Wed, May 25th, 2011 11:18 pm BdST
"I visited burnt down villages, including Mahalchharhi in 2003, and also other villages recently, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. These are villages burnt down in the presence of the army," said Victoria Tauli Corpuz, the former chairperson of UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) at a rally in New York on Wednesday (BdST).
Urging the UN body to look into the matter, Corpuz, now working with CHT Commission, said: "Bangladesh Army needs to stop these human rights violations, and there should be investigations into the attacks, which are happening very systematically."
The protest rally was staged during the 10th UNPFII summit, where the CHT people have significant representation, according to a media release from International Jumma Organisation (IJO).
Other speakers at the rally, organised by IJO and Friends of CHT Bangladesh, urged the government for pulling out of all temporary army camps form the zone.
A large number of Jumma (hilly) and Bengalee people living in New York and indigenous peoples' activists from countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe are attending the summit. IJO president Aditya Dewan moderated the rally.
Chakma Raja Devasish Roy, an expert member of the UN forum for 2011-13, is leading the Bangladesh side in the 12-day session that began on May 16.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon on the opening day called on the nations to make the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP: 2007) into a reality.
They demanded quick implementation of the CHT Peace Accord signed in 1997 and recognition of these people according to the 1972 constitution, an IJO statement said.
The peace accord between the then Awami League government and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity ended the decade-long bush war between the indigenous people and the army.
Of some 500 temporary camps, 200 have so far been withdrawn by the governments in phases – including 63 in 2004 and 48 in 2007.
The present government in 2009 decided to withdraw 35 camps. The six permanent cantonments are still there.
Speakers at the rally also slammed the ruling Awami League government, who was in power during the singing of the accord, for not yet implementing most of its crucial provisions.
Their demands also included rehabilitation of war refugees, decentralisation of authority to CHT-specific institutions and resolution of land disputes caused by Bengalee settlers who were transmigrated through army assistance.
"In this vacuum," the statement said, "unlawful killings, rape, arson, land grabbing and other forms of human rights violations by state security forces and Bangalee settlers continue."
Kirti Ranjan Chakma, a retired army officer, said the army had been given an "absolute authority to control the affairs in the CHT" and the governments were "practically powerless to decide anything related to CHT".
He pointed at "continued heavy presence of the army" which contributed to human rights violations in the entire region. "We also hear of the involvement of the army in backing Bengalee settlers in their attempts to grab indigenous peoples' land."
The former army man suggested that for peace to be sustained and prevailed in the region, "it is necessary that the army should be withdrawn immediately from all temporary camps mounted all over the CHT".
Dr Dina Siddiqi of Bangladesh, visiting professor at Columbia University, argued that if the indigenous people are not given recognition, the majority, Bangalee settlers will have privileges rather than rights.
"We need to rethink the way we understand nationalism – we want to build up a just nationalism, not an exclusionary one, in which asking for rights is not construed as being against the national interest," she added.
Both Kirti Chakma and the IJO president emphasised that Jummas are peace-loving people and "want to be treated as equal citizens of Bangladesh".
They stressed the fact that they were "ashamed to come on a world stage and complain about something" that is happening in their homeland.
Chief Wilton Littlechild, chair of the Peace & Reconciliation Commission of Canada, said, "So long as the sun shines and grass grows and rivers flow, all treaties should be respected, and now these are enshrined in UNDRIP. We support the call of your people for implementation of the CHT Peace Accord--for demilitarisation, resolution of land disputes and full participation of Indigenous Peoples."
Andrea Carmen, director of International Indian Treaty Council, empathised: "We share a common history of common struggles. Our villages were also burnt."
She pointed that US government was a supporter of the Bangladesh military, and pledged assistance towards the execution of the accord.
Kenyan El-Molo Women's Group member Saiti Louwa assured on her country's behalf: "We are in solidarity and call upon the Bangladesh government to implement the peace accord. We do understand the pain of being excluded and marginalised."
Saami Council president Mattias Ahren shared his experience: "A few years ago I visited CHT. It was beautiful but also sad to see how heavily militarised the area was."
Lola Garcia-Alix, director of International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) Secretariat, spoke about her experiences working on Chittagong Hill Tracts issues in the early 1990s.
This was the time of the first international attention to human rights violations in the region, which resulted in publication of the landmark study, 'Life is Not Ours', the statement added.
The organisations also slammed ruling party for refusing "to include indigenous people's correct identity and rights in the constitution".
They also protested comments from government officials like "Bangladesh has no indigenous people" and terms like "small ethnic groups" and "sub nations", which, the statement said, "indigenous people's advocates find unacceptable".
The rights groups also said that such statements were driven by a misconception, fuelled by a certain section of the media, that "providing constitutional rights to indigenous people would reduce the rights of the majority Bangalee people".