Romel Chakma, a 20-year-old visually impaired ethnic minority young man, is dead. He hailed from Rangamati, the same district in which I was born and grew up. He was from Naniarchar.
The local media, rights activists and, more importantly, his family and locals from his neighbourhood are alleging that he died after being brutally tortured by members of the armed forces on April 5, 2017. There had been no news about him in national daily newspapers until April 20 — a day after he lost his fight for life. The national media picked up the story after the details of his alleged extrajudicial killing went viral on social media.
I heard about Romel on April 19 after he had gone. The immediate thought that came to my mind was — why did we, the locals, not hear about the incident earlier? How did the news of an ethnic minority youth allegedly being taken into army custody on April 5, being brutally tortured and then later being admitted to Chittagong Medical College Hospital as his condition deteriorated not reach our ears? This sort of incident is important to locals and rights activists considering the socio-political atmosphere of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
I saw Romel’s father’s application to the National Human Rights Commission in Dhaka. Romel’s father Kanti Chakma submitted the application to the commission on April 6, the day after his son had been picked up from a market at 10:00am. Romel was due to take his Higher Secondary School Certificate examinations. In the application to the commission, Kanti Chakma expressed concern about his son and sought help from the commission. The commission apparently did nothing about it despite receiving the information officially just a day after Romel had been picked up. According to various news outlets, the commission set up a committee on April 23 to investigate Romel’s death. I wonder what steps were taken between April 6 and April 19 when Romel was still alive.
Romel was reportedly picked up from Naniarchar Bazar while he was returning home after buying vegetables at the market. The soldiers who picked him up were allegedly led by 305 infantry brigade of Rangamati region. 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 first tried to hand him over to the Naniarchar police, who allegedly refused to take Romel after observing the severity of his injuries. He was then referred to Chittagong Medical College Hospital from Naniarchar Health Complex, due to his deteriorating condition. He succumbed to his horrible injuries on April 19.
The CMCH director Brigadier General Jalal Uddin confirmed to the media that Romel was treated at the hospital for injuries and was later shifted to the kidney ward where he died. ‘He had kidney complications and his blood was infected,’ he said. The military, however, denied all of the accounts put forward by Romel’s family and even the statements made by the doctors and police officials. According to several news outlets, the army’s media wing ISPR refuted the claims and said they had ‘detained him but he was not tortured,’ adding that Romel was handed over to the police on April 6 and that the police admitted him to CMCH.
The Rangamati police responded strongly, saying that everything was going fine in Rangamati before this and that they had no role in Romel’s death. The police expressed its frustration with the unrest being caused by the incident. Sayed Tarikul Hassan, superintendent of police in Rangamati, reportedly said that catching alleged perpetrators is fine, but that the authorities who apprehend them must follow the laws in place to deal with alleged perpetrators. The superintendent of police stated that Romel was brought to the police after being tortured, adding ‘We didn’t receive him after seeing his condition. Later he was dead.’
Local political party United People’s Democratic Front said that Romel had been an active member of their student wing. The UPDF is a political party which believes in the autonomy of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the right or condition to some level of self-governance. The UPDF was formed in 1997, the year the CHT accord, widely known as the peace accord, was signed, ending the long armed struggle in the CHT. Was he arrested and killed because of his involvement with this party?
Both locals and the media reported that Romel’s body was not handed over to his family. Instead, after he died his body was taken away again by the military and rather than performing the rituals that the Chakma people follow before cremating a body, Romel’s body was allegedly ‘cremated’ by the army with wood and petrol.
This is not the first case where such a cremation has been reported to have been conducted by the army. On August 10, 2014, Duran Babu Chakma (also known as Timir Boron Chakma) was reportedly taken into custody by the army and declared dead after being tortured. He too was hurriedly cremated by the military without the presence of his family.
My question is: why is the army conducting a cremation? On what grounds? Additionally, does the army have the power to arrest? And, if they do have that power, when are they and are they not permitted to use it? What are their roles and responsibilities?
According to the Bangladesh Army website, the role of the army is as follows: ‘To defend sovereignty and territorial integrity, plan and develop the mobilisation of civil resources in support of land operations, aid the civil administrations in maintenance of internal security and law and order situation — when assigned, assist the civil administration in managing the disasters and natural calamities — when requested, take part in nation development activities as and — when asked for, support United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, take part in coalition operations with other nations if authorised by the parliament.’
The same website talks about the army’s ‘Achievements and Contributions’ and the ongoing role of the force in the CHT, where the alleged killing of Romel took place. The website says, ‘At present army is performing the role of post-CIO (counter-insurgency operations) in order to support government machinery to perform its normal activities.’
It is very clear from its own web site that the army’s role in the CHT now is as a ‘support system,’ and nothing else. They are, however, acting otherwise. Its role in the CHT is to help other government institutions to maintain the rule of law and ensure that ‘normal (or peaceful) activities’ continue.
However, Romel’s death, and the subsequent refusal and denial from the army, as well as their attempts to pass blame to the police, indicates that someone is abusing their powers. Someone is going beyond the role they were given by the state, by the government and by the laws. As a local from Rangamati and as a person who belongs to the indigenous community, I want to know exactly what goes on regarding maintaining the rule of law in the CHT, who can arrest, torture and kill us, and who has the right to cremate us after we have been tortured and killed.
The army is enjoying impunity in the CHT for too long. It has been more than 20 years that the Kalpana Chakma case has been going on, without an arrest and despite eye witness accounts. Kalpana was allegedly abducted by army personnel in the CHT in 1996.
It seems that, not only in the CHT, but also in other parts of Bangladesh the armed forces are expanding the territories in which they enjoy impunity. After Sohagi Jahan Tonu’s body had been found inside the Mainamati Cantonment, Comilla, her mother said several times that they were ‘facing repeated threats’ by a ‘specialised law enforcing agency.’
According the Bangladesh Armed Forces website, the Bangladesh Army is actively involved in a United Nations Peace Support Operation under blue helmets since 1988. They have completed 50 missions in 40 countries and 7,085 peacekeepers from the force are currently deployed on 10 Missions in 10 countries. These personnel are said to be committed to establishing world peace along with earning large amounts of foreign remittance which is contributing towards maintaining and increasing the growth rate of our country’s economy. To date, ‘124 Bangladeshi peacekeepers have embraced martyrdom.’ We are proud of the peacekeeping role that our armed forces are playing in the world, but at the same time we feel ashamed and confused when we see the opposite kind of behaviour from the army personnel with their own countrymen, the Bangladeshi civilians.
Since Romel’s brutal death, every indigenous person that I know is mourning. Not only are they hurt, but they are also incredibly frustrated to see how the state and its institutions are responding to the death of a member of our community. April was supposed to be the happiest month of the year for the indigenous peoples of the CHT. In April we hold our largest celebration of the year, saying goodbye to the year’s sorrow, pain and frustration, and vowing for a happier and more fruitful life whilst welcoming the new year. We celebrate this occasion in line with our beautiful and distinct social and ritual cultures, traditions, games and cuisines. This has also become a celebration for many Bengali people who belongs to the majority people in the country. Many Bengalis each year go to three hill districts of the CHT to observe the occasion.
Every year we welcome many Bengali people into our homes and culture during our celebrations, hoping we will make new friends. The celebration can be a pathway for the Bengalis to learn about and to respect our culture and history, more importantly for them to feel our pain and stand together with us when we need them, when we suffer, when our rights are being violated by the statutory institutions. We are minorities and the state is yet to learn to care about our needs and act as a real democratic country. We sincerely hope the armed forces will stop abusing their power under the guise of ‘protecting sovereignty’ in the name of patriotism.
Many of you reading this go to the hill districts to be a part of our happiness, our culture. We are happy and strong people. As well as sharing in our happiness during our celebrations, also consider sharing our pain and sorrow in moments like these. We feel the same pain for Romel that we feel for Tonu. Let us stand together for both Tonu and Romel.
Muktasree Chakma Sathi is an award-winning journalist and human rights activist.