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International commission calls for inquest into Bangladesh ethnic violence

Oliver Scanlan
26 February 2011

On Tuesday the International Commission for the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) sent a letter to the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, calling for the formation of an impartial commission of inquiry into recent violence perpetrated against the indigenous people of the region by Bengali settlers. The letter was sent in response to an incident last week in which 300 armed settlers descended on the village of Rangipara in Rangamati district, assaulted villagers and burnt several houses to the ground. According to several reports, this attack was carried out in the presence of soldiers of the Bangladesh Border Guards who did nothing to stop it.

In the letter the co-chairs of the Commission, including leading human rights advocate Sultana Kamal and British peer Lord Eric Avebury, highlighted the fact that this most recent attack comes a year after ethnic turmoil in Baghaihat, Rangamati, which saw 500 homes raised to the ground, the majority of them belonging to the indigenous community. Noting that citizens of Baghaihat have been stopped from demonstrating on the anniversary of the assault, they said that any such inquiry should also extend to the February 2010 attacks on the CHT’s Indigenous Population.

The openSecurity verdict: The indigenous peoples of the CHT comprise eleven distinct ethnic groups, of which the largest include the Chakma, Tripura and Marma. Collectively they are often referred to as the ‘Jummas’. In 1947, the Jumma population of the CHT outnumbered the Bengali population by a ratio of 98:2. After a consistent, decades-long strategy of encouraging poor Bengalis to settle in the Hill Tracts by the Bangladesh government, that ration now stands at 47:53.

The settlement programme was part of a co-ordinated counterinsurgency effort against the CHT guerrilla movement, led by the Jumma political party the PCJSS, that emerged in response to the culturally homogenising nation-building project embarked on by the Bangladesh government after achieving independence from Pakistan in 1971. The guerrilla war ended in 1997 with the signing of the CHT Peace Accord, which provided strong protections for the Jumma communities in terms of culture, self-government and land rights. As of 2010, the Accord has yet to be implemented.

Since 1997, acts of violence against the Jumma community, including murder and rape, have continued unabated to varying degrees of intensity with little or no action by the government. The result has been what Chakma Circle Chief and Asian Representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples Affairs, Raja Devasish Roy, describes as a ‘culture of impunity’. This violence has been accompanied by every increasing encroachment by Bengalis on the ancestral lands of the Jummas.

In terms of human rights, the result has been an unequivocal disaster. Certain communities in the CHT are on the verge of extinction in Bangladesh. An example is the Lushai community, currently comprising fewer than 1,000 individuals. In response to state violence, many Lushai have fled to the neighbouring Indian hill state of Mizoram, where they are a majority. The continued repression of the indigenous communities, if it does succeed in driving them into India, may provide fuel for the ever combustible Indian north-east region, which has been mired in insurgency, and struggles over the drug trade from Myanmar, for decades. This hazardous state of affairs, including the cultural devastation wreaked by such an outcome in Bangladesh itself, is surely avoidable, but it requires that the government of Bangladesh has the political will to oppose the complex web of military intransigence and the venality of vested interests in putting a stop to such a culture of impunity.

Libya on the brink of civil war as international response gathers momentum

In a telephone interview with Libyan state media conducted on Thursday, ailing Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi blamed Al Qaeda for the sweeping protests that have gripped the country for days. In a sign of mounting desperation, he said that every Libyan family would receive 500 dinars and that public sector salaries would be raised.

His announcement came on the day that pro-government forces launched a brutal counter attack against anti-government strongholds east of Libya. Military commanders who abandoned the regime have said that although some of their colleagues in the largely pro-government west of the county were beginning to turn against him, the elite Khamis brigade, led by Gaddafi’s son, was likely to remain loyal, fuelling speculation that the situation, which has already led to an estimated 2,000 deaths, may spiral into a protracted civil war. There is even speculation from former Libyan minister Mustafa Abdel Galil that Gaddafi may use chemical and biological weapons against the rebels.

On Friday, as protesters prayed for Gaddafi’s departure at Friday prayers, the Whitehouse reported that President Obama would be calling British Prime Minister Cameron and French President Sarkozy to discuss a co-ordinated international response, including the imposition of sanctions and a no-fly zone. Also on Friday, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for a probe into possible war crimes committed by the regime. Her comments, made at a meeting of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council, mark the first time in history that the council has discussed possible violations caused by one of its own members.

Israel uneasy as Iranian warships dock at Syrian port

On Thursday, witnesses reported that Iranian warships had docked at the Syrian port of Latakia. The ships were permitted by the transitional regime in Cairo to transit the Suez canal earlier in the week, to the considerable consternation of the Israeli government. They are the first Iranian vessels that have been allowed to transit the canal since the 1979 Iranian revolution that ousted the Pahlavi Shah and replaced with the current Islamic regime. Israel has accused the Iranian government of making a ‘provocation’ with several analysts highlighting the long-standing Iranian policy resupplying the Lebanese Hizbollah movement’s military wing via Syria. Iranian naval chief Admiral Habibollah Sayyari denied the accusation, saying that the vessels were on a ‘mission of peace’.

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