Jun 16, 2005

Chittagong Hill Tracts: Bangladesh Government Supporting Transmigrants

In the first week of June 2005, the government of Bangladesh decided to continue to provide free food rations to 28,000 plain settlers of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) who were brought under the government sponsored transmigration programmes fr
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In the first week of June 2005, the government of Bangladesh decided to continue to provide “free food rations” to 28,000 plain settlers of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) who were brought under the government sponsored transmigration programmes from 1978 to 1983. Since 1978 Bangladesh government has been providing free food rations to these plain settlers to sustain the conflict, make indigenous Jumma peoples a minority in the CHTs and eventually destroy their distinct identities.

Providing of free rations is nothing but to obtain sanction for undertaking settlement of 65,000 plain settlers’ families between Baghaihat and Majolong in Sajek Union under Rangamati Hill district and those thousands of plain settlers who have already trickled into the CHTs after the government stopped planned population transfer in 1983. After the election of Wadud Bhuyan as Member of Parliament from Khagrachari district in October 2001, the settlement of plain settlers has increased exponentially. Thousands have been settled and many villages have been christened as “Wadud Palli” – literally meaning “Wadud villages”.

The government of Bangladesh has undertaken massive militarisation programme to provide security to these settlers. The army has already constructed Baghaihat-Sajek road in the dense Kassalong reserve forest in clear violation of the Forest Act of 1927 and Bangladesh Forest (Amendment) Act 2000. According to these forest laws, construction of any structures and human intervention creating threats to the natural forest is totally prohibited.

Militarisation for facilitating settlements

The government acquired 9,650 acres of land in Bandarban for the expansion of Ruma military cantonment. On 22 March 2005, the government officials surveyed the area and put up poles marking the acquired land. An estimated one thousand families belonging to ethnic people such as Murung, Tripura and Marma families will be affected.

The government has also recently given notice to indigenous peoples to acquire about 183 acres of land in Balaghata in Bandarban district for the expansion of army brigade headquarter.

The government has already acquired 11,446.24 acres of land in Sualok Union of Bandarban in the name of an Artillery Training Centre, uprooting 400 indigenous families. Each family was provided a paltry sum of Taka 3,000 to 8,000 as compensation. A plan to acquire 19,000 acres of land in Bandarban for the expansion of an Artillery Training centre is reportedly now under consideration.

A process is now underway to acquire 26,000 acres of land in Bandarban for the construction of a training centre for the Bangladesh Air Force. The proposed site falls in Sualock Union and Lama Police Station of Bandarban.

In May 2005, the government issued land acquisition notices for the purpose of construction of a battalion headquarters for the Bangladesh Rifles in Babuchara in Khagrachari district. It seeks to acquire 45 acres of land belonging to the Jumma people.

Recently, the army personnels acquired 450 acres of land after destroying the villages of the indigenous Jumma people in Pujgang under Panchari Thana of Khagrachari district, along Indo-Bangladesh border. The army is now constructing a cantonment on the illegally occupied land.

In addition, the government has been acquiring hundreds of acres of land as eco-park and other social forestry. In Chimbuk of Bandarban district, a total of 5,600 acres of land have been acquired in the name of constructing an Eco Park. The government has started a process to acquire 5,500 acres of land in Sangu Mouza of Bandarban district in the name of creating an “Abhoyarannyo” (animal sanctuary).

The government officials are also forcing people to lease away 40,071 acres of land in Lama, Nikkyong Chari, Alikadam and Bandarban Sadar to private individuals for rubber and tea plantation. Many of the settlers can be settled in these plantations.

Free rations only to the plain settlers

A larger majority of the plain settlers have no means of survival. The UNDP and Government of Bangladesh in their Joint Risk Assessment Report stated:

“The pervasiveness of poverty is also signified by the large number of Bengali families who have continued to receive rations since the 1980s. The number of households is currently 28,200, which at around 5.5 persons per family equals almost 140,000 persons or over 10% of the current population. On the spot checks reveal that many migrant villages in land constrained conditions, strive to receive rations, because no rice can be grown there. A question should be raised how long one can maintain some 10% of the population on rations. An inquiry should reveal whether local livelihoods are truly unsustainable and deserve long term food support and whether other solutions should be sought.”

Article 28 of the constitution of Bangladesh prohibits discrimination based on “religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth and allows the government to take “special provision in favour of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens.”

If indeed government wanted to take any affirmative programme for “any backward section of citizens”, it should have been targeted towards the indigenous Jumma peoples who have been displaced from their homes. Instead, the government of Bangladesh provides free food rations only to the plain settlers – who in the first place displace the indigenous Jumma peoples, grabbing the lands and resort to serious human rights violations. This clearly violates Article 28 of the Constitution of Bangladesh and Article 1 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to which Bangladesh is a party.

Among the indigenous peoples, only the indigenous Jumma refugees who returned from India are given free rations. However, the government of Bangladesh and the Jumma Refugees Welfare Association signed two agreements - the 16-point rehabilitation package of 1994 and 20-point package of 9 March 1997 to facilitate the return of the Jumma refugees and the government had agreed to provide free rations to the returnee Jumma refugees. Even the supply of rations to the Jumma refugees has been erratic and discriminatory. While the government of Bangladesh provides about 60 kg rice per hill refugee family each month, a plain settler’s family is given 85 kg rice for the same period. The government often threatens to cut the rations. In late July 2003, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) of the government of Bangladesh directed the CHTs Affairs Ministry to suspend rice rations to 65,000 indigenous Jumma refugees but to provide free rations to illegal plain settlers’ families in different cluster villages in the CHTs. However, due to the protest from the Jumma refugees, it was withdrawn.

Most of these returnee Jumma refugees could not get back their lands grabbed by the illegal plain settlers and the Bangladesh army. According to official statistics, 3,055 families out of the 12,222 Jumma refugee families have not been able to get back their dwelling houses, jum lands, mouza lands, and crematorium. Approximately 40 indigenous Jumma villages, six Buddhist temples of Chakmas and two Hari temples of Tripuras and one Buddhist orphanage are still in the possession of illegal plain settlers and Army or Ansar forces in violation of the Article 17(b) of the CHTs Accord of 1997. The government is duty bound to restore their lands. Yet, the efforts of the government to settle the land disputes have been deplorable. The CHTs Land Commission met for the first time on 8 June 2005 after it was constituted six years ago.

The question also remains as to who funds these acts of racism and racial discrimination. While there is no concrete information, it is possible that funds of the United Nations Specialised Agencies and many multi-lateral and bilateral donor agencies who have programmes in the CHTs are being used to support the programmes to sustain the plain settlers in the CHT. The funds given to the Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board are also being mis-used. There have been reports of presence of Islamic charity groups in these cluster villages.

The UN agencies, bilateral donors and other actors of the international community must examine as to whether their funds are being used to support the free rations to the settlers and intervene with the government of Bangladesh to bring an end to these acts of racial discrimination. Otherwise, they might as well be contributing to sustaining the conflict which will ultimately destroy distinct identity of Jumma peoples.

Source: ACHR Review