Raising voices to stop rape in Bangladesh
What would happen if Meghan Markle was attacked by London’s Metropolitan police while she visited hospital patients? Would there be a global outcry?
This is how a recent attack on indigenous human rights defender Rani Yan Yan has been described by her supporters. Yan Yan and another woman say they were beaten up by plain clothes police in February at the Rangamati Sadar Hospital in Bangladesh. They were visiting two teenage sisters who had been sexually assaulted, allegedly by members of the army.
Rani Yan Yan is the advisor to Raja Devasish Roy, the Chakma Circle Chief in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. She is also his spouse and known as the Chakma Queen. The Chakmas are the largest indigenous group in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Other groups include the Marma community to which Rani Yan Yan and the two teenage sisters belong. Collectively, indigenous people in the region are often referred to as the Jumma people.
The attack on Rani Yan Yan, a prominent campaigner for human rights, has provoked widespread anger.
‘It has a massive symbolic impact,’ says Chris Chapman, Indigenous Peoples' Rights Adviser at Amnesty International. ‘People see it as an outrage and a lack of respect for the tradition and the institution of the Chakma leadership.’
Behind Rani Yan Yan’s case is another which is depressingly more common – that of the two sisters. The 19-year-old was allegedly raped and the 14-year-old sexually assaulted at their house in Orachhari village on 22 January. It is reported that their younger brother was in the room while it happened.
The sisters were then detained in hospital, guarded by police, with visits from family and supporters restricted.
On 15 February Rani Yan Yan says that she and other human rights volunteers went to the hospital to intervene as the police tried to release the sisters into the custody of their parents, against their wishes. The sisters had requested to be looked after by the Chakma Raja due to concerns that their family security was threatened by the army. Rani Yan Yan explains that the girls refused to leave with the parents: ‘They said “give us poison. We will die here but we’re not going to leave with you.”’
Later, after all the volunteers but Rani Yan Yan and her companion had been forced out the hospital, they say that police locked the door of the ward and then turned off the lights in the corridors and public spaces. Then 8-10 masked plain clothes police entered the ward and attacked Rani Yan Yan and the other woman, in front of the girls and their family, kicking and punching them both. At one point, Yan Yan says she heard the attackers say, ‘If we are to finish this off, we cannot do it here, it has to be done outside the hospital.’
After a prolonged beating both managed to escape but it is reported that the sisters are now being held with their family, under police surveillance, in the house of Abhilash Tanchangya, a prominent member of the governing Awami League party. Rani Yan Yan and other supporters have been unable to visit.
What is unusual about the case of the Marma sisters is that it has become so high profile. Yan Yan explains that their determination to speak out and hold their ground is unusual. ‘In most cases the stories do not reach to us,’ she says.
Indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a hilly lush region in the south-eastern corner of Bangladesh, have long suffered exploitation under colonial governments. After Bangladesh became independent in 1971 there was a drive to remove indigenous people in the area from their land, and bring in Bengali settlers, leading to an uprising, decades of military rule and guerrilla conflict and the displacement and deaths of tens of thousands of indigenous people.
A Peace Accord was signed in December 1997 which put a formal stop to the armed conflict. Promises of demilitarization, a new system of governance for indigenous people and a Land Commission to investigate and uphold indigenous land rights have not been kept. Thousands of indigenous people remain landless and the area is effectively under military occupation.
In 1947, indigenous population in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) was 97.5 per cent but by 2016 it had reduced to 51 per cent.
‘The army has complete control over the CHT – they have it pretty much locked down,’ says Chapman.
‘The settler community is still massively protected by the army,’ says Sophie Grig a researcher at Survival International which has been campaigning for indigenous rights in the region since 1980. She adds that attacks on indigenous people by settlers are ‘empowered by the army who often stand back and watch.’
Women are at the sharp end of this oppression. According to a report from Amnesty International, in 2014 alone there were 117 reported cases of physical and sexual abuse against indigenous women and girls, 57 per cent of them children. Twenty-one were raped or gang-raped and seven were killed afterwards. The unreported cases are expected to be much higher.
‘There’s a long history of human rights violations against Jumma women,’ explains Grig. ‘Sadly, in an international context that’s quite common.’
‘The reality is that there are so many sexual assaults and rapes on Jumma girls from all different communities – some are really young. There are no decent prosecutions.’
Campaigners say that the impunity for rapists of indigenous women in the region amounts to a state cover up.
‘My understanding is that people are terrified,’ says Chapman. ‘They know the government wants to control these cases and they don’t necessarily want convictions.’
It is apparently common practice for the police not to report rape and for medical staff to deny that survivors have experienced rape after examinations.
Grig says that serious questions need to be asked about the role of the security forces. Bangladesh contributed the second highest number of personnel to the United Nations Peacekeeping forces.
‘The soldiers who are behaving like this, they’re also being dispatched around the world where vulnerable women and girls are at risk,’ she says.
‘There’s human rights violations but at the same time whoever is trying to raise their voice about them, the state agencies are trying to intimidate them,’ says Rani Yan Yan. ‘They are threatening us not to go public.’
She says that the space for freedom of speech, movement and media has shrunk over the last four to five years. ‘The media needs to be free, otherwise these violations will keep on happening,’ she says.
One of the most well-known disappearances of an indigenous rights activist is that of Kalpana Chakma in June 1996. The 23-year-old was abducted from her home, allegedly by members of the security forces. A hearing on the case was recently postponed for a seventh time.
‘The case is massively emblematic for indigenous peoples in the CHT,’ explains Chapman. ‘They see that as a huge injustice and it shows how there was complete inaction.’
Kalpana has never been found.
Another indigenous human rights defender from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Mithun Chakma, was shot dead in January 2018.
‘Sometimes I feel really frustrated,’ explains Rani Yan Yan. ‘But we have to keep on fighting, if we give up hope then they will get more opportunities so if I can at least stop five women being raped because I raised my voice I think I should go on doing that. But if we keep silent then it’s going to happen more.
‘What we want is our rights and the dignity to live as a citizen of Bangladesh. That’s it.’
A petition in support of Rani Yan Yan, the Marma sisters and others attacked can be found here.