Chittagong Hill Tracts: The Jummas’ Plight Under Military Rule

An interesting article from UNPO about a very important topic.

 

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh is virtually choked under military rule, anti-“Jumma” (as the local native population is often called) multi-faceted conspiracy and widespread slanderous propaganda. The recent instance of it is the denial of entry by the army, on 6 May 2017, to a civic rights team from Dhaka to visit Lama and Bandarban Sadar in connection with an on-site investigation of alleged land grabbing and eviction of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands by powerful individuals and organizations from outside. On a previous occasion too, members of the International Commission on the CHT visiting Rangamati, on 5 July 2014, were not allowed to investigate the incidents of human rights violation. They were attacked at that time by a group of communal Bengali settlers at the instigation of a powerful certain quarter. The tumult created and the protests that followed at home and abroad following the incident of attack on eminent jurist Dr. Kamal Hossain and his entourage who were on their way to Rangamati to attend a meeting organized in demand for implementing the CHT Accord on 23 February 2004, is known by too many. They were forced to turn back from the Rubber Plantation Area at the border of Rangamati district. Very recently, the army did not allow a team of civil society representatives who wanted to go to Naniarchar of Rangamati on 25 April to meet the parents and relatives of Romel Chakma, who was killed after torture by the army without an acceptable reason (provided that killings and tortures could be acceptable for some reason). Even the army indulged in inhuman act of burning the mortal remains of Romel Chakma by using petrol and kerosene without returning the dead body to their parents.

Romel Chakma in his last moments of life

Many incidents of this nature can be referred to, illustrating the way the rights to security of life, freedom of expression, movement and association have been stifled. As part of it, the Home Ministry on 7 January 2015 issued an order on the basis of a report from the army, and imposed restrictions on any meeting or discussion with the indigenous Jummas by any organizations or individuals of national and international origin, in addition to issuing 11 other instructions that contradict the fundamental rights. There were widespread protests against the impugned order. However, the secular and democratic government of Bangladesh (!) turned deaf and dumb, whereby it can certainly be said that the entry of the democratic, secular, and progressive civic groups and representatives from foreign organizations into the CHT is kept restricted so that the area can be kept in force to grab Jumma’s lands by evicting them from their ancestral lands, plunder their resources, and thus implement a blue print of ethnic repression with the use of state power.

It was reported that a road blockade programme by Bengali settlers was imposed in Lama on 6 May 2017 at the instigation of the army to foil the visit of a civic team from Dhaka. It was learned further that a few Mro villagers were also forced to join the blockade. A certain quarter used hired men to force the Mro people to stand by the road with banners in their hands. They were completely in the dark about the blockade. The daily Samakal of 6 May ran a report of this incident which read: “Jamaluddin, a local Bengali leader, on being asked replied that he knew nothing about the blockade. He said, “Our leader Young Lok Mro knows it.” When Young Lok Mro was asked about the reasons for blockade, he replied, “I do not know. I am coming from Alikadam right now.” When asked again why they were obstructing the flow of traffic, he went away without saying anything.” In fact, this drama of blockade was staged to shield the incidents of land grabbing and eviction of Jumma people from their homesteads and lands by outsider individuals and organizations under the shelter of influential state actors. Prohibiting the civic team from accessing the targeted area clearly attest to violation of human rights and seizing of lands by certain vested quarters with the help of the state forces.

Not only that Jummas are confined to, but the incarceration of the rights activists along with members of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) by slipping arms to arrest them, implicating them in false cases, imprisonment, inhuman torture, killing, and political harassment goes unabated. The latest of such development was the arrest, torture and imprisonment by Border Gurad Bangladesh (BGB) of Thowai Swe Nu Marma, member of Raikhali Union and the president of Raikhali branch of PCJSS and his son Kyaching Hla Marma, member of Pahari Chatra Parishad (PCP) by secretly slipping explosives in their house. We already know about the killing of young Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) examinee Romel Chakma. In the same manner, Timir Baran Chakma Duran, a PCJSS activist, was slain on 10 August 2014 and a Higher Secondary student Jimpu Chakma was murdered on 23 August 2004 by army from Matiranga Army zone. Jimpu’s parents were forced by the army to cremate their son’s dead body in front of them. Years back on 5 March 2000, PCJSS member Mong Sathowai Marma Bishwa, who returned to normal life following the signing of the CHT Accord, was brutally tortured and killed by soldiers from Guimara Army Zone. Reference can also be made of Kalpana Chakma, leader of Hill Women’s Federation, whose kidnapping and disappearance in 1996 made international headlines.

A long list of those killed extra-judicially following the haughtiness, jingoism and ruthlessness demonstrated by the army can be prepared where none of the wrong-doers involved in these brutal killings was ever put to trial. They were redeemed of all charges of brutal killings at the behest of the State. In some cases, there were instances of rewarding them by giving them promotions. In this way, the army and settlers in the CHT were practically encouraged by the State to indulge in extrajudicial killings. The perpetrators are thus patronized to help strangulate Jumma’s just movement for rights, silence their voice against injustice in order to turn the CHT into a Muslim majority area through grabbing of and evicting the Jummas from their ancestral lands and, eventually, exterminating them ethnically.

Practically, there is no rule of law in the CHT. Multidimensional conspiracies and vilification campaigns are on to brand the PCJSS, the signatory to the CHT Accord, along with other organizations and rights activists, as terrorists, extortionists, militant with the ulterior motive to thwart implementation of the CHT Accord and to highlight the Jummas as terrorists. In every sphere or with every incident, the Jummas are made the same as extortionists, terrorists and militants. Twisted news are made on issues ranging from Buddhist meditation centres, setting up of Buddha image, recent food crisis in Sajek, presence of foreign armed groups and their activities, smuggling of arms and narcotics, Jumaatul-Mujaheddin Bangladesh militants and activities of Jaamat-E-Islami, to the fabricated news that Mr. Ushaton Talukder, the elected MP from 299 Rangamati parliamentary constituency, joined Awami League, press conference by some Mro turncoats against PCJSS, so called mass-robbery of 16 vehicles at Deppochari of Rangmati, the murder of a tourist at Suvolong, said to have been resulted out of internal feud among them etc. to play against the Jummas and the regional political party.

That the extent of slanderous campaign indulged in by certain media activists, abetted by security forces, is evident from their attempt to show that extortion by regional political parties is responsible for the outbreak of food crisis in Sajek, which is almost a perennial phenomenon in the area. In fact, the Jummas in Sajek can afford to harvest as best as 6 to 9 months’ food ration for them from Jhuming (shifting cultivation). Food crisis looms for the rest 3 to 6 months. Food crisis in Sajek generally begins from March-April and continues till July-August every year. Unfortunately, Muazzemul Hoque and Jiten Barua of the daily Janakantha has maliciously attributed this perennial phenomenon in Sajek to extortion by regional political parties.

As part of a conspiracy by the ruling circle, a piece of yellow journalism could be seen from a report published in the daily Janakantha by Firoz Mannan on 24 April 2017 with a caption “Meditation centres in creating disorder again in CHT”. Quoting intelligence sources, a cock and bull story was made up claiming that Golden Temple of Bandarban and Raj Bihar and Raj Bana Bihar of Rangamati were being used as the training centre for learning Judo & Karate, and those who received training were sent to the jungle for higher training with the objective to begin armed struggle for establishing a Jummaland. Furthermore, a spate of fabricated news, fed primarily by the military and intelligence agencies, alluding to increased activities of “969”, a religious organization of Myanmar was published in the daily Janakantha. It was followed by a news item titled “New threat 969 in the Hill Tracts” and appeared in the 25 April issue of daily Manabzamin. A similar news with a caption “New threat 969 in the hills” was ran by the daily Ittefaq on 29 April 2017.

The security forces along with intelligence agencies have geared up their drive to create an impression that Buddhist Temples in the CHT are centres of producing militants in the same way as the Madrasas of the country which are known to breed militants. Immediately after the publication of these news items, the BGB, on 1 May 2017, prohibited the Jumma villagers from building a statue of Buddha at Bhalubhita in Barkal upazila. It needs to be mentioned here that people of Bhalubhita have been worshipping Buddha since 1940. The local Buddhists already constructed a “Ghyang” there. But they are now being debarred from building a statue of Lord Buddha, and in doing so State power has been used. Moreover, the Vice Chairman of Barkal Upazila Ms. Shakuntala Chakma was contacted over phone from Barkal police station for the cell phone numbers of all Buddhist monks in the Barkal upauzila (sub-district). This is being done in order to terrorize the indigenous Jumma peoples of the area.

In order to legalize the murder of two young Jumma students namely, Jimpu Chakma and Romel Chakma, the daily Ittefaq published on 30 April 2017, a news item with a caption “Students in the hills are human shields for three terrorist groups” recounting a fabricated story that youngsters are made terrorists capitalizing on fragile economic condition of their families. A news item with a headline “Missing youths in the hills are in the deep jungle” was made up and published in the daily Manabzamin of 1 May 2017 which outclasses even imagination. The story that appeared in the above mentioned paper read: “A small incident has changed the life of a Chakma youth. He took admission in Kaptai College in 2013. A few days later he got involved in a scuffle with his friends. Caught up in political intrigue, he was sued against following which police started looking for him. He fled from the college and did not disclose the matter to his family out of fear. He was given shelter by one of his senior brothers of the same community. At his advice he made for the remote jungle deep in the hills leaving college and his locality, took up arms and started earning BDT 10,000 a month.” Naïve readers will jump at such a sensational news, and will be tempted to treat it seriously. For one who has almost no idea about the CHT will find it difficult to guess at the extent of deep conspiracy and smear campaign working behind such a propaganda.

In fact, a major section of the students and youths in the society are extremely aggrieved and frustrated at the extent of injustice being perpetrated by the ruling class. They have to witness the seizure of their ancestral lands and ejection from their villages one after another by Bengali settlers and other influential vested groups under the protection of the government administration. They have to be helpless onlookers when their mothers and sisters are being kidnapped or raped and then killed after rape. Students and youths in particular are targeted for unlawful arrest, imprisonment and assassination. Justice has not been dispensed with in any single case. Instead, they have to bear with the instances of impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators involved in all these acts against humanity. The Jammas are getting increasingly alarmed as they are fast becoming minorities in their own land. The government is implementing policies one after another in the name of development, which are destructive to and aggressive against the indigenous Jumma peoples. Aggrieved, distressed and frustrated at these developments, the Jumma students and youths are steaming in anger. Naturally, they are seen giving leadership from the front to any of their rightful movements for realizing their legitimate rights. For this reason, basically, the State’s security forces have geared up their multifaceted conspiracy and smear campaign targeting the Jumma youths and students. To help expedite the moral degeneration of the Jumma youths, the law enforcement agencies are not active in dealing with the drug peddlers who are doing brisk business in yaba, heroine, and other narcotics. We come across with instances where wayward youths like Romesh Tripura are set upon to commit robbery and terrorist act, and extract money.

The way the so-called robbery on motor vehicles on 3 May 2017 at Deppochari is exploited to defame the regional political parties can be cited as an example here. According to online news portal chttimes24.com the hillmen terrorists, equipped with heavy weapons, committed mass robbery on 15 vehicles on that day in between 12 pm to 12-30 am at night. It is to be noted that a sweeping reference was made of the use of ‘heavy arms’ by ‘hillmen terrorists’ in committing robbery in the news report filed earlier. The chttimes24.com news of 6 May 2017 went a step further to holding the regional political party responsible for the robbery. Romesh Tripura, arrested allegedly in connection with the robbery, was quoted as saying that “the mass robbery was committed abetted directly by a leader of an influential political party and with the arms supplied by him.” Though in the first report use of ‘heavy weapons’ was referred to, and the second report mentioned about ‘committing robbery with the arms provided by a certain leader of an influential political party’, the 6th May report of the same news portal reported that the two weapons were ‘toy pistol and two LG loaded with cartridge.” This proves that the basis of these news was part of yellow journalism. The purpose of the news was not to highlight the factual incident, but to twist the event to defame the regional political party by labeling it as a group of terrorists and robbers.

Secondly, one thing that needs to be pondered over is that Deppochari, the place where robbery was committed by pulling up 15 vehicles, is only half a kilometer away from both Manikchari police and military camp and Shalbagan camp. Moreover, a mobile police patrol team often patrols the road from Rangamati to Ranirhat after the sunset. In addition, law enforcement agencies and security forces claim that a solid and flawless security, patrolling and surveillance mechanism is in place to deter the terrorists. One just wonders, how a mass robbery could have been committed stopping 15 vehicles at a time and at a place like Deppochari known to be under constant surveillance of the police and security forces. Robbery on so many vehicles at a time is not possible unless a certain group connected to the law enforcement agencies is involved in it. Many are inclined to assert that the so-called robbery was a drama staged as planned to achieve a political end in collusion with a vested quarter of the state machinery. The objective was to make the regional political party responsible by staging such an incident and to use it as a pretext to call transport strike by Bengali settlers like the one observed on 7 May 2017.

Thirdly, the chttimes24.com was completely silent about the arrestee Romesh Tripura’s activities. He is widely known as the paid terrorist of an Awami League leader and a wayward man. Various sources recalled and confirmed of many police cases against him and serving of jail terms as well for a couple of years. He is believed, by many, to have been picked up for money by a certain quarter of the state machinery to stage the mass robbery drama in order to malign the agitating Jummas.

The daily Manabzamin ran a baseless report with a caption “Understanding of PCJSS and UPDF with foreign armed groups” in its 27 April issue to color the regional political parties engaged in the movement as the terrorist groups with the fictitious allegation, as well, of having links with Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Organization, National United Party of Arakan, Arakan Liberation Party, Peoples Party of Arakan, Arakan Army, Arakan Rohingya Islami Front, Democratic Party of Arakan etc. A savoury news was made up that a non-Muslim youth from Kaptai Upazila of Rangamati went to Myanmar to bring arms from the Arakan army, an armed group of Myanmar, and brought several consignments of arms from them, and it was published in the daily Kalerkantha of 1 May 2017 issue.

In reality, this is known to all that the state and non-state vested actors and fundamentalist forces are linked to these foreign armed groups. At the same time, they are aided by local leaders of the coterie in power. On 24 August 2016, a group of men belonging to foreign armed organization, while trying to cross the Myanmar border under the shelter of a local ruling leader, was apprehended by the security forces with contraband goods. It was learned to have created security alarm in the concerned quarters. What is more worrying is that this locally influential quarter is allegedly engaged in provocating these foreign armed groups to play communal cards to incite local communities against PCJSS as well as among the local indigenous communities themselves. For instance, on 3 February 2016 the Karbari of Baghmara Bhitor Para under Noapatang Union of Rowangchari Upazila was kidnapped as planned. The incident was used to hold the activists waging movement for the implementation of the CHT Accord along with members of PCJSS responsible, which was, in turn, used as a pretext to put many of them in jail. With the purpose to hush up these wrongful acts, such unfounded and fictional news implicating the regional political parties with the foreign armed groups are published quoting the security forces and the intelligence agencies as sources.

The extent and depth of malicious propaganda and information sabotage carried out by intelligence agencies of the armed forces can be clearly understood from the status posted by Fazlul Bari, former journalist of the daily Janakantha, in his Facebook. With regard to Firoz Manna’s news report titled “Meditation centres in creating disorder again in CHT” and appeared in the daily Janakantha, Mr. Bari wrote, “This report is laden with cock and bull stories supplied by the intelligence sources. I am aware of many structures in the CHT in connection with my involvement in filing of reports on the area for long. Assuming power in 1996, Awami League, through the CHT Accord, brought Shanti Bahini and the refuges, two big issues for many years, from India to inside our international boundary. The army controlled intelligence agencies were against the CHT Accord at that time. They used to fly journalists of particular school in helicopters from Dhaka to the CHT to file reports against the Paharis (hillmen). The CHT Accord was signed. Even then a section of army officers, in presence of ministers, used to exhort us that it had been unwise to have signed the CHT Accord, …showing them they take increased budgetary allocation, but remained silent about that. Army and intelligence agencies were behind regulating and overseeing press reporting and press club in the hills. The CHT Accord remains unimplemented till today, and they are the driving force behind it. They create a host of imaginary terror at different occasions. It would, therefore, be wise for one to keep all these things in mind at the time of reporting on the hills. However, an investigative report should include statements of all parties.”

All this news published in the national dailies such as Janakantha, Manabzamin, and Ittefaq etc. carried reports as fed by the intelligence agencies. But the statements, against whom news were made, were not published. Kalerkantha, bdnews24.com, chttimes24.com and various other online news portals including some national dailies published reports that Mr. Ushatan Talukder joined the Awami League along with 13 independent MPs without taking statement from him. It was nothing but an attempt to mislead the popular opinion about the PCJSS leadership.

From the accounts given by Fazlul Bari one can easily guess at the deep rooted conspiracy and Goebblesian propaganda on the CHT mounted by the intelligence agencies, security forces and the administration. In this way the indigenous Jumma peoples of the CHT are being alienated gradually by resorting to conspiracy and malicious propaganda, and thus gradually creating a situation that will lead to spark agitation and struggle again. It is true that when injustice prevails, a revolutionary movement for resistance will take root among any from the upcoming generations. Now the questions arise, whether the government will move towards a lasting political and peaceful solution of the CHT issues through implementing the CHT Accord or will it force the Jumma students and mass people to undo the grip tightened by decades of military rule, anti-Jumma conspiracy and unending malevolent propaganda? The onus of answer to this question lies more with the ruling class than the indigenous Jumma peoples.

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