Dhaka (AsiaNews) - A group of eminent citizens has slammed a recent government order banning Bangladeshi or foreign individuals or organisations from meeting and talking unsupervised with indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), calling the directive racist, anti-democratic and unconstitutional. The views were expressed during a roundtable discussion held yesterday by Nagorik Samaj, a civil society platform group.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts is a mountainous region in the Chittagong Division in southeastern Bangladesh, bordering India and Myanmar. It covers 10 per cent Bangladesh's land mass. It is very different from the rest of the country in terms of geography and culture; the Chittagong hills and forests are home to indigenous people - mostly Buddhist and Christian - whose livelihood depends mainly on farming.
Adopted in early January, the Home Ministry directive requires the presence of a representative of the local administration, whether the military or civilian, if any local or foreigner or an organisation wants to meet any indigenous person.
The order authorised by State Minister for Home Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal also restricts foreigners' access to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and puts check-posts at the entrances to Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban on higher alert.
Sara Hossain, honorary executive director of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Service Trust, said these decisions, taken unilaterally by the government, were unconstitutional and part of a conscious effort at "othering" the indigenous communities.
In 1971, when Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan, the CHT area became part of the newly established state. However, the new authorities treated the region as a backwater without any special recognition.
Since then, the country's Muslim Bengali majority began marginalising and oppressing indigenous tribes. As a result, local activists created the Parbatya Chhatagram Jana Shanghatti Samiti (United People's Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts or PCJSS), a political organisation that united all indigenous ethnic groups.
After a long series of clashes between the Bangladeshi military and Shanti Bahini (PCJSS's military wing), a peace deal was reached in 1997. The agreement granted a special status to the indigenous peoples in the CHT region, and set up a regional council representing all the local tribes. However, the deal never truly ended tensions.
In a statement, Human Rights Forum Bangladesh (HRFB) condemned the Home Ministry for its decision, calling it was a blatant play by the government in favour of land acquisition by Bengali settlers at the expense of indigenous tribal people. Indeed, "This raises serious concerns in the context that land disputes remain at the heart of the CHT conflict, [and] local residents are severely affected by land acquisitions," the HRFB said.
For its part, the PCJSS described the order as "nothing but an absolute manifestation of racist and communal policy of the government. It is with this policy, the Jumma peoples have been treated as the second-class citizens, which is undoubtedly a matter of great concern. The decision of [the] Home Ministry is also contravening to the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh [Article 28(1)] that stipulates, 'The state shall not discriminate against any citizens on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.'"
For the PCJSS, such restrictions make it extremely difficult to organise meetings between indigenous peoples and, for instance, human rights organisations.
Meanwhile, radical Muslims remain involved in a campaign in the CHT area against conversions to Christianity. They accuse missionaries of proselytising and carrying out forced conversions in order to create a region with a Christian majority to be attached to India.