As the 14th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues concludes, one group from Bangladesh has vowed to begin a “non-cooperation movement” against the government of Bangladesh. The Jumma or “Hill People” of the Chittagong Hill Tracts are demanding the country fully implement a 1997 treaty known as the CHT Peace Accord. The pact was intended to settle violence and restore lost lands in the jungles where the Jumma have claimed as their ancestral territory. But indigenous leaders complain the government has been slow to fully implement the agreement. And they’ve threatened a possible violence by today, May 1 if Bangladesh fails to take action on enforcing the accord.
On Monday, the Bangladeshi government addressed the UN about the disputed CHT Peace Accord. A top-level government official, Naba Bikram Kishore Tripura echoed sentiments that no Indigenous Peoples exist in the country.
“We believe that the notion of Indigenous Peoples should be used judicially and in a historically tenable manner,” Tripura said before the panel. “It would be self-defeating [for Bangladesh] to imply the notion in political and socially cultural contexts where historically it is far different from the situation where it is germane,” he continued.
Tripura is the Ministry Secretary of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs, the governing body overseeing implementation of the CHT Accord. He’s also considered a “tribal,” or the term the government uses when describing people claiming indigenous identity, such as the Jumma.
Indigenous leaders attending the talks criticized Tripura’s formal statement before the UNPFII as manipulative on the part of Bangladesh, saying the ministry official attempted to gloss over the issues attached to the defunct CHT Accord.
Since Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, there’s been an on-going debate over land rights and recognition of Indigenous peoples in the country. The dispute led to a violent civil war in the CHT that lasted for more than two decades. The bloodshed ultimately ended with the signing of the CHT Peace Accord. But bitter territorial disputes and violent clashes have lingered on.
According to the 2011 national census, there are an estimated 1.5 million citizens who claim indigenous ancestry, or roughly 1.8 percent of the country’s total population. But Bangladesh argues that all its citizens are essentially indigenous based on historical ties to the region.The Jumma, however, say their ancestral connection to the Chittagong Hill Tracts is exceptional and reference an 18th century treaty signed with the British government as proof of their indigenous status.
Around one million people identify as Jumma, a group comprised of 11 tribal factions, mostly of Buddhist belief. The largest of the Jumma groups is the Chakma, an ancient kingdom that once negotiated a peace treaty under British rule in 1787. Today, the group is the leading political arm for Jumma rights and recognition in Bangladesh. Its leaders were among the chief signatories of the CHT Accord.
Raja Devasish Roy, a Permanent Forum member and Chief of the Chakma Circle in the Chittagong Hill Tracts addressed the human rights panel, urging governments like Bangladesh to recognize Indigenous Peoples in the country. “The generic understanding of ‘Indigenous Peoples’ is now entrenched, within the UN system. It would be of mutual benefit for the Asian and African states and their Indigenous Peoples, to work together with such an understanding,” Roy said.
Latest figures suggest there are an estimated 370 million Indigenous Peoples worldwide, a population that includes groups like the Jumma who are not recognized by their respective countries. Meanwhile, the UN has not formally adopted an official ‘definition’ of indigenous identity, complicating the struggle for the Jumma.
At the core of the Jumma’s fight for recognition are lingering land disputes. The indigenous group claims they are victims of both historic and recent land grabs by Bangladeshi military forces, the government, and Bengali settlers. As a result, violent clashes have taken place in the region for decades. A delegation came under attack during a visit to the region last July.
Upon the signing of the CHT Accord, a CHT Land Commission was formed. But so far, there is no record of any land dispute ever being settled since the commission was created in 1999. Indigenous leaders describe the forum as broken.
Yet, the Jumma have found recent allies. On Monday, a coalition of Nordic countries urged Bangladesh to restore the Jumma their lost lands by fully implementing the CHT Accord.
“Unfortunately, the situation still gives rise to concern,” said Julie Garfeldt Kofoed, Second Secretary of the Permanent Mission of Denmark. “We encourage the Government of Bangladesh to ensure full implementation of the Peace Accord. It is long overdue, as almost two decades have passed since the signing of the Accord.”
Back in Bangladesh, the Jumma have also threatened the government with violence if the accord is not fully implemented. Retired guerilla fighter, Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, popularly known as ‘Santu’, issued a May 1 deadline for Bangladesh to announce a road map on implementing the remaining provisions of the accord. He claims only 13 have been fully enforced out of 25. Whether violence will erupt in the Chittagong Hill Tracts remains to be seen. Larma was once a leader of the rebel group who fought Bangladeshi forces for nearly two decades leading up to the CHT.