Bangladesh: Civic rights team denied access to Bandarban for on-site inquiry to the alleged land grabbing and eviction of indigenous villagers

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    On 6 May 2017 a 14-member civic rights team comprising human rights defenders, journalists, social activists and advocates was barred from entering Bandarban district for conducting an on-site visit to investigate and collect information about alleged grabbing of lands of indigenous peoples and eviction of the indigenous villages by the outsider influential individuals and institutions in Lama upazila of Bandarban district with an aim to advance the process of resolution of land disputes through the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Land Dispute Resolution Commission in accordance with the CHT Accord.

    In protest against obstructing the citizen delegation, on 7 May 2017 at 3:00 pm a press conference was organised by the citizens delegation at Dhaka Reporters Unit in Dhaka. Pankaj Bhattacharya, President of Oikyo Nap presented the press statement while Numan Ahmed Khan, Member of the civic rights team moderated the program. Eminent Columnist and Researcher Syed Abul Maksud delivered concluding speech. Besides, Sanjeeb Drong, General Secretary of Bangladesh Indigenous People’s Forum, Advocate Prokash Biswas, Human Rights Activist Rowshan Masuda, Member of Workers’ Party of Bangladesh Bimal Biswas, Dr Gojnedranath Mahato also spoke among others.

    Pankaj Bhattacharya, team leader of the civic rights delegation said in his written statement, “We, the civic delegation composed of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists, intended to make an on-site visit on 6-7 May 2017 to investigate and collect information about alleged grabbing of lands of indigenous peoples and eviction of the indigenous villages by the outsider influential individuals and institutions in Lama upazila of Bandarban district with an aim to advance the process of resolution of land disputes through the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Land Dispute Resolution Commission in accordance with the CHT Accord. On 6 May 2017 at around 9 am, the civic delegation was barred by the security forces at Yangsha Bazar area under Lama while entering Lama upazila. The civic delegation was held there for about an hour. The civic delegation was prevented from entering the Lama Sadar with the pretention of a road blockade program called on by communal local Bengali settlers.”

    Mr. Bhattacharya informed that the road blockade programme was being enforced by few communal local Bengali settlers with the backing of an influential special force to foil the visit of the civic delegation. Civic delegation also came to know that some Mro villagers were also forcefully brought to implement the blockade program. They were forced by a group of people programmed by a special force to stand by the street with banners. In fact, the drama of the blockade program was staged by some communal and vested interest groups to hide the land grabbing and eviction of indigenous peoples by outsider influential individuals and institutions. It is learnt that local Jumma people including the victims of land grabbing Mro villagers were eagerly waiting in their respective villages to speak to the civic delegation.

    After being obstructed to enter Lama, the security forces again barred the civic delegation at around 12 pm at Reicha area under Bandarban sadar upazila showing the cause of security while they were on their way to meet Bandarban district administration in ​​Bandarban district headquarters. As members of the security forces informed the civic delegation about the prohibition with the direction of the higher authorities at Yangsha Bazar and Reicha areas, the civic delegation immediately contacted Bandarban district administration. The district administration informed the civic delegation that there was no prohibition of any kind upon the delegation to enter Lama Sadar and Bandarban Sadar. The concerned officials also expressed the helplessness of the district administration in this regard. As a result of not being able to investigate the situation and meet Bandarban district administration, the civic delegation was forced to return to Dhaka on the same day (6 May).

    He also added that one of the main programs of the civic delegation was to assist the process of resolution of land disputes by the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission in accordance with the CHT Accord through investigation and collection of information regarding alleged land dispute in three areas of Lama upazila. Among the alleged cases, about 1,600 acres of lands of Mro and Tripura indigenous villagers in Daluchari mouza of Saroi union under Lama upazila have been allegedly grabbed by Lama Rubber Industry where at least 100 Mro families are under threat of eviction. Secondly, to investigate the allegations of grabbing of 2,000 acres of lands in Daluchari mouza by a NGO named Quantum and forgetting mother tongues by indigenous Jumma students of residential school run by Quantum due to the lack of opportunity to speak their mother tongues. There was also a plan to verify the allegation of creating captivation for and infusing the cultural practices of a particular religion among the Jumma students at Quantum. Thirdly, to investigate and collect information about alleged grabbing of approximately 500 acres of recorded and traditionally used lands of Marma, Mro and Tripura villagers by Laden Group and eviction of indigenous Baching para in Trishdheba area under Fashiakhali union of Lama upazila. The plan included gathering information by exchanging of information with all complainants and accused individuals and all stakeholders comprising of Jumma people and Bengalis. There was no intention to speak to any specific group or party only. Besides, there was the program to exchange views with the Deputy Commissioner (DC) and Superintendent of Police (SP) Bandarban district, Bandarban Hill District Council and the chief of of Bohmang Circle on 7th May.

    Civic rights team pointed out that the Constitution of the country guarantees equality of all citizens irrespective of religion, race, caste, gender or birthplace to their freedom of life, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of occupation etc. Freedom of thought, conscience and speech have been recognized as a fundamental right of the citizens and the right to information has been recognized as an integral part of freedom of thought, conscience and speech in the Right to Information Act 2009. This act also ensures the right to information of the people in order to empower them. But the right to information enshrined in the Constitution and existing laws of the country has been overridden by a special force by creating bar on collection of information related to land disputes in Lama. It can be considered as a direct violation of constitutional rights of the citizens. The civic team is of the opinion that it has trampled the rule of law in the country, which is detrimental to the image of the country.

    The civic team believes that those who do not want resolution of land disputes in the CHT in light of the CHT Accord, those who wish to reap benefits by sustaining the land disputes and those who are involved with the ill-motive of widespread land grabbing, forced eviction of Jumma people, plunder and ethnic oppression-suppression by secluding the CHT from rest of the country using the state power, barred the civic delegation from entering Lama Sadar and Bandarban Sadar and investigate alleged land disputes. This can never be desired in a country which has become independent with the spirit of the great liberation war. The civic delegation strongly condemns and protests such undemocratic and fascist way of obstruction. Given this backdrop, a question arises: what kind collaboration does exist between the special forces, who are responsible for protecting the sovereignty of the country, and the land grabbers and illegal lease-holders? We all have to find an answer to this question. It is imperative to find this answer in order to build a democratic state for all.

    Pankaj Bhattacharya finally said that the CHT Accord was signed in 1997 in order to find a political and peaceful solution to the CHT problem, where there are provisions to resolve the land disputes in the CHT by setting up an independent land commission in light of laws, customs and practices of the CHT. This type of obstruction in a democratic program of the civic delegation during the ruling government, which signed the CHT Accord, can never be desired. Given this backdrop, the civic delegation put forward following demands to the government:

    (1)  Take legal actions against those who obstructed the civic delegation.

    (2)  Return the land of Jumma people of the CHT from the influential individuals and institutions and take legal actions against the land grabbers by cancelling illegal leases in light of the CHT Accord.

    (3)  Expedite the process of demilitarization in the CHT in accordance with the CHT Accord.

    (4)  Immediately resolute land disputes in the CHT by allocating adequate budget, recruiting sufficient manpower, setting up branch offices in Rangamati and Bandarban districts and finalizing the rules of business of the CHT Land Commission in accordance with the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act (Amended 2016).

    Participating in the press conference, Syed Abul Maksud said, the objective of the civic team was fair and impartial investigation of the on-site visit. It has trampled the right to receive information of a citizen and also a direct violation of constitutional rights of citizens and rule of law. He also thinks that this type of act is a detrimental for the country image.

    Sanjeeb Drong said, this proves that human rights violation incidents in CHT often go concealed. Everyday the land of the indigenous peoples in CHT and plain are being occupied by some influential persons. He strongly condemned and protested against the repellent act of special force.

    The Citizen delegation team was led by Pankaj Bhattacharya, eminent human rights defender and President of Okkyo Nap, while members of the team were Trustee of Liberation War Museum Ziuddin Tarik Ali, Human Rights Activist Numan Ahmed Khan, Rowshan Masuda, Advocate Prokash Biswas, Coorespondent of New Age Juwel Alamghir, Staff Reporter of Daily Samakal Abdullah Al Mamun, Special Reporter of Bhorer Kagoj Azizur Rahman, Reporter of Daily Prothom Alo Buddhojyoti Chakma, Reporter of The Daily Star Sanjay Barua, Human Rights Activist Tisel Chakma and President of Bangladesh Indigenous Students Action Council Suman Marma et al.

    Source: Kapaeeng Foundation