Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 189 - November 1988


The war in the hills
Floods have pitched Bangladeshis into the headlines. But to
the tribal people of Chittagong they are oppressors. Monica Connell
meets a Buddhist monk who speaks for them.

I met the Venerable Bimal Bhikku in the Friends Meeting House in Swindon, England, on a grey afternoon. He sat opposite me looking calm and composed in his ochre robes: an educated, articulate monk, who cares passionately about peace, justice and the plight of his people, the Chittagong Hill Tribes of Bangladesh. He told me that if he were to return to Bangladesh he would face certain assassination by the Government, which wishes to keep the situation in Chittagong secret.

Until 40 years ago, the Chittagong Hill Tracts were inhabited almost exclusively by people belonging to 13 tribes. The tribal people differ fundamentally from the predominantly Muslim people of the plains. They are of a different ethnic origin (Sino-Tibetan), they speak their own languages and have their own culture and religions (mainly Buddhist).

Punchline by Christian But since then there has been a steady influx of Bengali plainspeople. In 1971, after a bitter civil war, Bangladesh emerged as a separate state and the new government, wrongly believing tribal leaders to have supported Pakistan in the war, stationed a counter-insurgency force in the area. In response the tribal people formed a solidarity association with an armed wing, Shanti Bahini. By the mid-1970s the conflict between the army, the Bengali settlers and the tribes was under way.

I had always thought that the Chittagong war was about land. Talking with Bimal I realized how wrong - or naive - I had been. Successive governments have resettIed Bengali plainspeople in the Hill Tracts, reasoning that while the country as a whole is desperately overpopulated (averaging 2,000 people per square mile) the hills are still relatively empty (only 20 people per square mile). But these statistics grossly misrepresent the reality: the poor terrain of the hills is already fully utilized and cannot support a larger population.

'They, too, are victims,' said Bimal of the Bengali settlers. They are given incentives to move to the hills and transported there in truckloads. But if they don't like hill life - and many don't - they're beaten and tortured for attempting to return. They are simply part of the Government's plan to dilute the tribal population - to promote nationalism by standardizing the Bengali language, culture and the Muslim religion. It's not a conflict about land. It's the planned annihilation of a whole people.

In 1950 the 660,000 tribespeople constituted 91 per cent of the total population of the Hill Tracts. Now they are virtually outnumbered by settlers, many of whom have been issued with rifles, trained by the army and enlisted into village paramilitary forces. So when the military instigates an attack on a tribal village, it is generally with the backing of the new settlers.

'They come in the night or in the early hours of the morning,' Bimal told me. 'They announce their arrival with a round of blank fire.' They set fire to houses and some of the younger people are taken to prison and tortured for information about the Shanti Bahini (there are now about 12,000 tribal people in prison without trial). Others are tortured and killed there and then, in front of their families. In May 1986, Bimal's own Buddhist monastery in Dighinala was burned to the ground. At least 500 people were killed and 35 local villages destroyed.

I hesitated to ask Bimal more about army brutality - afraid that the memory would rekindle some private pain. He spared us both by referring me to eyewitness accounts published by Amnesty International. There I read about soldiers raping women, then thrusting bayonets Into their vaginas shouting 'No tribals will be born in Bangladesh'; of children being 'thrown into burning huts'; of men being hung upside-down from trees and branded with hot knives.

In September last year, President Ershad set up a national committee which, according to its own press release, intends to 'restore honour and dignity to the tribal peoples' by withdrawing the army, banning further immigration and returning land. Bimal dismisses this as a 'bluff', adding that the Government has 'no wish to solve the problem in the Hill Tracts'.

So why the bluff? The answer lies in Bangladesh's dependence on foreign aid. Donor countries must be convinced that the tribal people are being adequately catered for. Thus the 1985 Five-Year Plan contains a one-million-dollar proposal for the development of the Hill Tracts. But, as Bimal pointed out, none of this will benefit the tribal people. What use are roads and telecommunication systems to them? 'They will merely make it easy for the Government to mobilize the military and send the settlers deeper into the area'.

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