The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), an area of 5,093 mi², is an official administrative district in Bangladesh, bordering Burma and northeastern India. It is inhabited by several indigenous groups such as the Marma, Baums and Chakmas, numbering approximately 600,000. They are culturally, racially, ethnically and linguistically distinct from the majority Bengali population of Bangladesh. They form 0.7 percent of the total population of the country.
The CHT were independent before the British annexed them to form the British-Indian Dominion in 1860. Even under the British they were granted special status as "tribal areas." In 1900 they were permitted limited self-government and non-indigenous people were prohibited from buying, owning or residing on land within the CHT without permission from the Deputy Commissioner of the CHT.
With the creation of the two states of India and Pakistan in 1947, the CHT became part of East Pakistan, against the will of its indigenous people. Partition had been based on religious lines, but the indigenous people of the CHT were primarily Buddhist.
In 1960 a massive hydroelectric project was built on the Karnabuli River at Kaptai in the CHT with the help of US AID. The dam flooded about 400 mi(2), uprooted 100,000 Chakmas and submerged about 40 percent of the total irrigated rice fields. This led to the migration of 10,000 Chakmas to India, creating poverty, famine and the breakdown of the Chakmas traditional socioeconomic structure. It also led to influx of non-indigenous people into the CHT when in 1964 the government of Pakistan abolished the "excluded area" status.
Ever since the creation of Bangladesh the elected representatives of the CHT had demanded regional autonomy and restoration of "excluded area" status in order to protect their language, culture and religion, and to prevent exploitation by the non-indigenous people coming from outside the area. Their demands were perceived by the governments in power as secessionist and led to the massive deployment of Bangladesh Armed Forces in the CHT. In response to these attacks sections of the indigenous people formed a defense force called the Shanti Bahini (Peace Force).
Human Rights Violations
Over the past ten years the accumulated human rights violations of the Bangladesh Army have been well documented by various international human rights organizations (Amnesty International, Cultural Survival, International Working Group for Indigenous Peoples, Anti-Slavery Society, Survival International, International Fellowship of Reconciliation, etc.) and by the international press.
The human rights violations include:
* rape and gang rape
* imprisonment without trial
* herding of people into concentration camps (called cooperative villages, similar to the strategic hamlets in Vietnam)
* burning of villages
* extortion, ransom demands
* destroying and looting of Buddhist places of worship
* forcible eviction and seizure of land
* arbitrary arrests and heatings
* forced conversion to Islam
* forced marriage of indigenous women to Bengali men
* forced exile of indigenous population to India
Since 1976, successive Bangladesh governments have practiced genocide and ethnocide in order to change the demographic character of the district; they have relocated the Muslim Bengali population from other parts of Bangladesh and evicted the indigenous people from their traditional lands. The objective of the relocation policy is blatantly described by a military officer who said, "We want the land, not the people."
The following table shows that the massive influx of non-indigenous people into the CHT took place after the independence of Bangladesh. The CHT has prime arable land; Bangladesh's rapidly increasing population creates pressure for cultivable land.
1871 1901 1951 1974 1981
Indigenous 99.58% 92.88% 90.00% 76.86% 59.16%
Non-indigenous 0.42% 7.12% 9.09% 23.14% 40.84%
Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries, receives assistance from most Western countries; for example, it is the second largest recipient of aid from Canada. While aid is sent to alleviate the poverty in which millions of Bangladeshis live, it is ironic that the government of Bangladesh would utilize precious resources to wipe out a minority population. Only international pressure by governments that provide assistance will force the government of Bangladesh to change its policies with regard to the indigenous people of the CHT. The indigenous people are numerically small and have no voice in any international forum. Your assistance could make the difference between life and death.
For information on how you can help, please contact: Bangladesh Indigenous People's Support Committee. 3480 McTavish, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 1X9.
Voices of the Victims
"One group of soldiers asked all the young males in the village to gather in a corner. Many of them ran away but I and my nephew were caught. The army first beat us very badly with rifle butts. They stamped our feet under their boots. We were screaming but the army people kept on beating us, asking for the Shanti Bahini's whereabouts. When we still did not tell them anything they brought a bucket of chilli-water and poured it into our eyes and noses."
Male resident of Pablakhali village, Dighinala Upazilla, Chittagong Hill Tracts, describing incident of 29 December 1986.
"It was so humiliating that it is difficult to describe. They told all of us women to take off our clothes and to lie down on our elbows and knees. I was crying bitterly but not for myself. I am an old woman. My daughter, who is just 18, and my daughter-in-law were also made to lie like that next to me. Then, amid a lot of shouts and screams, the soldiers took off their trousers and started raping us from behind. All the time the other soldiers were asking our men to watch the punishment for helping the Shanti Bahini."
45-year-old woman, Gilatuli village, Panchari Upazilla, recounting incident on 6 January 1987.
"Very recently a Special Task Force has been formed to kill the tribal people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and it is the task force that organized a fresh genocide in the area of Panchari Upazilla near the Indian border and killed more than 100 people on 1-2 March 1987. It is reported that the Bangladesh Task Force fired indiscriminately at the fleeing tribals and killed at least 200 of them, mostly children and old people...Recently, 54,000 Chakma refugees came to Tripura [India] from Bangladesh. Their condition is extremely bad...Many children have already died and are still dying in great numbers. It is our sacred duty to save those children who are still alive."
Bimal Bhikku [Buddhist monk], Parbatya Chattal Bouddha Anatha Ashram, Dighinala, Chittagong Hill Tracts, 24 March 1987.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.