There are cases of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary house searches, attack on religious places of worship, abduction, and threats against indigenous leaders, activists, and prisoners
The International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC) has expressed alarm due to reports of allegations of human rights violations, especially against the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Over the past few months, as the pandemic spread into the three hill districts, widespread human rights violations have been reported by the security forces and the police, as well as vigilante groups, said a press statement issued by the commission.
These reports include cases of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary house searches, attack on religious places of worship, abduction, and threats against indigenous leaders, activists, and prisoners.
While the pandemic has affected the indigenous people in various ways in terms of food shortage and access to medical services, the harassment and intimidation by the security forces and the activities of these vigilante groups have contributed to worsening the situation.
Reports of human rights violations
CHTC expressed deep concern about allegations of the formation and operation of vigilante groups to intimidate, threaten and attack Jumma activists in the CHT, as reported by the two leading political parties—the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS) and the United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF).
Both political groups have reported such activities from 2017 and have alleged that these actors, with support from security forces, carry out extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, harassment, and intimidation.
According to these reports, vigilante groups have abducted at least 29 people from January to May of 2020.
The two political parties have also reported a number of incidents of intimidation and harassment by the military.
As per these reports, from January to May 2020, at least 21 UPDF and JSS activists were arrested without a warrant.
Those arrested include businesspersons, public representatives, and students, while 24 individuals have been tortured or harassed by security forces. This also includes at least five men and women, who were physically persecuted by police and the military, while returning home in the initial stages of the pandemic, in front of a military check post.
At least five women have reportedly been victims of sexual assaults.
Moreover, at least two separate incidents of attacks on indigenous villagers have reportedly been carried out—one in Guimara, Khagrachhari, and the other in Langadu, Rangamti.
During April and May, arson attacks allegedly occurred on at least three Buddhist temples, while complaints to the local authorities did not produce any results.
There are also allegations of re-arrest of at least 19 Jumma persons after they had been released from jail on bail.
The death of UPDF leader Pulak Chakma at the Khagrachhari district jail on June 3 does not appear to have been investigated till date.
The PCJSS has also reported on allegations of widespread land-grabbing by corporate entities from local people in the CHT during the pandemic.
In one reported incident, a company called Meridian, allegedly, illegally occupied 3000 acres of land in Lama, Bandarban, and forcefully evicted Mro families from the area, with support from local government officials.
In another incident, reported by the UPDF, a group of 20 military officers in Matiranga, Khagrachhari allegedly demolished jhum ghors belonging to jhum cultivators, claiming the area to be an abandoned campsite.
A recent independent report by a group of Dhaka-based academics and activists also identified human rights violations affecting readymade garment workers from the indigenous community during the pandemic (https://independentresearcherbd.wordpress.com/2020/06/13/).
The confusion, created by the owners and the BGMEA, about whether workers would have to return to work or not, along with minimal guidelines about their health and safety during a pandemic, demonstrated a deep disregard for the rights of these workers who help to bring so much foreign currency for the owners and the country at a pay level that leaves them little if any money to cover the cost of health expenses if they were to be affected by the coronavirus.
This situation once again exposed the vulnerability of garment workers.
The alleged physical assault on these garment workers by the police as they returned to the CHT from their workplaces also demonstrated how indigenous women garment workers faced a heightened risk to their lives.
The commission’s recommendations
Under these circumstances, CHTC urged the government to take immediate steps to ensure justice in the CHT, to investigate allegations of human rights violations, and to bring to account those who are responsible.
The commission recommends the government to take the following immediate measures: