THE BANGLADESH government’s continued failure to protect its indigenous peoples has forced them to seek international help. This year, Bangladesh was a subject of heated discussion at the tenth session, held between 16-27 May, of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). The starting point was a report commissioned by the Permanent Forum. Written by former member of the Permanent Forum Lars-Anders Baer, who went to Bangladesh last year as a Special Rapporteur, the report entitled ‘Study on the status of implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997 ’ received statements of solidarity from the delegates. The Permanent Forum, established in July 2000 by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), is a high- level advisory body that deals with indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights. This is the first UN Forum where indigenous peoples directly represent their own interests. It consists of 16 members, half of whom are nominated by the government and the other half by the indigenous peoples, who advise and report directly to the ECOSOC. It reports and makes recommendations to the ECOSOC, raises awareness and promotes coordination of activities relating to indigenous peoples within the UN system, and prepares and disseminates information on indigenous issues. The members meet once each year for ten working days. Governments, UN bodies and agencies, intergovernmental and non- governmental organisations, and organisations of indigenous peoples participate as observers. In 2010 , at the ninth session of the Forum, Chakma Raja Devasish Roy was selected, from the Asia region, as one of the 16 indigenous expert members for the period of 2011- 2013. From the very beginning, indigenous peoples’ representatives from Bangladesh have been participating at the Permanent Forum sessions. However, this is the first time that the 1997 CHT accord has been a focus of deliberation and dedicated discussion. After the presentation by Special Rapporteur Baer, observer countries, international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs ( IWGIA), and other national and international human rights organisations voiced their support to the recommendations proposed by the study and urged the government of Bangladesh to accelerate its efforts in implementing the CHT Accord. Political concoction Although representatives of the Bangladesh government, including the state minister for CHT affairs, and other indigenous members of the parliament were scheduled to participate in the Forum discussion, they cancelled at the last moment, and Iqbal Ahmed, the First Secretary of the Bangladesh mission to the UN, responded to the report. The thrust of Ahmed’s argument was that there were ‘no indigenous peoples in Bangladesh’ and as such the implementation of the Accord should not have been a topic for the Forum to discuss. He then went on to discuss the structural work that had so far been done by the government, including setting up of the Regional Council, the Hill Districts Councils, the Land Commission and the National Committee for Implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord. He concluded by saying: This statement has been delivered for better understanding of everyone present here on the issue which is clearly ‘non-indigenous’ in nature. This effort, hence, should not be misconstrued as a recognition of the authority of the Forum to discuss the issue of CHT affairs. We urge upon the Forum to dedicate its valuable time to discuss issues related to millions of indigenous people all over the world and not waste time on issues politically concocted by some enthusiastic quarters with questionable motives. Despite one of the members of the Forum, Raja Devasish Roy, being an indigenous person from Bangladesh, it was rather surprising for the first secretary to say that there were no indigenous peoples in the country. Of course this argument has been used before. Although both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have used the word ‘adivasi’ (indigenous) in their commemorative statements, and many older government laws use the phrase ‘indigenous hill- men’, the present government has categorically refused to recognise the existence of indigenous peoples in the national and international platforms. In April 2010 , Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, following a declaration made earlier by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)-led government, stated that Bangladesh did not have any indigenous population. The Ministry for CHT Affairs also reflected this denial on a memo, in which it instructed district-level officials to stop using the terms ‘ adivasi’ or ‘indigenous’ in government documents; replacing the terms with the word ‘upajati’ ( sub-ethnicity) instead. Although in their election manifesto, 2008 , the Awami League (AL), which now leads the government, had promised to implement the 1997 CHT Accord in full, the Chittagong Hill Tracts continue to be a militarized area, where arson attacks against the indigenous people are frequent. The security forces including the army, police and the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), are alleged to be covert supporters of these attacks. In the face of such hostility by a government that was initially seen as secular and minority- friendly, the next option for the indigenous population has been to take their issues to the international community through the UN Permanent Forum. In response to the government’s disavowal of the existence of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh, indigenous expert member Roy said: It is important to bear in mind the asymmetry in the status of the two parties to an accord: the state party and the non-state party. If the state reneges on its promises, what can the non-state party do but approach the United Nations? The Permanent Forum is mandated to deal with issues of indigenous peoples, irrespective of terms the governments use to refer to their indigenous peoples: ‘tribes’ or ‘ ethnic minorities’ or otherwise. Military bias The first secretary in his statement had objected to two specific recommendations Special Rapporteur Baer made in his report, calling them ‘out of context’. Both of the recommendations were in regards to the UN peacekeeping forces from Bangladesh. While section 56 of the study recommended that the Department of Peacekeeping Operations of the UN Secretariat ( UNPKO) ‘develop a mechanism to strictly monitor and screen the human rights records of national army personnel prior to allowing them to participate in peacekeeping operations under the auspices of the United Nations’ , section 58( a) recommended that it also ‘prevent human rights violators and alleged human rights violators within the security forces of Bangladesh from participating in international peacekeeping activities under the auspices of the United Nations’. Bangladesh has been sending troops as part of the UN Peacekeeping Operations since 1988 ( the year the UNPKO won the Nobel Peace Prize) and is currently the top Troop Contributing Country (TCC). It has participated in 46 UN peacekeeping missions in 32 countries with approximately 100 , 000 uniformed personnel. This has been lauded both abroad and at home, and has been a source of considerable pride for the military, the state and citizens. At the same time, however, indigenous peoples in CHT continue to bring allegations against the Bangladesh Army of its biased stance and actions against them, and of abetting or tolerating human rights violations in the area. For example, in February 2010 , settlers burned more than 400 homes of indigenous people in villages across Baghaihat, Rangamati to the ground. The army personnel, who were present in the area in the Baghaihat zone, are accused to have done nothing to stop the arsonists and working instead as a ‘shield’ to protect the settlers. Non-cooperation from the government meant that no independent investigations were conducted into this case. Apart from biased views and actions, the army is also accused of displacing indigenous people from their lands to increase requisitioned land for military garrisons in the CHT. In the CHT Accord of 1997 , an agreement to dismantle all temporary military camps, apart from the six designated cantonments, from the area was reached. A promise to form a functioning Land Commission, which would resolve all land disputes, was also made. However, the present Land Commission and its Chairman’s blatant ‘pro-Bengali’ bias, combined with the continued racial and communal bias displayed by the Bangladesh government and regional administration has meant that the leaders of the indigenous peoples have run out of hope that the Accord will ever be implemented. Time too is running out for the implementation of the Accord during the tenure of the present AL-led government. The Permanent Forum has provided the Jumma (collective name for the indigenous hill peoples in the CHT) with a platform to reach out to indigenous peoples from different parts of the world and put pressure on the government to implement the accord. However, first, the Government of Bangladesh should recognise that it is its own failure that it could not take concrete steps to execute the clauses of the fourteen-year-old accord and that it could not alter its continued anti- indigenous peoples attitude – which led to the internationalisation of the issue in the first place. Overused statements containing phrases like ‘politically concocted’ will not succeed in shifting the blame.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
Related topics Government and politics Myanmar Asia-Pacific politics Chinese politics Myanmar politics WAIST-DEEP in the muddy water, hundreds of people swirl their pans, scouring the black sediment for the sparkle of gold dust. They have come from all over Myanmar to Kachin state, where the N’Mai and Mali rivers merge to form the mighty Irrawaddy, knowing that a good day may yield $1 ,000- worth of gold—and that time for gold- panning is running out. Across the river, the corrugated-iron roofs of a prefabricated barracks glint in the midday sun. They house hundreds of Chinese labourers working on the Myitsone hydropower project. This, according to Myanmar’s government, will be the sixth highest dam in the world, and generate 6 ,000 MW of electricity a year. On completion in 2019 , the dam will flood the gold- prospecting area and displace more than 10 ,000 people. All the electricity will be exported to China. All the revenue will go to Myanmar’s government. If an environmental and social impact study was conducted at all, it did not involve consulting the affected villagers. A local Catholic priest who led prayers against the dam says his parishioners were moved to a “model” village, into tiny houses on plots too small for cultivation. The letters of concern he sent to Myanmar’s leaders went unanswered. He says he will stay in his historic church “till the waters rise over the doorstep”. Those displaced are not the only ones worrying about the project. The project abuts territory controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), one of a plethora of ethnic insurgencies that have battled the central government for decades. Last year several bombs exploded at the dam site and in May the KIO warned that if the dam were not stopped it would lead to civil war. The KIO’s armed wing recently engaged in skirmishes with government forces, despite a notional ceasefire. The KIO was banned from last year’s election in Myanmar because it refused to let its fighters join the government’s “border security force”. Its threat came as Myanmar’s newly installed “civilian” president, Thein Sein, a former general, embarked on a state visit to China. China has a big stake in Myanmar. It is the country’s leading foreign investor. Myitsone is one of many hydropower, mining and infrastructure projects there. China’s most ambitious undertaking is a new deep-sea port for oil tankers. Due for completion in 2013 , it will take gas from Myanmar’s offshore Shwe field and will have the capacity to satisfy 10 % of China’s oil-import needs. These close ties are not entirely comfortable for either side. Between 1 m and 2 m Chinese citizens have moved into northern Myanmar. They dominate the jade-and-gem trade, push up land prices and flaunt their wealth in Mandalay and Myitkyina, where all the posh cars have Chinese number plates. Local resentment is growing. Church leaders in Myitkyina say Chinese people make up more than half the population. Many Burmese say their northern states are like a Chinese province. China, for its part, worries about the security of its investments and people. In the past it has leaned on Myanmar’s leaders to prevent fighting between the army and the ethnic insurgencies. When conflict broke out in 2009 with the Kokang, an ethnic-Han-Chinese minority, 37 ,000 people fled to China, provoking sharp criticism of the Burmese junta. As its economic interests have grown, China has pressed for more access to Myanmar’s harbours and territorial waters, to monitor the security of the new port and pipelines, and to keep an eye out for pirates. But this is a neuralgic issue for a country with a deep-seated suspicion of its powerful northern neighbour. Myanmar’s xenophobic leaders are trying to reduce their dependence on China by playing it off against India and the West. But India has been slow in trying to gain a toehold, while America and the European Union have recently extended sanctions on Myanmar. These include America’s embargo on backing loans from the World Bank, which would impose higher environmental and other standards on big infrastructure projects such as Myitsone. So the regime is being drawn into China’s orbit as much from necessity as choice. That does not make China any more popular. In the words of an old Burmese monk: “We are China’s kitchen. They take what they like and leave us with the rubbish.”
BUSHY-BEARDED swamis in women’s clothing. Gurus on hunger strike. Anti- corruption sit-ins. You might have thought the Indian government would know how to deal with these, thanks to long practice. Yet this week its bungling of a public protest turned a loony yogi who peddles quack cures for AIDS, cancer and corruption into a rallying figure for an angry public and opposition. The muttering about changing leaders is growing. This week’s farce involved the saffron- clad Baba Ramdev, whose wealth, popularity on television and delusions of political grandeur led him to call a fast to the death in Delhi at the weekend. His chosen cause is the repatriation of billions of dollars supposedly stashed abroad by the rich and crooked. He says such cash would pay to wipe hunger from the land. Given public anger over food and fuel inflation, such a claim, however bogus, goes down well. In more confident times Congress’s long-serving leaders would surely have brushed him aside. Pranab Mukherjee, the canny finance minister, has been atop politics for long enough to remember how a much more powerful guru, the “flying swami”, Indira Gandhi’ s yoga teacher, adviser and rumoured lover, was swept into obscurity amid scandals over a personal arms factory and crooked aircraft deals. Today, the government seems to have lost its touch. Beset by accusations of graft, it may soon have to eject a dodgy-looking coalition ally, a Tamil party thumped in a state election in May. Despite softer economic growth and falling investment, India’s rulers have dared launch no reforms or pass any laws of note this year. Nor has it known how to tackle problems as they flare up. Instead of preventing the guru’s protest, or letting it take its course, the government tried to control it. First, ministers got the guru to give an empty promise that his gathering would be called off. Then, when he breezily broke that, as tens of thousands of supporters converged, they panicked and sent in stick-wielding police, who lobbed tear gas and attacked the sleeping camp on June 4 th. Beating sleeping anti-corruption protesters while television cameras roll is not the most sensible public- relations policy. Many demonstrators are in hospital and one has been paralysed. Nor does it say much for India’s democratic process, since Mr Ramdev had permission to stage an event (though not, the authorities say, for a mass protest). The saving grace was that the hairy-armed guru was arrested—and photographed—trying to escape while dressed in female attire. Unabashed, he said he would raise a force of 11 ,000 “so that next time we do not lose any battle”. The gleeful opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, says the Congress party is showing all the leadership qualities of a “headless chicken”. That insult may be routine, but even senior Congress insiders privately voice dismay. In April Manmohan Singh’s government caved in to another hunger-striker, Anna Hazare, who extracted a big concession, winning for his supporters a right to co- draft an anti-corruption bill. That annoyed parliamentarians and others who say elected politicians, not activists, should write laws. On June 8 th Mr Hazare launched another protest in Delhi, while his supporters paraded with posters showing the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, as an incarnation of Ravana, a ten-headed demon of Hindu mythology, shouting “these devils are eating the country”. Perhaps the summer heat is to blame. Perhaps tempers will ease when the monsoon reaches Delhi next month. Yet the bungling shows that Congress’s back-room managers face a long-term problem: finding able, youthful leaders they can promote. Mr Singh was dutifully wheeled out to defend the attack on Mr Ramdev’s camp, but few believe that he takes day-to-day political decisions. He is 78 , and is a technocrat with little appetite for political scrapping. He relies on Mr Mukherjee, only slightly more sprightly at 75. Power is yet further divided, since Sonia Gandhi, Congress’s boss, influences political strategy behind the scenes. For several years, the youthful leader- in-waiting, who was supposed to inject new blood into the tired party, has been Sonia’s son, the 41-year-old Rahul. Yet Mr Gandhi, who was arrested (and released) in May while trying to speak up for farmers who had had their land stolen, failed to make much of an impression in recent local elections and is facing the most sustained criticism of his brief career. Until Congress can provide better leadership, expect the opposition, social activists and nutty gurus to take advantage.
Maqbool Fida Husain was India's most celebrated painter, and his death in London last week was front- page news across the subcontinent. However, toward the end of his life, Husain had trouble finding galleries willing to show his work. He lived in Dubai, Doha or London for most of the last two decades because he couldn't paint in peace in his own country, even becoming a Qatari national last year. Husain 's story says much about modern India. The troubles started in 1996 , when the magazine Vichar Mimansa ("Discussion of Thoughts" ) published a decades-old sketch that showed a nude Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning. That discovery electrified Hindu activists, who began filing lawsuits against the painter for hurting their sentiments. These activists were able to persecute Husain by taking advantage of laws intended to prevent the incitement of religious hatred. Though the Indian constitution guarantees freedom of expression, it allows "reasonable restrictions" to safeguard "the interests of the sovereignty and integrity" of the country and " public order, decency or morality." The penal code makes it a crime " to outrage religious feelings" and also outlaws "promoting enmity" between different groups on the basis of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language—and the all-inclusive "etc." Fringe Hindu groups claimed to have been offended by the artist's work, and pressured the authorities to initiate proceedings. Indian courts often throw such cases out, but there were multiple cases against him. When a few of them reached the Delhi High Court on appeal, it ruled in Husain's favor. So did the Supreme Court in a similar case. But the court judgments did not stem the tide of vitriol. Vigilantes continued to file cases against him, attacked his works and damaged the studio of a television network that polled its readers on whether Husain should be given India's highest civilian honor. An artist with weaker convictions would have stopped painting altogether, but Husain continued to portray the many colors of this pluralist democracy. Born around 1915 , he got his artistic start painting cinema posters. Formally trained at the prestigious Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Bombay, he was an integral member of the Progressive Artists' Group, which brought together leading modernists soon after India's independence in 1947. He painted horses all his life; his other recurring themes included celebration of Indian music, Sufi art and the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Since 1996 , he continued to paint Hindu deities as well as paintings inspired by Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit, whom he called his muse. But he couldn't go on very long. At one count last decade, there were hundreds of cases pending against him across India, and some death threats too. Instead of defending Husain's right to express his imagination, the authorities did nothing, actually adding to pressure from activists. In 2006 , several state governments decided to prosecute him for outraging feelings after he painted "Bharat Mata" (Mother India) in the nude. The controversy scared those who otherwise would have been happy to exhibit his work, including the organizers of the 2008 Indian Art Fair in Delhi, which had the works of 300 artists but not Husain's. Exasperated by the lack of support from the Indian state and the continued harassment—both physical and legal—Husain gave up. He was living outside India anyway, and last year he publicly renounced his Indian citizenship. Hindu nationalists justified their attacks on Husain's art by noting that the Indian state has allowed other faiths to block literature that has offended them. India was the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses." Muslim activists last year chopped off the hand of T.J. Joseph, a university professor in Kerala, because he gave an exam question that was deemed insulting to Muhammad. Christian groups have protested films like "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Last Temptation of Christ." To be sure, a large number of books get published in India, hundreds of films get made and galleries hold many exhibitions without incident. But artists like Husain inhabit speech at the edge of acceptability, speech that challenges conventional thought. The controversial sketch of Saraswati, for example, is an elegant white-on-black line drawing, which makes the viewer reflect on the old Indian tradition of "nirakara," or formlessness. Yet instead of questioning themselves when provoked, extremist Hindus, like extremists from other faiths, have reacted with anger. The trouble is that along with such sectarian anger comes New Delhi's timidity in protecting individual rights. Hindus have every right to peacefully protest Husain's depictions, but Indian law allows them to become vigilantes who chill all expression. India will now try to claim Husain as a son of its soil. Someone will suggest issuing a postage stamp in his name. Others will talk about naming roads or art galleries after him. A more fitting tribute would be to revoke those provisions of Indian law that drove Husain out of the country. The next M.F. Husain should not have to curb his imagination or dream smaller dreams.