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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Indigenous issue: Missing the point at the UN

Photo Saleem Samad: Indigenous gives evidence against persecution by Muslim settlers


WHAT'S GOING on in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is the story we Bangladeshis, or at least the majority ethnic Bengalis, don't like to talk about too much. Our long record of suppression of indigenous rights and marginalisation of non-Bengali peoples is too shameful and does not mesh well with our national self-image as the eternal victim and the perpetually downtrodden.
But in the CHT, it is the Bengali Muslim who has turned oppressor, who has the state and the armed forces on his side, and who has been the guilty party, showing that we have quite as much an inclination for domination and repression when the numbers and power equation are in our favour.

The CHT peace accord signed by the Awami League government in 1997 to bring to an end two decades of low-level insurgency and provide a framework for the self-determination and protection of the rights of the non-Bengali indigenous population of the CHT was supposed to change all that. Unfortunately, successive governments have not done nearly enough to implement the accord, and, today, almost 15 years since it was signed, the situation in the CHT seems to be going backwards.

It had been hoped that the return of the AL to power in 2009 would help the cause of indigenous rights in the CHT, as neither the intervening BNP government of 2001-06 nor the army-backed caretaker government of 2007-08 had much sympathy for the CHT's adivasi population or their aspirations and concerns.

But if the official government response to the recent report bought out by a UN Special Rapporteur on the status of the implementation of the 1997 peace accord and presented to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is anything to go by, not only will the current sorry state of affairs continue unabated, but the government will not even acknowledge that there is a problem, much less do anything to work towards a resolution.

The Bangladeshi response to the report was worse than depressing. The first line of defence was that: "Bangladesh does not have an 'indigenous' population ... the Accord
has nothing to do with 'indigenous issues' and therefore the government of Bangladesh reiterates its position that the Forum, which is mandated to deal with 'indigenous issues' does not have any locus standi in discussing the issues related to the CHT Peace Accord."

This argument is apparently based on the fact that the adivasi population of Bangladesh all originate from outside the country and migrated to the region several hundred years ago, and are not, therefore, "indigenous".

It was left to Raja Devasish Roy, head of the Chakma people of CHT and a member of the forum to point out, with a certain presumed weariness, "The Permanent Forum is mandated to deal with issues of indigenous peoples, irrespective of what term the governments use to refer to their indigenous peoples: 'tribes' or 'ethnic minorities' or otherwise."

The Bangladeshi government's smarty-pants position is symptomatic of the glib childishness of its thinking. This is not the time for pedantic, pettifogging arguments that miss the point and do nothing to address the very real denial of rights and oppression that is the everyday reality in the CHT.

It is discouraging to see the government hide behind words in the apparent belief that by quibbling over terminology it has won the argument.

The point, of course, is that the issue is not whether they can rightly be classified as "indigenous" or not, but whether it is correct that the 1997 peace accord has not been implemented and that the promised reforms have not been delivered or promised rights secured.

Rather than play the fool with silly word games and fatuous point scoring, the government would do far better to acknowledge that it has fallen short in the implementation of the peace accord, and that it needs to turn its attention to the parlous situation in the CHT and ensure the rights which were the policy centre-piece of the last AL government's tenure.

Many Members of Parliament and other prominent leaders and officials of the AL are on record stating that they believe that the PM deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for having signed the 1997 peace accord, and so successful has been this campaign of sycophancy that the PM has reportedly come to believe it herself. Well, I'm not sure that a Nobel Prize will be forthcoming, either way, but surely the sine qua non of the PM's case would be the successful implementation of the peace accord to the satisfaction of the region's indigenous population, whatever we wish to call them.

First published in the Sunday Guardian, Britain, June 5, 2011

Zafar Sobhan is a Dhaka-based columnist and editor

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