Friday, August 12, 2011

Declaring the hill people as indigenous : Syed Muhammad Ibrahim

The 9th August 2011 was observed as the ‘International day of indigenous people’ all over the world including Bangladesh. The issue has come to public focus recently because of a statement by the Bangladesh foreign minister. The foreign minister said there are no indigenous people or population in Bangladesh; on the other hand Bangladesh has various tribal people. The statement of the foreign minister has been received with mixed reaction by the diplomatic community of Dhaka. The leaders of various tribal people of Bangladesh have vehemently rejected the statement and opinion of the foreign minister. The leaders of various tribal people contend that they are indigenous people and that the Government of Bangladesh needs to give constitutional recognition of the same.

In the context of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh, I came across the word ‘small nationality’ (in Bangla language: khudro khudro jatishotta) for the first time on 17 December 1987. I was the co-leader of the Government delegation which traveled deep into the jungle north of Khagrachori district head quarter with a view to take part in a peace-dialogue with a delegation of the Parbotto Chattogram Jono Shonghoti Shomiti (PCJSS).

Subsequently for three more times, I was the leader of a similar delegation for similar dialogue. In the fifth time I was the deputy leader, with my boss Major General Abdus Salam being the leader, but all for the same reasons. On 17 December 1987 the PCJSS presented a typed document, nay a charter of demands called the five point charter of demands. In that document or charter of demands, the PCJSS claimed to be the spokesmen or representative organization of the ‘thirteen small nationalities’ living within the geographical boundary of the CHT.

The Government of Bangladesh in those days used to call the non-Bengali speaking people of CHT as tribal people, and the tribal people were habituated to this word. This English word was first used by the British.
As a result of the peace process of 1987-88, three different hill district local government councils were instituted in Rangamati, Khagrachori and Bandarban through appropriate legislation, in July 1989. The term used for identifying the hill people was tribal.

The PCJSS did not approve of the peace process of 1987-88 nor approved the creation of elected bodies called hill district councils although through the peace accord of 1997, these have become part and parcel of new elected administrative hierarchy of CHT.  

I am inclined to use the words or phrases ‘ethnic minority’ or ethnic minority nationalities or only minority nationalities or small nationalities instead of the word tribal. The Constitution of Bangladesh adopted in 1972 declared the citizenship and national identity of all people of Bangladesh as Bangalee. This was not liked nor accepted by the hill people of CHT, who repeatedly said in all possible forum, that they are not Bangalees.
I also did not like it. When late president Ziaur Rahman adopted certain amendments in the Constitution, he changed the identity to Bangladeshi. Intellectuals and politicians inclined to Awami league did not like or accept the amended name as Bangladeshi. Very recently Supreme Court of Bangladesh confirmed Bangalee as well as Bangladeshi nomenclature, but with different connotation and purpose.

The Supreme Court did not comment on the people whom I am referring to as tribal people or ethnic minority or hill people. The 15th amendment of the Constitution of Bangladesh has not improved the situation either. The hill people of CHT refuse to be named as Bangalee, and have gone to the extent of demanding that they be called adibashi or indigenous people.

There is a forum called indigenous peoples forum in Bangladesh. They have worked very hard over last ten to twenty years to prepare the ground whereby the tribal or hill people of CHT will be supported by one or the other quarters in   the international arena also.

One of the major organs of the United Nations Organization (UNO or UN) is the Economic and Social Council. Another UN body is the International Labor Organization (ILO). In 1957, the ILO adopted a convention called ‘Indigenous and Tribal population Convention 107. The main focus of this convention was to enable the indigenous and tribal people to benefit on an equal footing from the rights and opportunities which various national laws offer to other elements of the population.

27 countries ratified the convention including Bangladesh, but later 9 countries denounced the same or withdrew their ratification. In the year 1989, ILO convention 107 was revised and freshly adopted as ILO convention 169. About 22 countries ratified the ILO convention 169 of 1989. But Bangladesh did not ratify it.

Nepal was the lone country from Asia to ratify the convention. The largest organ of the UNO is called the General Assembly. On 13 September 2007, the General Assembly during its 61st regular session adopted ‘UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’. Before being adopted during the voting, 4 countries voted against and 11 countries abstained from voting. The 4 countries which voted against are Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA. Bangladesh abstained from voting.

On 02 December 1997, the historic peace accord was signed in the context of CHT. The PCJSS during negotiation and signing of the accord signed as the representative body on behalf of all hill people of CHT. The word used was tribal. After the accord over a period last 13 years, they have gradually shifted their stand towards using the word indigenous.

The Government of Bangladesh have not been careful enough to monitor the subject minutely. The peace accord of 1997 has good aspects as well as weaknesses. Various citizen-bodies inside and outside Bangladesh are constantly monitoring the progress in the implementation of the peace accord. The intellectuals and elite of the civil society in Bangladesh are divided into two clean camps.

One camp or the right camp is not in favor of the peace accord as they see challenges to national integrity through its implementation. The other camp or the left camp is in favor of implementation. I may be wrong, but based on my personal discussion with the chief of Bangladesh Army of 1997, my knowledge says that the military was not institutionally consulted before the signing of the accord. For this reason and for other reasons, the accord has many lacunae. Now in 2011, such lacunae have become very prominent.

Bangladesh did not ratify the ILO convention 169 of the year 1989. Bangladesh abstained from voting in September 2007 in the UN General Assembly. Now in August 2011 at the end of a winding conspiratorial road, Bangladesh is faced with very unpleasant reality. Short background is as follows. Some northwest Europeans and some Bangladeshis, in both cases, the elite joined hands to form a body called the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission at least 21 years ago.

They are critical of the role of the Government of Bangladesh and the Bangladesh military in countering the armed insurgency of the PCJSS. They have seen nothing good in the developmental works of the government and nothing good at all in the hard work of the Bangladesh Military in CHT. The insurgents of the CHT had found this commission as a good friend.

The economic and social council of the UN had formed a body called the UN permanent forum for indigenous issues. This forum designated one person by the name of Lars-Anders Baer (Special Rapporteur) to carry out an appraisal of the progress made in implementation of the CHT peace accord. Mr. Lars-Anders Baer gave the report after couple of months.

The report of the permanent forum was considered by the Economic and Social council in its session on 29 July 2011. The report of the permanent forum has been incorporated in a document identified as supplement no. 23 of the official records of the year 2011 of the economic and social council. In paragraph 102 of the report by Mr. Lars-Anders Baer, certain recommendations were made for the government of Bangladesh.
Out of the four recommendations, two are highly offensive towards the sovereignty of Bangladesh. These recommendations find their roots in the peace accord of 1997, the ILO convention of the year 1989 and the UN declaration of 13 September 2007.

People of Bangladesh have come to know of the recent decisions of the Economic and Social Council through the media. Government of Bangladesh has publicly expressed difference with the decisions of the economic and social council.

Economic and Social Council wants the government of Bangladesh to declare the tribal or hill people of Bangladesh as indigenous. Bangladesh government has so far declined. Government of Bangladesh seems to be aware of the dangers of categorizing the hill people as adibashi or indigenous.

Are the common people or readers or news papers aware of the dangers? I will write only few sentences. If the hill people of CHT are declared adibashi, then three implications arise. One, the ownership of the entire land within CHT will go to only the tribal or hill people. Bangladesh government nor any Bangalee will have any opportunity of ownership in any manner. Two, no military deployment can take place within CHT without the consent of the hill people. Three, the hill people will have priority of ownership and use of any mineral resources found below the ground within CHT. Any other implications apart, these three are enough to pave the way for CHT to become a different political entity other than Bangladesh.

The constitution of Bangladesh itself provides reasonable scope for the government to take steps for the improvement of the quality of life of the people who do not speak Bangla and are not Bangalee.
These provisions can be improved. Constitutionally recognition needs to be given to such people who are ethnic minority or small nationalities. I am a witness to such efforts and a contributor to such effort between the years 1987 to 1993; till today I wish peace and happiness for the hill people.