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.
Indigenous women and girls in Bangladesh are increasingly being raped in land-related conflicts, especially in militarized areas. An alarming trend worth reflecting upon on the International Women’s Day 2018.
Twenty years after the government of Bangladesh signed a peace accord to solve long-standing territorial and natural resources conflicts, violence against indigenous women and girls is intensifying as a tool during the unresolved conflict. The numbers speak for themselves: incidents of violence against indigenous women have been increasing every year, according to Kapaeeng Foundation.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh have been affected by what has been described as “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” for many years. In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands were forced off their lands to make way for reservoirs and hydroelectric schemes, a displacement made worse by massacres against the Jumma people (the collective name for all indigenous peoples in the region), and nearly twenty years of conflict against a military dictatorship and also with the democratic government of Bangladesh. This only ended in 1997 when a peace accord recognized the rights of the Jumma people over their lands. This accord remains largely unimplemented, and the Jumma people are not even acknowledged in the Bangladesh constitution.
Violence and Brutality by Bangladesh Army
Violence, particularly sexual violence, is routinely carried out by settlers and the military alike. The figures make for sickening reading: in 2014 alone 117 indigenous women faced physical and sexual abuse, 57% of these being children. Twenty-one of these women were raped or gang-raped, and seven were killed afterwards. During the first few weeks of 2015, at least three confirmed rapes were reported within sight of military checkpoints supposed to bring security to the area. These are only the reported incidents; the true figure is likely to be much higher. It is common practice for the police not to report rape, and medical staff are pressured against doing so. No wonder indigenous lawyer, Samari Chakma, calls the Chittagong Hill Tracts a “rapist’s heaven”.
The latest example of brutal sexual violence against indigenous women and girls in Bangladesh sparked international attention last month when two young indigenous Marma sisters were allegedly raped and assaulted by security forces in Rangamati Hill District. The case showcases the level of violence and vulnerability indigenous women are exposed to daily in Bangladesh.
According to Kapaeeng Foundation’s latest research that will soon be published, only in 2017, an estimated 56 indigenous women were sexually or physically assaulted by 75 alleged perpetrators, most of them non-indigenous. What is more, most of the rape victims were children and girls below 18 years old. All of this without contemplating the many cases that go unreported because the victims fear both retaliation by the offenders and social ostracism.
Land Grabbing by Bangladesh Army
The Bangladesh government has settled hundreds of thousands of Bengali people in the Chittagong Hills, and they now make up the majority of the population in the region. Settlement has not been peaceful. In a number of violent clashes, tobacco, rubber and tea planters have seized Jumma lands at will, usually with military support. By 2012 the situation had become so bad that one indigenous woman told Amnesty International;
“We are now left with no land to farm and grow crops, or forest to go to for collecting fuel, wood, and fruit. Life has become very hard as we have [the] army at very close proximity and I feel very insecure, even walking short distances.”
The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is home to 11 different indigenous peoples with a population estimated at 700,000 by the last census in 2011. Since the 1970s indigenous peoples have been claiming violations of the region’s autonomy. The military has played a decisive role in Bangladesh since the nation-state was formed in 1971. Its influence over political, economic and social affairs is particularly pronounced in the area, where military officials attest to the fact that one-third of the entire Bangladesh army is deployed.
Land grabbing in the name of ‘development’ interventions, militarization, corporate greed, energy and forestry projects on their ancestral lands have pushed the survival of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh to an alarming state.
Concerns over human rights violations have been stifled, often brutally, as in the case of Kalpana Chakma, indigenous human rights activist, abducted in 1996 and not seen since. Generally, allegations are met with indifference by corrupt officials, or by official reprisal. Following damning reports by Amnesty International and other human rights concerns, the Bangladesh government has placed restrictions upon the Jumma peoples speaking with outsiders (restrictions which do not apply to the Bengali population in the region).
Justice Never Delivered
“Some of the areas where the violence takes place are so remote that you can only reach them by walking”, explains lawyer Projjal Chakma at Kapaeeng Foundation. For him, besides the obstacles of geographical location, the challenge is that there is very little expertise and resource allocation within the justice system to deal with cases against indigenous women.
At the end of 2016, the CHT district had a total of 5000 cases waiting to be solved, of which an average of 15 are filled on the ground of violence against indigenous women and girls. Given the fact that there is only one district court with one judge handling all cases, that meant that maybe 5 of the cases could be processed a day. As a result of this, the system in itself encourages the victims to settle their disputes outside of the courtroom.
The data and testimonies collected by lawyers and activists have helped raised awareness of the situation on the ground and presented at the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2016.
Rape Cases Against Bangladesh Army Personnel
Sexual violence against indigenous women and children in the Chittagong Hills Tracts remains a worrying trend, as another victim was found last week after an attack supposedly committed by Bengalis. Tensions in the CHT have particularly spiked during the last few months, due to the increase of violence against indigenous women by Bengali settlers and the Bangladeshi military. The passivity of the authorities in the face of these attacks has made indigenous communities rise in protest against what they regard as government-sponsored violence aiming at marginalizing these communities in their own region. Indigenous communities in the Chittagong Hills Tracts represent not only an ethnic minority, but also a religious minority in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, something that has been the source of a long-standing conflict in the region.
According to the Hill Women’s Federation there were 167 reported cases of rape between January 2011 and June 2012, and many more between 2012 and 2014. Doctors are reportedly pressured not to report evidence of rape.
On 28 July 2018, a minor indigenous Tripura girl (10) was brutally killed after rape at Noimile area under Dighinala upazila in Khagrachari Hill District. Police recovered the dead body of the victim from Noimile area around 11 pm on Saturday 28 July. The deceased girl, 10-year-old Kirttika Tripura Purna, daughter of late Narottam Tripura was a fifth-grade student of Noimile Tripura Para Government Primary School. On the day of incident, Kirtika Tripura Purna left her school to go home during the launch break of the school. At that time, all her family members were in jhum field and it is believed that the unfortunate event has occurred in-between. However, when the daughter did not return home from school after the evening her mother, Onumoti Tripura started looking for her daughter. Moreover, the school authorities informed her mother that Kirttika Tripura never returned school after the afternoon break. Later, with the help of Dighinala Police, Kirttika’s dead body was found dumped in a bush within 150-feet of the victim’s residence at Tapan Karbari Para.
According to local sources, a truck was parked in front of her house, with 3/4 Bengali men glancing piercingly at her. The victim’s mother went to jhum cultivation and no one was at home during that time. The victim’s mother found her daughter missing after returning home from work in the evening. Then she started searching for her daughter. Later she spotted some bloods in the bushes near their house. Later the victim’s dead body found lying on the grass, with her clothes ripped and body all battered. The perpetrators raped her, slit her throat and vagina, stabbed in her arms, face and all over her body with knife and penetrated her anus with sticks.
On 29 July 2018, Onumoti Tripura, mother of the deceased lodged a complainant with Dighinala Police Station against some suspect people (accused of rape and murder) under the Women and Child Repression Prevention Act. The filing case number is 4. Dighinala Police have been arrested 3 suspects in connection with the rape and killing of Kirttika Tripura on 30 July 2018 from Boalkhali area of Dighinala. The detainees are 1) Shah Alam (33), son of late Md. Mobarak; 2) Nazrul Islam Bandari (32) son of Md. Jalal Uddin and 3) Monir Hossain (38) son of Fazar Ali. However, the remaining perpetrators are still at large.
After discovering the dead body of the victim, the police sent it to the Khagrachari Sadar Hospital for postmortem. The dead body was handed over to family members on 29 July Sunday morning after an autopsy at Khagrachhari Sadar Hospital. The hospital’s Resident Physician Dr Noyonmoy Tripura said they had found sharp weapon wounds on different parts of Kirttika’s body.
On 29 July 2018 Md. Rashedul Islam, Deputy Commissioner of Khagrachari district; Md. Ali Ahmed Khan, Superintendent of Police of Khagrachari district; Lt. Cornel Ferdous Zia Uddin Ahmed, Captain of Dighinala Army Zone; Md. Aftab Uddin, Additional Superintendent of Police of Khagrachari district; Md. Sheik Shahidul Islam, Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Dighinala Upazila; Naba Kamal Chakma, Dighinala Upazila Parishad Chairman; Md. Shahadat Hossain Tito, Officer-in-Charge of Dighinala Police Station visited the incident area and victim family. Mr Kujendra Lal Tripura, Member of Parliament of Khagrachari constituency and Chairman of Taskforce also visited the victim family and demanded to arrest the perpetrators and bring them justice.
On 29 July 2018 local people of Dighinala protested by blocking the road and demanded justice. Later they also submitted a memorandum to the Home Minister of Bangladesh through Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Dighinala Upazila.
On 30 July 2018, student of Khagrachari Government College boycotted their classes and took out a procession that gathered in front of the main gate of the Khagrachari District Judge Court. Members of different student organizations participated in the procession including Bangladesh Marma Students Council and Tripura Students Forum and Youth Front including Hill Students Council, Hill Women’s Federation, the Socialist Student, Bangladesh Tripura Kalyan Sangsad, Noimile Gucchogram and Bangladesh Primary Teachers Association. Later, Bangladesh Tripura Kalyan Sangsad also submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister through Khagrachari Deputy Commissioner’s Office regarding the incident.
On 30 July 2018, Chittagong Hill Tracts International Commission (CHTC) strongly condemned the rape and murder of a schoolgirl in Khagrachhari and demanded exemplary punishment for the criminals. Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) also expressed deep shock and concern over the incident and demanded punishment for the perpetrators.
Kongjari Chowdhury, Chairman of Khagrachari Hill District Council, paid his visit and donated BDT 50,000 to the victim family on 31 July 2018. Narendra Lal Tripura, President of Khagrachari Tripura Kalyan Sangsad, Shatarupa Chakma and Juwel Tripura, Member of Khagrachari Hill District Council and Teko Chakma, President of Khagrachari Chatro League also present along with Kongjari Chowdhury.
On 31 July 2018, students, political activists and different organizations demonstrated in 9 upazilas protesting the vicious murder and rape of the Tripura girl. Primary School Teachers Association of Dighinala organized a human chain in Dighinala Upazila headquarters and protested against the hilarious acts of the perpetrators.
Indigenous Student Organizations of Jahanghirnagar University organized a protest rally at TSC in Jahanghirnagar University and demanded punishment of the rapists on 31 July 2018. Bangladesh Chattro Union, Somajtantrik Chattro Front and Members of Jahanghirnagar University Parliament also present in the gathering and procession.
On 31 July 2018, Hill Students Council of Chittagong University and Pahari Shramik Kalyan Forum organized a protest rally against the rape and killing of Kirttika at Cheragi Pahar More in Chittagong city demanding arrest and punishment of the perpetrators.
Hill Students Council, Hill Women’s Federation, Bangladesh Adivashi Chatra Sangram Parishad and Tripura Student Forum organized a protest rally and gathering at Raju Memorial Sculpture of Dhaka University on 31 July 2018. Different organizations, including Bangladesh Student Union, Bangladesh Student Federation, Bangladesh Garo Student Organisation, Bangladesh Garo Student Federation, Bangladesh Marma Student Council and Leaders of Revolutionary Student Alliance also participated in the procession.
On the other hand, the Security Forces of Khagrachari obstructed the rally of the indigenous students relating to the rape and killing of Kirttika Tripura Purna and stopped them from continuing it on 31 July 2018 at Guimara Upazila in Khagrachari district.
On 1 August 2018, the Security Forces of Bandarban impeded the peaceful rally of Sochetan Chatro Somaj relating to the incident of the killing of the Tripura girl at Noimile area under Khagrachari.
In recent months, from January-June 2018, at least 18 human rights violations incident on indigenous women both in plain and CHT have been observed. A total of 23 indigenous women were subjected to the victims, including killing, gang rape, rape, torture, sexual harassment in which, two were killed after rape. More four were killed, two was gang-raped, seven were raped, five were attempted to rape, and three were sexually harassed and assaulted in Bandarban, Chittagong, Khagrachari, Mymensingh, Rangamati and Dhaka. In the month of May alone, two indigenous Tripura girls were brutally killed after rape in Sitakunda Upazila of Chittagong district. Besides, two teenage Tripura girls in two separate incidents were also gang-raped in Bandarban and Khagrachari in April and June respectively. The very heart-breaking incident – rape and sexual harassment of two Marma sisters from Bilaichari, Rangamati – was reported in January. They, along with their parents, are still kept confined with police security at Vedvedi area in Rangamati municipality since January 2018.
Bangladesh Military Still Dominate Lives of Indigenous People
In 2009 the Awami League, the political party which had signed the peace deal, returned to power and promised finally to fulfil the terms of the Peace Accord. But one year on, little appears to have changed. Many military camps remain open, and the army still dominates in the Hill Tracts, causing widespread intimidation and fear.
The army, and the settlers who had colonized the Hill Tracts with their support, had committed countless atrocities in the area, in turn provoking armed resistance from the Jummas.
Military and paramilitary forces have an all-encompassing presence in the CHT, as army garrisons, numerous base camps, and checkpoints are visible everywhere. Military camps are on almost every hilltop along the main roads. Over the last two decades, these security forces have deliberately massacred innocent Indigenous Jumma people, yet the military remains the pervasive authority in the entire region. More critically, the Bangladesh government has granted blanket immunity to the military for such flagrant human rights abuses. This impunity has been the single most important factor encouraging human rights abuses in the region, which are committed in the name of security and stability.
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