CHT vs. East Timor
IN APRIL I attended a diplomacy training programme on indigenous peoples, human rights and advocacy in Baguio city of the Philippines. The diplomacy training programme of the faculty of law at the University of New South Wales, Australia arranged the programme in partnership with the Asian Indigenous Peoples’ Pact and the Cordillera Indigenous Peoples’ Legal Centre. There were 41 indigenous participants from 15 countries of Asia Pacific. One of the participants was from East Timor. I was very curious to know how East Timor became independent from Indonesia, as we often read of comparisons between the Chittagong Hill Tracts and East Timor or South Sudan, how the CHT may go in their direction, in some of the newspapers.
One day, I asked the man from East Timor to have a discussion with me regarding the history of his country and he kindly accepted. So over a cup of coffee one evening he told me that East Timor had never been a part of any country. However, East Timor had been under the rule of Portugal for 460 years (from 1515 to November 28, 1975). Indonesia invaded the country on December 7, 1975 with the support of USA, Australia and Britain, just nine days after their independence from the Portuguese. The Indonesian government ruled East Timor until the United Nations insisted on having a referendum on August 30, 1999.
The excuse given for the three countries’ support to Indonesia, in invading East Timor, was that it was to become a communist country, which would spread communist policies. However, their hidden agenda was to exploit the oil and natural resources of East Timor.
Around sixty thousand joint troops were left when the Portuguese declared East Timor independent in 1975. However, the Indonesian army killed most of the troops before 1999, which left East Timor with around 260 troops in the end. After an hour’s discussion on the Indonesian government rule from 1975 to 1999, I realised the situation of East Timor can be compared with the current situation of Chittagong Hill Tracts in terms of political instability.
Injustice, killing, land grabbing, rape, arbitrary arrests, filing false cases and many other human rights violations committed against the leaders and civil society members of East Timor were very big issues until the country became independent. Nevertheless, the indigenous people of Bangladesh, especially of the CHT, have been experiencing similar discrimination and human rights violations because of unresolved political crisis, for decades.
The indigenous people of Bangladesh have been demanding recognition of their identity as ‘indigenous’ in the constitution of Bangladesh. They are not demanding an independent country, like the people of East Timor, but they are demanding constitutional recognition as ‘indigenous’, their right to exist and their rights of self-determination through the full implementation of the CHT Accord signed in 1997. The indigenous people of the CHT have never demanded a separate state. The indigenous people of Bangladesh demand to be included in the process of policymaking. In this manner, they will be constitutionally recognised citizens and can take part in the decision-making process of building their future in Bangladesh.
We think that some vested interest groups have invented the idea of Chittagong Hill Tracts becoming another East Timor. It is baseless and politically motivated, to continue the unrest in the indigenous-dominated areas. It will hamper the electoral manifesto-driven agendas of the current government which are to be implemented for the interest of the indigenous people.
The vested interest groups spread the rumour that the CHT will become another East Timor, to interfere in the development activities of Chittagong Hill Tracts by baselessly claiming that some international NGOs are involved in helping CHT become another East Timor, and to destroy the image of Bangladesh government in the international arena. However, the indigenous people of Bangladesh think that these are just the regular activities of those who want to increase the political unrest in the area, without any valid reasons.
After the signing of the CHT Accord in 1997, many national and international development agencies have come forward to help develop the socio-economic situation of the areas, which had been out of the light of development. The initiatives of the development agencies have created great opportunities for the indigenous people to be involved in determining their own future. Many educational facilities, socio-economic activities and health services have reached many remote places of the area, where government services had not been delivered for decades. The national and international development agencies have not only served the general CHT communities but also helped the educated local people of the area to serve their own communities through the developmental activities being implemented after the treaty. The consistency of the development is important for determining their fate.
Communities can only change their fate if they are directly involved in the developmental activities.
We, the indigenous people of Bangladesh, would like to urge the government not to pay attention to the claim of the vested groups of CHT becoming another East Timor, but take necessary measures to implement all agendas related to preserving the indigenous people of the country in accordance with their electoral manifesto.
Lelung Khumi is a development activist.