Bangladesh has unique experiences with the term "refugee". Over ten million Bengalis were evicted from their land by the Pakistani army and had to take shelter on Indian soil in 1971. Now, Bangladesh is host to the biggest refugee camp in the world. There are 27 refugee camps in the Ukhia and Teknaf upazilas of Cox's Bazar district where 1.1 million Rohingyas now live, after having fled a genocide committed by the Myanmar army in the Rakhine State. The generosity so far shown by the Bangladeshi people in hosting these refugees is a testament to the fact that in a given situation, the people of this land can acknowledge the abject living conditions, economic hardship, social and political helplessness and the acute existential crisis associated with the life of a community who have nowhere else to go.
So it is normal to expect that the same people will empathise with a minority community who have been living in fear of extinction and do whatever it takes to protect them. Unfortunately, this seems not to be the case when it comes to the many indigenous communities in our country that are being systematically marginalised.
A report published by this daily on February 15, 2021 shows how majoritarianism can gradually push out indigenous communities from lands where they have lived for generations. According to the report, the number of the indigenous Rakhine people in Teknaf is shrinking due to threats from influential locals and criminals belonging to the Rohingya community. Now the Rakhine community has to live in makeshift houses made of plastic sheets with no proper toilet facilities. They do not even have access to safe drinking water.
While talking to The Daily Star, Maung Thunla Rakhine, general secretary of the Cox's Bazar unit of Bangladesh Indigenous Forum, said, quoting from "Rakhinadorsho" authored by late Mongsen Ching, that there used to be a total of 113 Rakhine paras (neighbourhoods) in Cox's Bazar consisting of 11,641 families. But the number of these localities has come down to only 23, while the number of families has decreased to 2,558. Just 20 years ago, the population of the Rakhine community in Cox's Bazar was around 70,000 but now, it has dropped to only 30,000.
Why? Professor Robayet Ferdous of the Mass Communication and Journalism department of Dhaka University claimed that most of the Rakhine people have left the country due to insecurity. He also cited allegations of attacks on their homes, business outlets and places of worship as well as rape by members of the Bengali majority.
Proper recognition of ethnic minorities is vital to ensure their rights and wellbeing. This is why the United Nations has declared August 9 as the International Day for The World's Indigenous People. Bangladesh is a signatory to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) treaty, the core message of which is "Leave no one behind". As a result, Bangladesh is duty-bound to ensure the inclusion of ethnic minorities to fulfil its SDG targets and also to meet its constitutional obligations.
Unfortunately, the term "Indigenous" is not even recognised by our constitution. The one million people who belong to the 45 or so indigenous communities and speak 26 languages are often termed as "Ethnic Minorities" or "Tribal People". This tendency can be traced back to the post-liberation war period when Bengali nationalism predominated all discourses of national identity. Thus, in the original constitution of 1972, the new nation had accepted religious pluralism but neglected ethnic and cultural diversity. The rights of the indigenous peoples were entirely forgotten in the charter.
Though our constitution guarantees equal rights to all people irrespective of race, caste, creed and religion, it does not recognise non-Bengali ethnic minorities as distinct cultural groups. The charter recognises Bangladesh as an ethnically and culturally homogenous nation of Bengali people only. Unfortunately, there is a powerful anti-indigenous nexus of ruling elite, bureaucrats, political parties and ultra-nationalists that continuously puts up barriers against the recognition, development and empowerment of the indigenous peoples. Political leaders and government officials often claim that there are "no indigenous peoples", citing disputed historical references that say that there were no such groups in this land before the 17th century.
Land grabbing by social and political elites has been going on for decades. Perhaps the most recent example is the planned five-star hotel in the Chimbuk Hill area of Bandarban by Sikder Group, which is set to wipe out six villages of the Mro community. The project is going to acquire 405 hectares of land, level down hills, clear forests and disrupt natural water resources. The hotel is being built under a 35-year lease contract and profit-sharing agreement between the Army Welfare Trust and Sikder Group's sister concern R&R Holdings limited. The construction of the hotel is also in violation of the CHT Regulation 1900, the Bandarban Hill District Council Act 1989 and the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act 2001.
Article 10 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says that "Indigenous people shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return". Article 14 of the Indigenous and Tribal People's Convention, 1989 by the International Labor Organization states that "Governments shall take steps as necessary to identify the lands which are traditionally occupied by the concerned people, and to guarantee effective protection of their rights of ownership and possession". But it seems all these warnings and precautions are falling on deaf ears, as the continued marginalisation of the indigenous communities would suggest.
The unique ways of life, cultures, traditions and heritage of the ethnic groups are extremely valuable to Bangladesh's history and its multicultural identity. We are the successors to those people who in 1971 had to leave behind their land and belongings to face the immense uncertainty, fear and feeling of powerlessness that comes with living as refugees. As a nation that had to sacrifice the lives of three million people to gain the right to live on their own land with dignity and liberty, we must learn to acknowledge the plight of the indigenous communities that are now facing the same consequences that had once befallen us. Doing this is our duty if we truly want to build a fair, just and inclusive society.
Muhammad A. Bashed is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.