<%-- Page Title--%> Perspective <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 125 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

October 3, 2003

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The Mahalchari Tragedy

Munasir Kamal

Since communication in parts of Chittagong Hill Tracts is inadequate, the rest of the country seldom gets to know about the brutality that takes place in those parts. Mohalchari being one of the backward regions of CHT, we did not know about how the indigenous people were being tortured on 26th August 2003 until about a week later. The authorities obviously had no intention of exposing their failure to control the situation. In fact, the news of the terrible incident reached the people of the plains only when a group of journalists of various well-known dailies including The Daily Star, Prothom Alo, Janakantha, Bhorer Kagoj, Ajker Kagaj etc and human rights organisations like Ain O Shalish Kendra, BLAST and RDC revealed this under the disapproval of concerned authorities. They reported that hundreds of houses had been burnt to the ground with photo and video evidence of their stories.

The assault on hundreds of people belonging to ethnic communities took place centreing the kidnapping of Rupan Mohajan, a Bangali businessman, on 24th August allegedly by members of UPDF (United People's Democratic Front), a political organisation of the indigenous people. It is important to note that UPDF opposes the Peace Accord and does not represent all indigenous peoples of CHT. A group of Bangali settlers demanded the release of Rupan Mohajan. They had a meeting at Mohalchari bazaar on 25th August where they made many racist remarks against indigenous peoples and threatened to burn down their villages. They added that they were not afraid to do so because the administration, the police and the army were on their side. On 26th August, Bangali settlers looted and set fire to nearly 400 houses of 14 villages. They also demolished 4 Buddhist temples.




Villagers in Lemuchhari stand around the remains of burnt-out houses after Bangali settlers set fire to them. Photo: Starfile Photo

What did the indigenous inhabitants of those villages do to deserve such punishment? Their only fault was that they belonged to the same ethnic community as the persons with whom the Bangali settlers had dispute. These innocent peoples were neither involved with UPDF nor with the kidnapping. They were harmless hardworking villagers who had never quarreled with those who attacked them. If the intention of the Bangali settlers was to punish the kidnappers, at best they could have attacked only the guilty persons, not a mass of local residents. They could also have taken the case to court, which would have been no trouble for them with the administration on their side. But nothing can justify such an assault on the common people of the area.

When the local Parliament Member was asked about the incident, he claimed that the indigenous inhabitants burnt down their own houses and pointed the finger to Bangalis to give Bangalis a bad name. But this does not explain the killing of two villagers including an eight-month old baby, injury to more than fifty people, and gang rape of ten women. Surely the indigenous peoples would not kill their women and children simply to condemn the Bangalis! They definitely would not break the sacred sculptures of Buddha to show the world that Bangalis harass them! Certainly they do not choose to burn down their comfortable abodes and starve and suffer from diarrhoea and malaria in the forest! According to one estimate, property worth TK 3 crore was damaged during this brutal atrocity. The future of the children of those villages has become uncertain as their school buildings and all their books were burnt down. If the Bangali MP can claim that the indigenous community would like their children to have a dark future in exchange of giving Bangalis a bad name, we have equal right to claim that the administration is not making any sense.

When the role of the army was questioned, their spokesperson asserted that the military stopped the attackers and limited the damage. But the question remains as to how such vast destruction could have occurred in the first place with an army camp in the setting. Interestingly the army personnel were prompt to prevent journalists taking pictures of the disaster areas, but could not come forward when the tragedy was actually taking place.

Contrary to what many think, the struggle of the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh is not against Bangalis in general. Their struggle is against the unfair policies of the consecutive governments that have threatened their very existence. The indigenous peoples are not asked for their opinion on various so-called development schemes concerning them. They were not taken into consideration in early 1960s when the Kaptai Dam was constructed displacing 100,000 Chakmas. The government did not sympathise with them in the 1980s while settling 400,000 Bangalis of the plain-lands on indigenous peoples land?. The Khasis and Garos of Moulvi Bazar were denounced as illegal settlers when an eco-park was planned there in 2000. And now in 2003, twenty thousand Garo and Koch in Modhupur are on the verge of eviction as the government runs a social forestry programme. We naturally wonder why it is called a social forestry programme since it eliminates indigenous societies.

The attack on indigenous peoples of Mohalchari in August this year was not an isolated event. It was just the latest of a series of atrocities meted out on ethnic people in our country. We hope that this latest sad incident was the last of its kind. In CHT, control over land is at the heart of the all disputes. Steps should therefore be taken to make the Land Commission functional as put forward in the CHT Accord 1997.



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