The state must ensure that the indigenous Rakhines, whose population is down to a few thousand now, do no get wiped out from the country, a citizens' group said yesterday, after a recent visit to two southern districts where the minority community lives.
Subjected to land grabbing and faced with discriminations at different administrative levels, many Rakhines have left the country, the group's leaders told a press conference at Dhaka Reporters Unity.
The group comprising academics, writers and activists visited the Rakhine neighbourhoods in Taltoli in Barguna and Kalapara, Khepupara, Kobirajpara and Kalachanpara in Patuakhali and an old Buddhist temple in Kuakata on September 12-14.
One visitor, Robaet Ferdous, an associate professor at Dhaka University, said the Rakhines began settling in the country's south towards the beginning of the 17th century. "Even a few decades ago, lakhs of Rakhines lived there. Today the number has came down to about 2,500," he said.
The report on the visit states that in 1948 there were 144 Rakhaine neighbourhoods in Patuakhali and 99 in Barguna, which are now 26 and 13 respectively.
Robaet said local land grabbers in complicity with land officers had grabbed the Rakhines' arable land, temple site as well as cremation grounds. "Every Rakhine family at least has three to four cases against them filed by the land grabbers," he added.
Dipayan Khisa, who moderated the programme, said there were allegations that the authorities concerned refused to issue voter identity cards to Rakhines terming them Rohingyas.
"How can they use such an excuse, when there is clear distinction between a Rakhine and a Rohingya. They are two completely different ethnic groups and the former following Buddhism and the latter Islam," said noted columnist Syed Abul Maksud.
Rakhine students at primary and secondary levels are forced to study Islam as religion under the pretext that the schools lack books on Buddhism and required teachers, said Khisa.
Describing land grabbing as the main cause of repression of all minorities, Sanjeeb Drong, general secretary of Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, stressed the importance of creating a separate land commission for plain land Adivasis.
The citizens' group placed 13 demands including return of grabbed land to Rakhines, taking legal action against grabbers and withdrawal of false cases against Rakhines, appointing at least three Rakhaine members to the Kuakata Pourashava management committee, while ensuring their representatives at all levels of the administration in Barguna and Patuakhali.
"In fact there must be an administrative officer from an indigenous community in all areas, where indigenous communities live," added Maksud.
The demands also include providing primary education to Rakhine children in their mother tongue, giving them the opportunity to study their religion, and including Rakhine villages in the Kuakata master plan.