The Chittagong Hill Tracts is an extensively hilly area in Bangladesh, comprising a total area of 5,093 square miles and a population of 1.6 million (as per census 2011).
The CHT area encompasses forests, rivers, lake, natural waterfalls, and other natural resources including enriched jungles.
This panoramic landscape attracts many tourists to the region and the government of Bangladesh has recently taken up the initiative to set up several tourist spots throughout, mainly through the Bangladesh military forces and the private sector.
However, these initiatives are completely ignoring the special administrative system of the CHT and have no regard for the traditional lifestyles of the local, tribal people. Nor do they take into account any environmental impact, which not only affects indigenous people but all Bangladeshis.
The on-going famine that has affected more than 50 villages in the remote Sajek valley in Rangamati’s Baghaichari Upazila has left many families starving in the CHT region. The area is inhabited by the ethnic Jumma hill-people, who, for the past three months, have been passing through a severe time of hardship.
In the meantime, a luxurious Tourist Centre has been built at Rui Lui valley of Sajek hill, one of the most attractive tourist spots in the country. What dismal irony: The juxtaposition of a luxurious tourist centre, entertaining scores of wealthy tourists from around the country, and the starving Jumma people.
It is difficult to imagine that there are people in this country, in the 21st century, who are still starving to death, but that’s exactly what is happening in the CHT today.
I would urge our government not to only look at this from a political perspective but to think of this as a humanitarian crisis
Our government talks about development and has declared Bangladesh a middle-income country, while the Jumma people in CHT are living in acute starvation. Oh, I almost forgot that indigenous people are not human beings, they are just “the hill peoples.” In fact, the state constitution labels them as ethnic minorities.
Still, it’s shameful how much Jumma people have been ignored.
With locals foraging for food, even resorting to eating leaves from trees, the government has allocated only around 10 tons of food grains for 20-25 villages in remote areas where inhabitants have been starving for the last three months.
Meanwhile, the crisis is barely being covered in mainstream news and most people in the country aren’t even aware of the situation.
Why aren’t more people outraged by their fellow citizens starving to death?
I would urge our government not to only look at this from a political perspective but to think of this as a humanitarian crisis.
We, as Bangladeshis, can claim to be neither developed nor civilised if we allow some of our countrymen to starve. We must bring the Jumma people on board if we want to progress as a nation.
On the other hand, the government is spending a lot of money on militarisation in CHT in the name of security. But the army is not working in the interest of the indigenous people but only for the Bengali settlers. They don’t care what happens to the innocent and helpless indigenous people. They really don’t want these indigenous people to live in CHT, rather they just want to grab their land in the name of tourism.
Consider the recent incident of Romel Chakma who was reportedly picked up from Naniarchar Bazar while he was returning home. The soldiers who picked him up were allegedly led by Rangamati’s 305 infantry brigade.
He was reportedly taken to Naniarchar zone headquarters where he was tortured by a lieutenant colonel and the major who picked him up. Later when his condition deteriorated, the military tried to hand him over to the Naniarchar police station, which allegedly refused to take him after observing the severity of his injuries.
Finally he was referred to Chittagong Medical College Hospital from Naniarchar Health Complex where he eventually died. We have more cases like this.
Some have argued that the government undertook this new initiative to use the tourism industry as an excuse for the ethnic cleansing of the Jumma people and grabbing their lands in the name of development.
The rampant “development” is happening in direct violation of the land rights of Jumma people.
Even after the signing of the CHT Accord, various projects, like the construction of the Science & Technology University and Medical College, are wrongfully evicting the local Jumma people from their homes. These projects completely ignore local administrative authority established as per the CHT Accord.
Must development really come at the expense of local inhabitants’ well-being?
It is a fact that at present, obtaining pre and prior consent of the local and indigenous community people is treated as one of the democratic principles in the development sector, when undertaking and implementing any plans in their territory.
Despite having signed the CHT Accord, the government is still ignoring the CHT Accord and the institutions established by it.
Government authorities have instead been taking decisions in the CHT unilaterally, without consulting the locals.
John Tripura is an Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights Defender.