LONDON — It was 17 years ago this month — 12 June 1996 — that plainclothes security personnel entered the house of Kalpana Chakma, blindfolded her along with her brothers and took her away. She has not been seen since.
Chakma was an activist working for the rights of the Pahari indigenous people in Bangladesh’s southeastern Chittagong Hill Tracts. In particular, she campaigned tirelessly for women’s rights, and is still a symbol for indigenous rights in the region. Every 12 June, Pahari women activists gather to commemorate her “disappearance” and call for an independent inquiry to find out what happened to her.
Partly to commemorate Chakma’s case, Amnesty International this week released a report, Pushed to the Edge, which looks at the immense struggles facing the Pahari indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Bangladeshi authorities’ failure to address land rights in the region has not only left tens of thousands of Pahari homeless without access to their traditional lands, but also fueled tensions with Bengali settlers, which frequently erupt into violent clashes.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) makes up an isolated and remote region in Bangladesh. Unlike the rest of the country, which is flat and at risk of flooding, the CHT consists of rolling hills and deep valleys. It is home to various Indigenous Peoples – collectively known as Pahari.
It has long seen armed conflict over the Pahari demands for greater autonomy, until a 1997 peace accord formally brought an end to hostilities. The violence, however, had a devastating effect on the CHT – countless people were forced to flee their homes, many of which had no option but to take refuge in the surrounding forest areas. During the conflict, the government promoted a policy of moving Bengali settlers into the CHT with the promise of land. Still today, it is estimated that some 90,000 Pahari families remain internally displaced.
The peace accord included provisions both for greater regional autonomy in the CHT, as well as the establishment of a land commission that would settle land ownership claims, with a view to restoring the Pahari traditional lands to them. But, more than 15 years later, this has at best only been partially fulfilled; the land commission has yet to make a ruling on a single case.
Instead, Bengli settlers continue to flow into the CHT. They have gradually settled or encroached on traditional Pahari land.
The peace accord also called for the removal of all temporary army camps from the region, but the CHT still remains the country’s most militarized region today. The army presence is obvious to anyone visiting — camps are dotted along all the main roads and throughout the region. To Pahari villagers, this gives the impression of being under constant surveillance.
This combination — the heavy military presence, the inflow of Bengali migrants, and the unresolved land issues — makes for a volatile mix. Clashes between the Pahari and Bengali settlers are common, often affecting the Pahari badly, who feel the military tend to take the Bengalis’ side.
When I was in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in February 2011 to research our report, one such clash occurred in the Longadu area. After Pahari had been accused of killing a Bengali settler’s brother, a mob of 200 settlers allegedly burned the houses of dozens of Pahari villagers. It is an emblematic case, for which no one has yet been held responsible.
Many Pahari have no formal record of ownership of their lands, making them constantly vulnerable to dispossession by governments and private parties. Successive Bangladeshi government have also operated on the assumption that these lands are “owned” by the state. But this ignores the fact that, under international human rights law, Indigenous Peoples have a right to their traditional lands
These lands are not just crucial for the livelihoods of people in the region, but for many Pahari their lands are also intimately linked to their culture, identity and way of life.
The Awami League — the party in government — has made repeated promises to fulfil the terms of the 1997 peace accord, but has shown no political will to follow through on this. With Bangladesh set for general elections next year, it is not too late to do so – but urgent action is needed.
Bangladesh must 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 take concrete steps to return the Paharis’ traditional lands to them, with the effective participation of Pahari women and men in the process.
One villager we spoke to summed up the Pahari’s decade-long struggle in a simple but poignant way: “You see all these hills around — they used to be ours, but the settlers have taken them.”
It is high time for the Bangladeshi authorities to finally address this situation.
Andrew Erueti is Amnesty International’s researcher on indigenous peoples’ rights.