On March 25th, Ain Salish Kendra (ASK) released the 2007 Annual Human Rights Report. In the Chapter on CHT Paharis and Flatland Adivasis, following 7 topics were covered. On March 27th, the CTG announced a removal of the ban on mobile phones (item # 4).

1.Death in Custody: Eco-Park activist Cholesh Richil
2.Racial Profiling: Army Operations, Ranglai Mro, DANIDA kidnapping
3.Right to Property: Bengali settlers and land grabbing
4.Right to Information: Continuing ban on mobile phones, limited reporting on CHT
5.1997 Peace Accord: Continuing Non-implementation
6.Legal Challenge to Peace Accord
7.Voter List implementation in violation of Peace Accord

RIGHTS OF ADIVASIS: 2007 Annual Report
Ain Salish Kendra

This year marked the tenth anniversary of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord, as well as the first year of the current Caretaker Government (CTG). Overall, there were major negative developments for the Adivasis – both in the Chittagong Hill Tracts as well as in the plains. There was a crack down on political dissidents, which included not only members of indigenous political parties (JSS and UPDF in CHT), but also civil society representatives, without political affiliation, who have been vocal on the rights of the indigenous peoples. The crack down resulted in serious human rights violations – arbitrary arrests under false or at least barely credible charges, summary trials under dubious conditions and custodial deaths. The year saw a continuation of the long-term unstated policy of ethnic displacement in the CHT, a trend that dramatically accelerated during the previous five years of BNP-Jamaat government. At the same time, a few positive trends emerged: BLAST lawsuit regarding district judges’ court, first meeting of CHT advisory committee in seven years[1], the emergence of more reporting and editorials on Pahari issues in the media[2], and the appointment in January 2008 of Raja Devashish Roy to Ministry of CHT Affairs, as Special Assistant to the Chief Advisor.

Death in Custody: Eco-Park activist Cholesh Richil
The case of Cholesh Richil was the first major case of custodial death reported under the CTG. According to reports by press and human rights groups, Richil, a prominent Adivasi rights leader and a key activist against the proposed “Eco-Park” in Modhupur, was tortured to death while in the custody of joint forces. Reports indicated that Richil may have been targeted in particular for his strident opposition to the Eco Park, which went against powerful political and business interests. The gruesome details of the death, which included extensive signs of torture[3], created international headlines and an image fiasco for the CTG. The case became part of an appeal by ACHR and other groups to SAARC heads of states and international agencies. Coming in the third month of the CTG’s tenure, it was seen as a litmus test of how the Army would handle allegations of human rights abuse. Although a one-person judicial inquiry commission was formed under persistent national and international pressure, its findings and information regarding action against those responsible, if any, have not been made public as of the writing of this report.

In addition to Richil, on 3rd March, army personnel from Ghilachari camp under Naniachar Thana, Rangamati, reportedly arrested Suresh Mohan Chakma (son of Phedera Chakma of Choichari village). Although Suresh Chakma was released on March 6th, he died on 7th March. In August, Rasel Chakma (son of Paritosh Chakma of Dewan Para village under Naniarchar sub-district) also allegedly died in the custody of security forces, who reportedly claimed that he died of a heart attack[4]. In both these cases, the evidence of torture was not as clearly documented, so there was no ensuing outcry, in contrast to the case of Cholesh Ritchil.

Racial Profiling: Army Operations, Ranglai Mro, DANIDA kidnapping
In light of a three decade long military “pacification” program in the region, widespread arrests, beginning immediately after the declaration of the emmergency in 2007 spread panic among Paharis, with some Pahari activists fearing a return to pre-Peace Accord days when thousands of Paharis fled across the border to refugee camps in India. Various ‘operations’ are reported to be launched in this regard with names like; “Operation Dabanol” (forest fire), “Operation Uttoron” (the rising) and “Alor Shondhane” (in search of light)[5]. While the Army officially stated that these operations were necessary to disarm miscreants in the area, some Pahari activists have repeatedly alleged that these operations are used to selectively target Pahari activists who have publicly opposed the Army presence. Some key examples are: Satyabir Dewan (General Secretary of PCJSS), Ranglai Mro (Chairman of Sualok Union Parishad) and Bikram Marma (President of PCJSS, Kaptai upazila branch) — all of whom have been sentenced to 17 years for alleged possession of arms. Sai Mong Marma (Organizing Secretary, PCJSS Kaptai) was sentenced to 10 years. All targeted arrestees were vocal opponents of army presence in CHT, and Ranglai Mro was the leader of 2006 protests against eviction of 750 Mro families to make way for an army training centre in Bandarban. At least 50 arrests were made in 2007, including 20 members of PCJSS and 10 members of UPDF[6] — both Pahari political groups that oppose the army presence and Bengali settlers. Among the high profile arrested activists were Santoshito Chakma (General Secretary of Chittagong Hill Tracts Jumma Refugee Welfare Association), Milton Chakma (Assistant Coordinator of Hill Watch Human Rights Forum), and Tatindra Lal Chakma (Central Member of PCJSS).

The response of the security forces in relation to the kidnapping of DANIDA official Hossain Shahid Shumon is particularly relevant. While the security forces should be genuinely praised for their efforts in rescuing Shumon from the kidnappers, allegedly belonging to a Myanmarese insurgent outfit; their reaction to the adivasi individuals who were traveling with Shumon in the same group was disproportionate. The Joint Forces arrested fellow DANIDA official Kirti Nishan Chakma and held him for days on charges of aiding the kidnapping. In the end, all charges against KN Chakma were dropped and he was released, without any explanation ever being provided for his arrest. In addition, a number of local villagers and NGO volunteers were arrested on charge of connection with the kidnapping. They included officials and the Directors of several local NGOs. Again, no formal charges were ever lodged against any of these NGO officials but the hapless individuals had to undergo the travails of passing 6 months in Bandarban prison, before being released. The case highlights how even extremely well-established senior officials of NGOs and bilateral agenies, who have been working peacefully with Bengali groups for many years, may be subject to arbitrary treatment based on their ethnic background.

Right to Property: Bengali settlers and land grabbing

A three decade long policy of resettlement and pacification, in which heavy military presence was an explicit deciding force, has made it possible for Bengali settlers to occupy land in the CHT — reducing the Pahari population from a one-time majority to roughly 50-60% of the population. This trend continued in 2007, with cases of Bengali settlers reportedly displacing Paharis and grabbing lands – particularly in Khagrachari district, but also elsewhere[7]. In the case of Sadhana Tila, Buddhist monks of a Meditation Centre were allegedly ordered to leave on August 13, 2007 by the local Army Zone Commander in order to leave the area for rehabilitation of 800 Bengali families. The settlement of the Bengali families did not finally take place when a huge protest came about nationally and internationally. Throughout the year 2007, reports of similar cases continued; some reported in the national media but the majority as ‘word of mouth’ from local eyewitness. While these incidents need to be independently verified; what is undeniably clear is the sheer number of such allegations and the overall trend of dispossession of and eviction from land of the indigenous ethnic communities, with the government machinery – most prominently the security forces – being constantly accused as active accomplice.

In addition to Bengali settlers, land has been occupied directly by the Army itself. On 8 March 2007, an army camp was reportedly set up on the land of Prithwiraj Chakma at Dantkupya village[8]. The Ruma army cantonment announced plans to expand the garrison by 7,570 acres, and reportedly ordered more than 4,000 Mro indigenous families to vacate the land[9].

Right to Information: Continuing ban on mobile phones, limited reporting on CHT
The mobile phone revolution is one of the huge success stories of Bangladeshi business sector, growing from less than 1 million phones in 1996 to 30 million subscribers today. Yet in the midst of this huge growth, all three districts of CHT– Bandarban, Khagrachari, Rangamati– remain almost completely outside the mobile phone coverage grid. This is due to a de facto ban on mobile coverage to those areas: the basis of the ban does not appear to be clear, though the justification apparently given by the local authorities is that any other situation would help the “insurgent guerilla forces.” This in spite of the fact that the majority of insurgency forces have, since 1997, put down arms and joined civilian life. The mobile phone blackout has caused a huge negative impact to the development of business and commerce in the area. In an interview, Devasish Roy expressed his hope that the current government would lift the ban on mobile phones in the region[10].

In addition, the beginning of 2008 saw alarming developments in press freedom in the region. A recent press report[11] alleged that the home ministry has issued an instruction asking authorities to “prevent intellectuals and eminent personalities from attending functions organised by ethnic minorities.” This is in line with a report allegedly submitted to the offices of the president, chief adviser, home ministry, inspector general of police and Dhaka Metropolitan Police commissioner which said: ‘Necessary measures should be taken so that the editors, left-leaning politicians and eminent personalities do not participate in the programmes.’ The Home Ministry allegedly sent a note to this effect to the Information Ministry on October 11, 2007 as well as to Bangladesh Television and Bangladesh Betar. The instructions would arguably make it impossible to hold, in the future, events such as International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, events by Bangladesh Adivasi Forum and Bangladesh Adivasi Odhikar Andolan.

1997 Peace Accord: Continuing Non-implementation
The landmark 1997 Peace Accord that ended the twenty year insurgency led by the Shanti Bahini entered its tenth year with few signs of implementation. Vital clauses that have remained unimplemented by the last two political governments, and remained in a stage of stagnation under the current regime, include activating the Land Commission, withdrawal of all “temporary camps” of Army, BDR, APBn (Armed Police Battalion), and handing over of full control of local civil and police administration to three hill district councils[12]. The one Peace Accord clause that has been settled is the setting up of district judges’ courts in 3 hill districts to clear a backlog of over 25,000 cases[13]. This followed a writ petition at the high court by BLAST, a legal aid NGO. The verdict, delivered by the high court, instructed the government to set up district judge’s court in all three hill districts.

Another positive development this year was the CTG’s decision to call a meeting of the CHT Affairs Ministry Advisory Committee, the first such meeting after a five year gap during the BNP-Jamaat government. Pahari activists hoped that arrest and prosecution on corruption charges of BNP MP Abdul Wadud Bhuiyan, long a negative force in non-implementation of the Peace Accord, would result in some positive development. Foreign Affairs Advisor Iftekhar Chowdhury’s positive remarks about implementation of the Peace Accord also gave some positive push. However, this was starkly contradicted by then Law Advisor Mainul Hossein’s public statement that the Accord required revision at a meeting of the militant pro-Bengali settler group “Parbottho Shomo Odhikar Andolon” (The Hill Equal Rights Movement).

Legal Challenge to Peace Accord
In a disturbing new development, a writ was filed in the High Court by Advocate Md. Tajul Islam, a member of the Jamaat e Islami, challenging the constitutionality of the 1997 Peace Accord[14]. Islam claimed that the CHT Accord was passed “amidst huge protest and rejection of the major section of the people of Bangladesh”, undermined the unitary nature of Bangladesh and that special provisions for indigenous inhabitants of CHT were against the Constitution. It should be noted that the 1997 Peace Accord was indeed greeted by protests from then opposition parties, the BNP and Jamaat, with BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia announcing a “long march” to Khagrachari. Similar political machinations may be behind this lawsuit, and many concerned have questioned whether such a lawsuit could be filed without passive support from at least some powerful quarters[15]. The case has been filed against various Government Ministries but interestingly, did not initially include any of the CHT based institutions or Pahari leaders[16]. Later, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council and the Rangamati Hill District Council petitioned the Court to become parties to the writ. In their response to the Court, they argue that the democratically elected National Parliament passed four laws ratifying parts of the Peace Accord: Parbattya Chattagram Ancholik Porishad Ain, 1998 (Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council Act, 1998), Rangamati Parbattya Zilla Sthaniya Sarkar (Shongshodhon) Ain 1998, Khagrachhari Parbattya Zilla Sthaniya Sarkar (Shongshodhon) Ain 1998, Bandarban Parbattya Zilla Sthaniya Sarkar (Shongshodhon) Ain 1998. They also argues that reservations for “tribal persons” of particular posts is fully mandated under Articles 28(4) and 29(3)(a) of the Constitution and also by the State’s international treaty obligations.

Voter List implementation in violation of Peace Accord
Perhaps Advocate Tajul Islam’s writ does not hope to dismantle the 1997 Peace Accord. However, filed at a strategic moment, it has already accomplished what may be its main objective– inclusion of the settlers in the voter list for the planned December 2008 national elections. In response to this petition, a Division Bench ruled in August 2007 that until the writ is disposed, the Election Commission should not differentiate between permanent and non-permanent residents in CHT while registering voters[17]. This would mean that Bengali settlers who have been brought to CHT as part of decades of government policy of ethnic displacement would effectively be able to vote in the area — this would result in eroding the one-time numeric majority of the Paharis, risking lack of representation at all levels of administration and public life. This could be interpreted as undermining the 1997 Peace Accord and the Hill District Council Acts of 1989 (Acts Nos. 19, 20 and 21 of 1989) which provide that only permanent residents of the respective Hill Districts can be enlisted as voters on the electoral roll for election in the respective Hill District Councils. While the Constitution mandates only one electoral roll for the Parliamentary Election, it remains to be seen whether this roll will be amended for the holding of local government elections in the CHT in line with the Accord and the HDC Acts.

***

[1] “Body to sit for first time in 7 years”, Daily Star, May 29, 2007
[2] Jobaida Nasrin’s research essays in various media; Sanjib Drong’s regular op-eds in Prothom Alo “Words Of People Without A Country”; “Rebecca Soren takes up her brother’s struggle on Alfred Soren’s death anniversary”, Prothom Alo, July 17, 2007
[3] Report of ASK Investigation Team dated 18th March 2007, locations of investigation: Beri Baid Boiragi Bazaar and Modhupur thana.
[4] Asian Centre for Human Rights
[5] “Army kicks off anti-graft drive in CHT”, Daily Star, July 27, 2007
[6] http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=70,4782,0,0,1,0
[7] “CHT Land Dispute Commission yet to start work in 6 years”, Pradip Chowdhury, Sangbad, January 5, 2007; “43 acres of land grabbed in Bandarban, human rights crisis”, Prothom Alo, January 7, 2007; “Land grabbers enjoy blessings of administration officials”, Daily Star, January 8, 2007; “40 acres of Rakhain land grabbed, two mountain pagodas under threat”, Prothom Alo, May 21, 2007; “The battle for life”, Prothom Alo, July 16, 2007; “Pahari-Bengali clash over land in Dighinala”, Prothom Alo, September 7, 2007; “Garos being ousted in Madhupur”, Janakantha, JUne 15, 2007; “41 acres of land grabbed in Kalmakanda”, Sangbad, August 17, 2007; “60 adivasi families in terror in Durgapur border”, Sangbad, September 1, 2007; “Hundred families in fear of ouster at Madhupur”, Sangbad, September 8, 2007; ” Naogaon Adivasi village terrorized”, Janakatha, November 6, 2007
[8] Jumma Peoples Network, UK (www.jpnuk.org.uk)
[9] “7500 acres of land to be taken for Ruma Cantonment”, Kurratul-Ain Tahmina, Prothom Alo, July 13, 2007
[10] “Seeing everything through Security Eyeglasses would be a mistake”, Raja Devasish Roy interview in Prothom Alo, June 17, 2007
[11] “Govt plans curbs on indigenous people’s rights”, New Age, January 26, 2008
[12] “Demand for full implementation of CHT accord”, Shantimoy Chakma, Daily Star, December 2, 2007; “Shantu Larma meets with Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury about implementation of Peace Accord”, Samokal, March 30, 2007
[13] Each year there are numerous reports of unresolved cases of murder, kidnapping, land grabbing, and rape in the region. In 2007, such reports appeared in Jugantar (July 11), Sangbad (May 20, August 5), Janakantha (Jan 30, May 20), Bhorer Kagoj (July 17), Samokal (November 7), and other newspapers.
[14] Writ Petition No. 6451 of 2007; “High Court rule asks government to show why Peace Accord should not be declared illegal”, Janakantha, August 24, 2007; “Future of CHT Peace Accord Uncertain”, Sushil Prasad Chakma, Jugantar, September 26, 2007
[15] “Rangamati SamaAdhikar Andolon demands canceling of Peace Accord”, Sangbad, September 26, 2007
[16] “Shantu Larma files to be defendant in Peace Accord lawsuit”, Prothom Alo, November 21, 2007
[17] “CHT voter list will not be created in line with Peace Accord”, Ittefaq, June 24, 2007