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Church fights to reclaim land 'grabbed' by Bangladesh monk 

Officials seek help from government after long legal battle over land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

Church fights to reclaim land 'grabbed' by Bangladesh monk 

An indigenous Tripura Catholic woman and her grandson in their village in Bandarban district of southeast Bangladesh. Chittagong Archdiocese is in a legal battle to claim 5.57 acres of land allegedly grabbed by a Buddhist monk. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)

Church officials in Bangladesh are stepping up legal action to reclaim land allegedly grabbed by an influential Buddhist monk in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) four years ago.

In 2014, Prakash Ucha Hla, a Bhante (Buddhist priest), forcefully annexed 5.57 acres of land of St. Paul's Church in Roangchaari, a mission center under Queen of Fatima Catholic Church in Bandarban district, church officials in Chittagong Archdiocese say.

Officials say the land was bought by the church in 1971-72.

Three hilly and forested districts collectively called the CHT — Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari — have about 20,400 indigenous Catholics among the 30,000-plus Catholics in the archdiocese. 

The archdiocese sent a letter to the government's CHT Affairs Ministry to seek help in reclaiming the land on May 25.

The dispute dates back to May 4, 2014, when hundreds of followers of Bhante Ucha Hla allegedly stormed the land and destroyed paddy fields, according to Father Jerome D'Rozario, secretary of the Land Commission in Chittagong Archdiocese.

He said the attackers beat up and chased away Catholic farmers and erected houses made of corrugated iron. 

Romesh Tripura, a Catholic and chairman of the local Union Council, filed a case to recover the land at Bandarban magistrates' court in 2014. 

"At the end of the year, we won the case to get back the property as we possessed all valid land documents. However, Bhante filed a review petition, which the church authority was unaware of, so he again won the property. Then we filed a petition with the High Court, which is still going on," Tripura told ucanews.com.

Bhante Ucha Hla has a record of grabbing property of the poor and powerless, said Dilip Barua, a Buddhist politician.

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The monk has taken a total of 100 acres of land from Buddhists, a Buddhist welfare group and the church, according to Dilip Barua, secretary of Barua Welfare Society, a rights group for indigenous Barua Buddhists.

"Bhante was a judge in the past and has exploited his power and money to grab the land of many people by force. We want to get rid of his oppression," Barua told ucanews.com.

Shahidul Islam, officer in charge of Roangchaari police, told ucanews.com: "We are aware of the forced grabbing of the land, which is under court trial. The court will decide on this, so we have no comments."

Bhante Ucha Hla was unavailable for comment.

With over 160 million people crammed into just 147,570 square kilometers, Bangladesh is desperately short of land.

About three million civil and criminal cases are pending in Bangladesh's legal system and 75 percent are related to land disputes, according to the Dhaka-based Association for Land Reform and Development.

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