Thursday, April 28, 2011

BANGLADESH : Chittagong Rights Violation Continues, Says UN

The Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord has yet to be fully implemented, with human rights violations continuing more than a decade after it was signed in December 1997 says the UN. The accord ended a 25- year low- intensity guerrilla war between 11 indigenous groups (Jumma) and the government and was intended to establish self-governance in this southeastern part of Bangladesh, home to half a million people. However, a recent study by UN Rapporteur Lars-Anders Baer found an extensive military presence and ongoing land disputes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in 2010. "When the idea of the study was presented to the UN's Economic and Social Council, the Bangladesh delegation... argued that there were no 'indigenous' people in Bangladesh. This was a surprise," he told IRIN. Raja Devavish Roy, king of the Chakma Circle, the largest ethnic group in the Jumma, who was also appointed to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues , says a widespread lack of knowledge about the area's long history of autonomy has resulted in discrimination against its inhabitants. "In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, all Millennium Development Goals... are well below the national average," Devavish said. The study states that "gross human rights violations" continue, including "arbitrary arrests, torture, extra-judicial killings, harassment of rights activists and sexual harassment". It recommends that the government formally endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and that the Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh investigate alleged human rights violations. Displaced During the insurgency, about 70 , 000 indigenous people fled Bangladesh and more than 100 , 000 were internally displaced. The study found that most international refugees had been repatriated and rehabilitated; however, "no practical steps have been taken to rehabilitate the internally displaced persons". But State Minister Jatindra Lal Tripura MP, chairman of the Taskforce for Repatriation of Tribal Refugees and the Rehabilitation of Internally Displaced People, insisted: "The current situation is better than the past. At present, there is harmony and peace [in CHT]." De-militarization According to the report, a third of Bangladesh's army is deployed in the CHT, an area that comprises just a tenth of the country's territory. "This is an excessive amount, by any standards, especially in a country not participating in a war," the study says. The report cites the military presence as the main reason for human rights violations against the local population and says the withdrawal of temporary military camps is "crucial for re-establishing normalcy". But how the military factor into establishing and maintaining peace in CHT remains unclear, Baer said. "The government has been open, but a big problem has been gathering relevant information about... the military presence in CHT. The 'black hole', so to speak, in my work, is the role of the military establishment in the CHT peace process," Baer said. Land rights According to the study, disputed land rights remain the most important issue, with forced evictions and expropriation of ancestral lands continuing at an " alarming rate". The Bangladesh government has long seen the CHT as empty land on to which it can move poor Bengali settlers, with scant regard for the area's Jumma inhabitants, activists insist. "The government set up the land commission [to settle land disputes] without due consideration of the opinions of the indigenous community. Therefore, indigenous people feel an unwillingness to cooperate with it," said National Human Rights Commission chairperson Mizanur Rahman. The study recommends that the government create a timeline for implementing all remaining provisions of the accord, warning that failure to do so could lead to " renewed political instability and ethnic conflict in the region". On 21 April, Survival International - an organization working for the rights of tribal people worldwide - reported that six indigenous Jumma villages were razed to the ground and many Jumma were attacked by Bengali settlers in the CHT. Violence erupted when Jumma landowners discovered settlers clearing their land and building shelters. A fight ensued that resulted in the death of three settlers. Following this incident, settlers, with the support of the army, burned down more than 90 Jumma houses and at least 20 Jummas were injured, the UK- based group reported.

Hasina wants Islam As Bangladesh State Religion

Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League would like to retain Islam as the state religion but wants all religions to enjoy equal rights, Prime Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said. In a reversal of a policy laid down by her late father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led Bangladesh to freedom, Hasina said she favoured retaining ‘Bismillah- Ar-Rahman-Ar-Rahim’ above the preamble of the constitution. The 1972 constitution had secularism as one of its pillars. This was removed after Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975. Bangladesh is now an Islamic republic, with 90 percent of its people being Muslims. Hindus constitute about nine percent and indigenous tribals follow Buddhism. There is a sprinkling of Christians. Hasina told the media after a two-hour meeting with the parliamentary committee that her party ‘is not against having Islam as state religion’. She suggested that the constitution should have ‘provision for ensuring equal rights to people of other religions’, The Daily Star reported Wednesday. Hasina also said her party was against banning religion-based political parties but it wanted some restrictions on them. This is the first time a prime minister appeared before a parliamentary committee that is reviewing the constitution in the light of a Supreme Court verdict last year that annulled several amendments brought about during 1975-90 when Bangladesh was a military-ruled nation. Jatiya Party, a major component of the Hasina-led ruling alliance, wanted the state religion to be retained. But the Left leaning Workers Party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, Ganotanri Party and National Awami Party strongly opposed the Jatiya Party proposal.

BANGLADESH : The Arab Springs Chill Winds An Unexpected Downside

WHEN the Arab spring was in its infancy something unusual happened in the world’s second-largest Muslim-majority democracy. Following violent protests, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, scrapped plans for a new airport near the capital, a pet project to be named after her father, Sheikh Mujib Rahman. A former Bangladeshi diplomat said he could remember no occasion on which an elected leader had reversed an important decision so quickly. He attributed the change of mind to what was happening in Egypt. The diplomat was not referring to fears that there might be a Bengali version of the Arab spring, though the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has talked about an “Egypt-like uprising” in their country. Instead, the economic consequences of the Arab spring are what matter. Bangladesh depends on remittances from the Middle East more than any other large country. Two-thirds of its recorded remittances—$7.2 billion in the year ending June 30 th 2010 —came from countries in The Economist ’s shoe-thrower’s index of regional flashpoints. The Middle East contributes slightly more to Pakistan’s total remittances but these account for only 6 % of Pakistan’s GDP, whereas Bangladesh’s remittances are 12% of GDP. The impact is certain to be bad, though how bad is unclear. Remittances are closely correlated with the number of migrant workers, lagged by about a year. On the eve of the global recession, about 6 m Bangladeshis worked abroad. The figure is lower now. Saudi Arabia is by far the most important overseas labour market. It hired a mere 22 ,000 Bangladeshis in 2009-10 , compared with 335 ,000 in the previous two years. Libya was Bangladesh’s fastest-growing market, albeit from a low base. Thus far, 34 ,000 Bangladeshi workers have returned from Libya and many others are trapped under fire in the docks of Misrata (they are now subjects of an international rescue mission). Bangladesh’s earnings from remittances tend to be volatile anyway, because its workers are mostly unskilled and get laid off quickly when economies turn down. (In contrast, remittances from higher-skilled Pakistanis are still rising). But the country is less badly affected than it might have been because its other main source of foreign exchange—textile exports—is doing well. This is partly because of rising labour costs elsewhere, and partly thanks to a rule change by the European Union. This allows clothes and other finished goods made in Bangladesh (and other least-developed countries) to come in duty-free as long as the value of their imported components does not exceed 70 %. Previously, the EU granted duty-free access to manufactures with an import content of 30 %. Bangladesh’s main competitors—China, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka—do not have “least developed” status, so the value of Bangladesh’s garment exports surged to $14 billion in the eight months to March 2011 , up 40 % at an annual rate. This will offset but not reverse the decline in remittances. The currency, the taka, is falling. So are foreign- exchange reserves. The IMF reckons the current-account balance will deteriorate sharply, from a surplus of 3.75 % of GDP in 2010-11 to a deficit of 0.75 % in 2011- 12. Unless something extraordinary happens—perhaps a resumption of large-scale hiring by the Saudis— remittances and the external position will get worse before they recover.