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“Indigenous peoples: prioritizing responsibilities”
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“Indigenous peoples: prioritizing responsibilities”

Mehzabin Ahmed profile picAfter reports that Bengali settlers burned down indigenous Jumma houses in Khagrachari, Bangladesh, Mehzabin Ahmed, 29, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Dhaka, Bangladesh, argues it is time to start prioritizing responsibility over rights.

While many Bangladeshis like me want to peacefully coexist with the indigenous peoples of our land, the grim picture shows a different tale when it comes to local dynamics and politics.

Over the years, demands have been raised and reiterated for full implementation of existing laws to protect indigenous peoples’ rights in Bangladesh.

In 1997, the Chittagong Hills Tract Peace Accord was signed after years of peace talks, recognizing CHT as a “tribal inhabited” region with a traditional governance system. It recognized the role of its chiefs and provided building blocks for indigenous autonomy.

A Regional District Council, with indigenous regional chiefs as members, is expected to play a role in providing land titles and land transfers. It has veto power over transfers, recognizes customary land rights, and its land disputes resolution commission is expected to have indigenous peoples as the majority of its members. 

However, while the government claims that “most of the clauses of the CHT Peace Accord have been implemented”, some essential clauses remain unmet according to the International CHT Commission. These include dismantling of all temporary military camps, functioning of the Land Commission in accordance with the advice of the CHT Regional Council, and the handing over of crucial subjects to the regional administration.

Women’s rights groups continue to demand a judicial inquiry into the alarming violence against indigenous women, including killing, rape and abduction across the country, and immediate action against such incidents.

Human rights activists have also been advocating for enactment of the Bangladesh Indigenous Rights Act. The draft proposes a national commission on indigenous affairs to uphold their rights, to conserve their traditions and culture, and for the overall development of indigenous people.

Activists call for Constitutional and legal recognition of indigenous peoples, including all 48 ethnic groups and tribal communities. They demand formation of Land Commission for indigenous peoples of the plain lands and establishment of a separate Adivasi (indigenous) Ministry to protect the ethno-diversities and rights of the indigenous peoples.

“Shifting demographics and the expansion of the Bengali cultural majority into areas traditionally inhabited by Adivasis, including in some areas formally categorized as ‘forests’, has perpetuated the practice of forcible and violent dispossession of Adivasis land – land which understandably holds particular social and cultural significance to most Adivasis… Adivasis across the country allege that they have been dispossessed of their lands through the state’s non-recognition of their customary rights over land,” says a report by the Regional Indigenous Peoples Programme.

Close by, the Philippines deals primarily with two types of land claims for the indigenous peoples: ancestral domain titles, which provides certificates to communities; and provision of certificates of ancestral land titles, usually to families and clans. 

Adivasi communities are uniquely vulnerable to land grabbing, according to Sanjeeb Drong, writing in Adivasi Land Rights.

“The expulsion of 56 Santal and Oraon families from Porsha, Naogaon in June 2009 and the mass land theft in Baghaihat and Rangipara in the CHT in the last two years are but three of the more prominent examples. The pattern is reportedly similar; houses burned to the ground, violence and bloodshed, and the apparent impunity of the perpetrators, according to the victims. Indeed, the scale of the problem is impossible to overestimate and it is driving the smaller Adivasi communities to the point of extinction; there are fewer than 3,000 Patro remaining in Bangladesh while the Lusai number only a few hundred,” Drong writes.

In 2008, the Bangladesh government made a commitment to consider ratifying ILO Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, as part of the National Strategy for Accelerated Poverty Reduction (PRSP II). However, although several states have ratified this ILO Convention, including our neighboring Nepal, its ratification remains yet to be seen in Bangladesh. 

August 9 is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and this year’s theme is  “Indigenous peoples building alliances: Honoring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements”. It highlights the importance of honoring arrangements between states, their citizens and indigenous peoples.

Let us all work together through principles of friendship, cooperation and peace, to co-exist together, as citizens of a land, in a spirit of humanity. Let us open up dialogue, for mutual cooperation and problem solving.

It is also about time we started prioritizing “responsibility over rights”. Your right is my responsibility, my right is yours…

 “I think it is natural to expect the caged bird to be angry at those who imprisoned her. But if she understands that she has been imprisoned and that the cage is not her rightful place, then she has every right to claim the freedom of the skies!” – Kalpana Chakma

“The Adivasi (indigenous) are citizens of Bangladesh. What they want is what all Bangladeshi citizens want — to subsist in their ancestral lands without harassment, to reap the fruits of their labor without fear, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, and to worship according to their own beliefs. In short, they seek peaceful co-existence alongside people from other beliefs and culture” – Sanjeeb Drong, General Secretary of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’ Forum.

photo credit: jankie via photopin cc

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About me:

“I come from Bangladesh, home to the Royal Bengal tigers and the longest natural beach in the world. I am passionate about working for sustainable solutions to development. I currently work as a development practitioner in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I am also a freelance journalist and a novice debater.

“I am bilingual in Bangla and English. I love learning new languages, and am a keen but elementary student of French. What I have learnt from wise words and life experiences is that, “If you want others to change, you have to be willing to change yourself as well”. Feel free to call me Simi.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?

To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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