• Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh

    Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh

    Bangladesh is home to more than 54 indigenous peoples speaking more than 35 languages. Bangladesh has not adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the economic and political rights of the country's indigenous peoples remain ignored.
  • Peoples

    54 indigenous peoples speaking 35 languages live in Bangladesh.
  • Rights

    The land rights of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh continue to be one of the alarming issues and a key factor of gross human rights violations in the country.
  • Current state

    53 of cases of human rights violations against indigenous women were reported in Bangladesh in 2016. Many cases are never reported.

The Indigenous World 2021: Bangladesh

Bangladesh is a country of cultural and ethnic diversity, with over 54 Indigenous Peoples speaking at least 35 languages, along with the majority Bengali population. According to the 2011 census, the country’s Indigenous population numbers approximately 1,586,141[1] which represents 1.8% of the total population. Indigenous Peoples in the country, however, claim that their population stands at some 5 million.[2] The majority of the Indigenous population live in the plains districts of the country,[3] and the rest in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

The state does not recognise Indigenous Peoples as “Indigenous”. Nevertheless, since the 15th amendment of the constitution, adopted in 2011, people with distinct ethnic identities beyond the Bengali population are now mentioned.[4] Yet only cultural aspects are mentioned, whereas major issues related to Indigenous Peoples’ economic and political rights, not least their land rights, remain ignored.

The CHT Accord of 1997 was a constructive agreement between Indigenous Peoples and the Government of Bangladesh intended to resolve key issues and points of contention. It set up a special administrative system in the region. Twenty-three years on, the major issues of the accord, including making the CHT Land Commission functional, orchestrating a devolution of power and function to the CHT’s institutions, preserving “tribal” area characteristics of the CHT region, demilitarisation and the rehabilitation of internally displaced people, remain unsettled.

 Luxury hotel to evict Mro villagers

Indigenous Mro villagers of the Chimbuk Range in Bandarban district in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) are under threat of eviction from their ancestral lands due to the construction of a luxury five-star hotel. Mro villagers will lose their farmlands, village forests and cremation grounds due to this luxury hotel under construction.

The ancestral lands of the Mro people have been reportedly encroached upon jointly by the Army Welfare Trust (the business concern of the Army of Bangladesh) and the business giant Sikder Group’s R&R Holdings Ltd.[5] This joint venture was made public on 12 September 2020 through an announcement of these influential groups. The hotel and its accompanying modern recreational facilities, including a dozen luxury villas, cable cars and a swimming pool, will adversely affect an estimated 800-1,000 acres of lands belonging to Indigenous Peoples.

Some Mro families have already been evicted while others are under threat of losing their lands. The affected villages are Kapru Para, Dola Para, Era Para, Markin Para, Long Baitong Para, Mensing Para, Riamanai Para and Menring Para. The lands, which are the main source of livelihood for the Indigenous communities in these villages, are already off-limits for the members of some villages due to regular threats and intimidation from company officials as well as the military personnel guarding the spot.

Together with different national and transnational advocacy groups, Mro villagers staged rallies and signed petitions addressing the policy-makers, including the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, amid the COVID crisis. However, no positive response has yet come from the authorities to address the matter. As a consequence, the affected Mro communities are currently living in great uncertainty.

It is notable that this five-star hotel project forms part of the burgeoning military-corporate ventures in the region that have little regard for the people or nature. The CHT is the “last frontier” of the country with monsoon forests, hilly terrains and rich biodiversity, all of which are embedded with the ways of life of local Indigenous Peoples. If such plundering of rich natural and cultural resources continues in this fashion, it will not be long before we see ecological as well as humanitarian disasters happening in this region.

Violence against Indigenous women and girls remains a matter of concern

Violence against Indigenous women and girls continues to be an issue of concern in the plains and the CHT region of the country. Human rights organization Kapaeeng Foundation reported[6] at least 54 cases of violence against Indigenous women and girls in 2020. Thirty-five (35) of these cases were reported in the plains and the rest reportedly took place in the CHT. A minimum of seven women and girls were either sexually or physically assaulted in the aforementioned 54 incidents.

Among the reported incidents, at least 18 women and girls were raped, four were killed or killed after rape, and 14 suffered from attempted rape. Justice remains an illusion for the victims despite there being legislative (such as Women and Children Repression Prevention Act) and institutional measures (such as One Stop Crisis Centres and One Stop Crisis Cells) to prevent violence against women and children and despite the state’s repeated promises made before international forums.

Persecution by state forces continues in the CHT

State violence and terrorization targeting Indigenous communities in the CHT, in particular Indigenous Peoples’ human rights defenders (IPHRD), continued even amid the COVID crisis. Hundreds of IPHRDs remained on the run for fear of being arrested or killed at gunpoint.

The Indigenous political organization Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) reported 139 cases of human rights violations (against IPHRDs as well as ordinary people) perpetrated by state forces – the Bangladesh Army, Border Guard Bangladesh and Bangladesh Police.[7] The annual human rights report of PCJSS reported incidents involving three extrajudicial killings, 50 arbitrary arrests, 49 temporary detentions and 54 physical assaults in the CHT.[8]

These cases were perpetrated without any regard for the country’s legal justice system or the human rights of the people. Local sources stated that victims of such state persecution barely have any chance to defend themselves from these “pre-planned” plots.

COVID hampers education of Indigenous students

A large number of Indigenous students have been deprived of attending online as well as televised classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. While this scenario was commonplace throughout the country, characterized as it is by extreme resource and income inequality, Indigenous students’ studies have been found to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic.[9]

Many Indigenous students coming from poor economic backgrounds, especially those based in rural and hard-to-reach areas, were largely unable to access the virtual classes organized as a result of the pandemic. An online discussion entitled “Impact of COVID-19 on Education in Bangladesh” on 20 June 2020 revealed that 75% of school-going Indigenous students were unable to take part in classes broadcast via the Parliamentary Television BTV.[10] Citing a survey by the NGO BRAC, participants in an online meeting revealed that the national average was only 56% in this regard. The report further showed that students have been deprived of their ability to participate in the televised classes due to a lack of electricity, TV and cable connections.

Amid all these challenges, some young Indigenous university students started teaching the school students in their villages who were at home without schooling. For example, in a small village of Ajachara in Rangamati district of the CHT, an education program entitled Pohr Sidok (Let the light shine) was started during the COVID-19 pandemic by a group of Chakma youth. They teach school-going students in their village and provide education through cultural and psychosocial lessons along with regular textbook teaching.[11] The initiative of the Indigenous youth of Ajachara village was highly appreciated by all and it has also influenced other youth to do the same in adjacent villages.

Indigenous traditional lockdown customs

During the pandemic, different Indigenous groups implemented the lockdown in different traditional ways. The concept of lockdown is not new for Indigenous communities. Indigenous Khasi people in Sylhet region observed traditional “Bonchnong” (isolation) and maintained strict hygiene protocols in 90 punjis (villages), which kept them safe from infection.[12] Similarly, in the CHT, Chakma people observed their traditional custom of “Adam-bon”, Tripura people “Para Khernai”, and the Mro community “bon-kuya” to deal with the pandemic. Most Indigenous communities in the CHT are maintaining lockdown using these traditional practices.[13]

Measles outbreak affects Indigenous children: 10 die and 300 infected

A sudden outbreak of measles in Sajek Union of Rangamati and Lama Union of Bandarban hill district in March became a matter of grave concern for the affected Indigenous communities, even surpassing the anxieties caused by COVID-19.

This sudden outbreak of measles claimed the lives of 10 Indigenous children in the CHT[14] while at least 300 more were affected. Kapaeeng Foundation and other sources reported[15] that some 250 people were affected in six villages of Sajek Union during this outbreak, with Arunpara village being the worst hit. Children were the most infected and seven lost their lives within several weeks of catching the disease in Arunpara. Locals alleged that the infected children had no access to any medical treatment for several weeks. As the news of the deaths of children spread through the media, teams from the Upazilla Health and Family Planning Department, EPI Department and Sajek Union Council rushed to the affected villages. These teams vaccinated nearly 300 children and provided them with necessary vitamins and other nutrients.

At around the same time, 42 Mro became infected with measles in Layapara village of Lama. Thirty-three (33) of them were children, while a four-month-old Mro baby lost her life during this outbreak. The infected children were later brought to Lama Upazilla Healthcare Complex by truck and provided with treatment. It is noteworthy that there are no healthcare facilities such as health complexes and clinics within close reach of these villages. The healthcare workers rarely pay any visits. As a result, Indigenous Peoples and their children have remained undernourished and with no access to healthcare services for years.

 

Voluntary National Review of Bangladesh

The Voluntary National Review (VNR) is a process by which countries showcase their progress in achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and, furthermore, allow themselves to be evaluated by other countries. In 2020, 46 nations, including Bangladesh, were reviewed at the High-Level Political Forum 2020, under the auspices of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The title of the Bangladesh government’s VNR 2020 was “Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development”.[16] This is the second time that Bangladesh has volunteered for the review, the first being in 2017.

Due to the unprecedented health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, like all the other reviewed countries, Bangladesh presented its VNR 2020 virtually on 13 July 2020. The report was presented by the Planning Minister of Bangladesh, Mr. M A Mannan MP. In the presentation, the minister described how Bangladesh is approaching its target of meeting the SDGs despite different challenges. He highlighted the Bangladesh government’s achievements in poverty reduction, gender parity in primary and secondary enrolment, reduction of under-5 mortality rates, access to electricity and social protection coverage.[17] He mentioned that the Government of Bangladesh has undertaken initiatives to create an enabling environment for SDG implementation by creating ownership of the SDGs, incorporating them into national frameworks, integrating the three dimensions, leaving no-one behind, mainstreaming SDGs in the national plans, etc.

The minister also shared how the government is handling COVID-19 challenges in the SDG implementation processes. However, despite being one of the most vulnerable groups in society, there was no mention of the Indigenous Peoples’ perspective in the VNR report. Indigenous Peoples and their representative organizations did not even form part of the process of formulating the VNR report. Indigenous Peoples’ issues therefore remained invisible in the report just as they are invisible in the SDG implementation processes as a whole in the country even after five years of adoption of the SDGs.

 

 8th Five-Year Plan

The Government of Bangladesh has embarked on its 8th Five-Year Plan for the period of FY2021 – FY2025 with the theme of “Promoting Prosperity and Fostering Inclusiveness”. Unlike the previous government’s five-year plans, this time a number of promises have been included for the development of the country’s ethnic minorities.

The plan rightly observes the vulnerable situation of Indigenous Peoples (“ethnic minorities” as the government calls them) by stating:

the ethnic communities in Bangladesh are the most deprived of economic, social, cultural and political rights, mainly due to their ethnic status. Ethnic identities are creating barriers to ethnic minority peoples’ inclusion in wider social networks …the result is that ethnic people are socially isolated, with little access to mainstream economic and political spheres.[18]

This important government plan also reveals

a complex interplay of ethnic inequality, enduring discrimination, lack of education, little access to land and lack of employment has resulted in increased poverty amongst these groups. One of the major problems for all minority communities is land grabbing by influential people from the mainstream population. Policies to protect the land of ethnic people have not been adequate.[19]

Given this dire situation for Indigenous Peoples, the government has proposed some strategic plans and commitments for their fundamental human rights and social security, along with enabling their social, cultural and traditional identities. The plan also guarantees to fulfil Indigenous Peoples’ rights to access education, healthcare, food and nutrition, employment and overseas employment, as well as to protect their rights to land and other resources. The plan further mentions that a Prospective Plan for the development of the CHT will be formulated through a consultative process with the key stakeholders. The 8th Five-Year Plan reiterates the government’s commitment to consider implementing the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to ratify the ILO Convention 169, among others.[20]

All in all, the plan addresses the harsh-lived realities of Indigenous Peoples with some concrete promises of affirmative action to address them. It has thus opened up many windows of opportunity for constructive dialogue, cooperation and partnership between the government and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and customary institutions concerning issues affecting them.

 

Pallab Chakma, Executive Director, Kapaeeng Foundation. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Bablu Chakma, is a human rights defender and a life-long student of the Indigenous life struggle. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here

 

Notes and references

[1] Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. “Population and housing census 2011.” p. 3. Government of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, 2011.

[2] Barkat, Abul. “Political Economy of Unpeopling of Indigenous Peoples: The Case of Bangladesh.” Paper presented at the 19th biennial conference, Bangladesh Economic Association, Dhaka, 8-10 January 2015.

[3] Halim, Sadeka. “Land loss and implications on the plain land adivasis.” In “Songhati”, edited by Sanjeeb Drong, p. 72. Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, 2015.

[4] Article 23A stipulates: “The State shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities.”

[5] AIPP. “Protect the Indigenous Mro People from Forced Eviction.” Accessed on 8 February 2021.

https://aippnet.org/protect-the-Indigenous-mro-people-from-forced-eviction/

[6] Kapaeeng Foundation. “Human Rights Report 2020 on Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh.” 2021.

[7] Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS). “Annual Report on Human Rights Situation in CHT in 2020.” Accessed on 8 February 2021. https://www.pcjss.org/annual-report-on-human-rights-situation-in-cht-in-2020/

[8] Ibid

[9] Kapaeeng Foundation: “A Rapid Assessment Report: The impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Bangladesh.” 2020.

[10] Hill Voice. “139 human rights violations by the army, BGB and police in 2020 - PCJSS Annual Report.“ 5 January 2021. Accessed on 8 February2021.

https://hillvoice.net/139-human-rights-violations-by-the-army-bgb-and-police-in-2020-pcjss-annual-report/

[11] Saha, Perth Shankar. “করোনায় পাহাড়ে 'পহর ছিদোক'.” Prothomalo, 9 August 2020. Accessed on 8 February 2021. https://www.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/district/%E0%A6%95%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%87%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%A8%E0%A6%BE%E0%A7%9F-%E0%A6%AA%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B9%E0%A6%BE%E0%A7%9C%E0%A7%87-%E2%80%98%E0%A6%AA%E0%A6%B9%E0%A6%B0-%E0%A6%9B%E0%A6%BF%E0%A6%A6%E0%A7%87%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%95%E2%80%99

[12] Deshwara, Mintu. “How 90 indigenous villages in Sylhet region keep coronavirus at bay.“ The Daily Star, 9 August 2020. Accessed on 8 February 2021.

https://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/news/examples-worth-following-1942001

[13] Kapaeeng Foundation. “A Rapid Assessment Report: The impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Bangladesh.” 2020.

[14] Star Online Report. “Measles outbreak in CHT: One more child dies in Rangamati.” The Daily Star, 1 April 2020. Accessed on 8 February 2021.

https://www.thedailystar.net/measles-outbreak-in-chattogram-one-more-child-dies-in-rangamati-1888543

[15] Kapaeeng Foundation. “Sudden Outbreak of Measles in Sajek and Lama: 8 Dead & 300 Infected.” 24 March 2020. Accessed on 8 February 2021.

https://www.kapaeengnet.org/sudden-outbreak-of-measles-in-sajek-and-lama-8-dead-300-infected/; Hill Voice. “Sudden measles outbreak in Sajek & Lama, 300 infected, 7 children died.” 22 March 2020. Accessed on 8 February 2021. https://hillvoice.net/sudden-measles-outbreak-in-sajek-lama-300-infected-7-children-died/; Star Online Report. “Measles outbreak in CHT: One more child dies in Rangamati.” The Daily Star, 1 April 2020. Accessed on 8 February 2021.https://www.thedailystar.net/measles-outbreak-in-chattogram-one-more-child-dies-in-rangamati-1888543; Chakma, Himel. “Facts behind the measles outbreak in Sajek.” The Daily Star, 7 April 2020. Accessed on 8 February 2020. https://tbsnews.net/bangladesh/health/facts-behind-measles-outbreak-sajek-66304;

Rangamati Correspondent, “Five children die from measles, around 100 others infected in remote Rangamati villages.” bdnews24.com, 20 March 2020. Accessed on 8 February 2021.

https://bdnews24.com/health/2020/03/20/five-children-die-from-measles-around-100-others-infected-in-remote-rangamati-villages

[16] General Economics Division. Bangladesh Planning Commission. Ministry of Planning. Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. “Bangladesh Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) 2020.” 2020. Accessed on 8 February 2021.

https://pea4sdgs.org/knowledge/pea-publications/bangladesh-2020-voluntary-national-review-and-sdgs-monitoring-and-evaluation-framework

[17] Dhaka Tribune. “Bangladesh Voluntary National Reviews held along with side event on accelerating post Covid-19 recovery.” 15 July 2020. Accessed on 8 February 2021. https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2020/07/15/bangladesh-voluntary-national-reviews-held-along-with-side-event-on-accelerating-post-covid-19-recovery

[18] Bangladesh Planning Commission. Ministry of Planning. Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. “8th Five Year Plan FY2021 - FY2025: Promoting Prosperity and Fostering Inclusiveness.” 2020.

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

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