Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh still fighting for protection and recognition since 1971 genocide

Bangladesh celebrates 40 years of independence (26 March 2011)

The roughly 2.5 million indigenous people of Bangladesh are still fighting for their rights, even 40 years after the government was established. The Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) has taken the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the independence of this Southeast Asian nation (26 March 1971) to draw attention to this fact. Particularly precarious is the situation of the 700,000 Jumma in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the southeastern part of what used to be Bengal.

"Following the expulsion and the genocide begun by the Bengali army in 1971, to which some 200,000 indigenous people fell victim, violent land disputes with new settlers continue still today," reported the head of the STP's Asia section, Ulrich Delius. "Rather than finally keeping the promises made to the indigenous peoples, authorities and the army continue to support those robbing the indigenous inhabitants of their traditional land, while people are killed and wounded in the desperate protests."

In recent months, hundreds of settlers in the Rangamati District of the Chittagong Hill Tracts have set fire to the homes of indigenous Chakma in an attempt to drive them out. Although people were wounded, the military personnel nearby did not intervene, according to eyewitness reports. One year ago 1500 Chakma in the same region lost their homes to arsonist attacks, and several people were killed. But the incidents were never investigated, and the perpetrators go unpunished to this day.

Since the state was established 1971, Bangladesh, which today has a population of 160 million, has been using brutal violence to drive out the indigenous peoples from the hill tracts. Their land has been taken over for forestry and agriculture, for military purposes, and for the settlement of some 400,000 Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples have lost their livelihoods and become refugees. Indigenous resistance groups have taken up arms to defend themselves. The fighting only stopped in 1997, when a peace treaty was agreed to. The indigenous peoples in the hill tracts were promised autonomy by the regional and district councils. In addition they were told their land rights would be clarified, their culture promoted, refugees (living within the country) allowed to return home and a major part of the military withdrawn from the hill tracts.

"A glimmer of hope for the 45 indigenous tribes in Bangladesh is that a parliamentary committee now offers the prospect of rephrasing the constitution to include recognition of ethnic minorities," said Delius. "But the question is, how long will it take after that before it translates to effective protection of the Jumma in the hill tracts." The indigenous peoples in the fertile Chittagong Hill Tracts belong to twelve different communities. They collectively call themselves Jumma. The largest group among them are the 400,000 Buddhist Chakma and Marma, followed by the Hindu Tripura and Christian and animist groups. In the 1960s many of them were driven from their land in what was then East Pakistan by the settlement of landless Muslims from the Bengali delta.