current Bangladeshi government.

The conflict had a devastating effect on the Pahari and today it is estimated that more than 90,000 Pahari families remain internally displaced.

The Land Commission set up under the Peace Accord to settle land ownership claims after the conflict, has yet to make a single ruling on a land dispute.

The Pahari people tend to suffer disproportionately in the clashes, which have over recent years left hundreds of Pahari families homeless as their homes had been burned down in mob violence triggered by land disputes.

The authorities have remained ineffectual throughout, failing to protect the Paharis’ right to security and their rights to traditional lands.

Pahari women are especially negatively affected. One Pahari 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.”

Despite a 1997 Peace Accord promise to remove all temporary army camps from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the region still remains Bangladesh’s most militarised area, with a substantial army presence. Many Pahari view the army as providing support for Bengali settlers’ continued occupation of Pahari land.

Amnesty is calling on the government of Bangladesh to respect its obligations under international human rights law, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples No.107, and to take concrete steps to return the Paharis’ traditional lands to them, with the effective participation of Pahari women and men in the process.

Amnesty said that all political parties should include a commitment to restore the traditional lands to the Pahari people in their manifestos, in the lead up to next year’s general elections.

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