A diplomatic setback or what?
Last week, there was a flurry in our foreign office. The foreign minister held a back-to- back meeting with the heads of foreign missions here, followed by a meeting with the editors of the print and electronic media. The issue that seems to trouble the ministry was the matter of implementation of the CHT Peace Accord that was discussed in two UN bodies.
This May, the 10th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) was held in New York. In spite of Bangladesh's serious objection that this was not the proper forum to discuss the CHT Peace Accord, the matter was not only taken up but a set of recommendations was prepared for adoption by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in Geneva.
To the chagrin of the government it was recommended that for the tribals in CHT, who can be simultaneously described as indigenous people, the UNPFII was the appropriate forum for airing their grievances. So the government had to not only listen to what the tribal leaders had to say, but also accept them as if they reflected the voice of the indigenous people of Bangladesh.
A strong delegation of tribals led by Raja Devasish Roy, the Chakma Raja who is also a member of the Forum, had gone to attend this UNPFII meeting. The government side was to be led by the state minister for CHT Affairs, but at the last minute the delegation cancelled its participation. The government was instead represented by a first secretary from our Permanent Mission to the UN in New York.
Raja Devasish, in his intervention at the meeting of the Forum on Agenda item 8 -- Report on the implementation status of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord -- made the following points. The Accord is a role model for other countries, but the implementation is not satisfactory. He felt that the government was not addressing the following major issues on the CHT:
* Rehabilitation (of internally displaced indigenous persons);
* Land dispute resolution; and
* Devolution to autonomous regional and district level councils.
He also expressed concern about the impunity with which human rights were being violated in the area.
The Raja, however, jumped into the fray, when he sought clarification from the Forum on the identity of "indigenous people." He said that the Forum dealt with issues of indigenous people. But in different countries such people may be known by names other than indigenous, including "tribe" or "ethnic minority." But despite the use of such varied terminology, these people will still be regarded as "indigenous."
He further said that the International Labor Organization in its Convention on Indigenous People (Nos. 107 and 169) mentions both indigenous and tribal when describing such people. Thus, according to him, the international human rights regime does not distinguish between tribal and indigenous people. The current accepted terminology is "indigenous people."
When the first secretary responded he pointed out the steps taken to implement the Accord. These included:
* Setting up and functioning of a separate Ministry for Chittagong Hill Tract Affairs; formation of a Regional Council; renaming Hill District Local Government Council to Hill District Council through legislation; handing over 18 subjects out of 32 subjects to this Hill District Council for governance; enactment of CHT Land Dispute Settlement Commission Act for functioning of a land Commission;
* Some other aspects of implementation of the Accord were: closing down of 200 security camps till 2004 and another 34 camps in 2009; tribals have been given priority for jobs in government in CHT; formation of a special committee called "CHT Peace Treaty Implementation Monitoring Committee," etc.
Dwelling on the issue of indigenous people, he stated that the Accord was an internal arrangement for improving the administration and quality of governance there. The Accord has nothing to do with "indigenous issues." The government is addressing the issue of ethnic minorities separately. It is actively considering recognition of the distinctive identity of ethnic minorities in the Constitution of Bangladesh.
At the ECOSOC meeting which took place in Geneva in late July there was intense lobbying by the government get several "offending paras" of the UNPFII report deleted. But the ECOSOC rejected the government's request. The government then gave a "statement of explanation," but that too was not accepted.
A few of the concerns were however included as "noted" in the nature of a "footnote." But the support by other member states to Bangladesh was disappointing. Only China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia gave some support.
Due to poor diplomatic strategy the game was lost before it really began.
The government is concerned with the recommendations of UNPFII as adopted by ECOSOC. Bangladesh may now have to undertake "a phased withdrawal" of temporary security camps from the CHT. It has to declare a timeframe for implementation of the Peace Accord. It also has to establish an independent commission to inquire into "human rights violations."
One of the more sensitive steps is that the UN Department of Peacekeeping will be asked to review security units that are being sent on UN missions to make sure that no unit includes anyone accused by the Jumma people of CHT of such human rights violations.
The government strategy to challenge the mandate of the UNPFII to discuss the CHT Peace Accord as there were "no indigenous people in the CHT" was indeed a weak one. As soon as the game became known it brought out the sharks who without any hesitation devoured Bangladesh, a small fry in the diplomatic pond.
There is, however, a need now to look closely at the issue of the tribals who reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and are claiming to be indigenous to that area.
The United Nations has no definition of an "indigenous" person. It has only an understanding of the term indigenous. The UN, therefore, tries to identify such a person only through some highlights.
The first criterion is that a person should identify himself/herself as an indigenous person. He/she must be accepted as a member by that community. The next precondition is that the indigenous person should be in historical continuity with pre-settler societies. They had to be living in a region before any other community entered and settled in there.
A person who claims indigenous status must also be a part of a distinct social, economic or political system. He/she must also have distinct language, culture and beliefs. Finally, he/she should be part of a non-dominant group in the society.
So on the basis of these UN highlights, can the tribals of CHT be considered indigenous?
Let us see look at the largest tribe in CHT, the Chakmas. We know that they are Tibeto- Burman in origin and had come from neighbouring Arakan.
In 1546, when the King of Arakan, Meng Beng, was fighting the Burmese, the Chakma (known as Saks to Arakanese) king came from the north and attacked Arakan. He occupied Ramu in Cox's Bazar which was a part of the Kingdom of Arakan. But this was not to last long. Soon the Arakanese king Meng Rajagiri pushed the Chakmas out. Defeated, they entered the Chittagong Hill Tracts and made Ali Kadam (Alekyangdong) their capital.
In 1666, the Mughals under Shaista Khan defeated the Arakanese and conquered Chittagong. But the Chakmas remained unaffected. Later, formal peace was established in 1713 between the Chakmas and the Mughals.
History, therefore, tells us that the Chakmas are relatively recent settlers in the CHT. In fact, they have been here for about 465 years.
So can we seriously consider giving the tribal people of CHT the label of indigenous population? It may not be historically correct and there is no basis for them to be considered the first inhabitants of that area.
But there is no doubt that these tribal populations have been marginalised for centuries. Time has now come to welcome them to the economic and social mainstream of Bangladesh. However, their distinct culture and other attributes must remain separate for them to flourish as part of a diverse Bangladesh.
The writer is a former Ambassador and Chairman of the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.