Mro people protest against a planned five-star hotel and leisure park in the Chimbuk Hill area of Bandarban district in southeastern Bangladesh on Nov. 9. (Photo: Alik Mree)
A senior Catholic official has joined opposition to a plan for construction of a five-star hotel and leisure park that could displace hundreds of indigenous Mro villagers in southeastern Bangladesh.
Protests have been taking place for days against the project in the Chimbuk Hill area of Bandarban district where Mro people have been living in six villages for decades.
Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, deplored the planned hotel.
“Development cannot take place by harming and evicting local people. We continue to criticize other countries for environmental degradation, but we too are destroying forests for development. The government should move away from this project,” Father Gomes told UCA News.
The project for Marriott Hotels and Resorts is a joint venture by R&R Holdings, a subsidiary of Sikder Group, a politically connected business group.
Local media reported that the project seeks to acquire about 405 hectares of land and would level down hills, clear forests and disrupt natural water sources, jeopardizing the lives of Mro villagers.
Bandarban is part of three hilly, forested districts collectively called Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), Bangladesh’s only mountainous region and one of the most popular tourist spots in the country.
Some 62 eminent citizens including university professors, rights activists, environmentalists, lawyers, and development workers signed and issued a joint statement on Nov. 16 to protest the planned hotel on indigenous land.
The statement said that allowing entitlement to a private business entity without considering the views of Mro people is a violation of the Bangladesh constitution, Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation, Sub-District Council Act and the Land Dispute Settlement Commission Act.
The group demanded the immediate halting of all commercial projects and removal of all land grabbers in the CHT region.
Sanjeeb Drong, one of the signatories, said the Mro people have strongly opposed the hotel, so it cannot move forward.
“With backing from the Bangladesh government, a land grabber seeks to forcibly occupy about 1,000 acres of land of Mro indigenous people. We are with the Mro people and we don't want this hotel on this land,” Drong, an ethnic Garo Catholic and secretary of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, told UCA News.
“The Mro people revere the forest as their mother. Taking away the forest means taking away their mother. We can't let it happen."
The Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, an international lobby group for rights and peace building on the hills, has also expressed serious concerns about the project and called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to halt the plan.
Mro people in Bandarban and ethnic groups in other parts of the country have been holding protest rallies to denounce the plan.
The CHT has been home to dozens of ethnic groups for centuries. However, state-sponsored migration of Bengali Muslim settlers since the 1980s has created a demographic change and sparked sectarian tensions and violence.
The communal tensions, mostly triggered by land disputes, led to the formation of an ethnic militia group, Shanti Bahini, which waged a bush war against Muslim settlers and government forces for more than two decades until the signing of the 1997 CHT Peace Accord.
However, due mostly to unresolved land disputes and rivalry between armed political parties, ethnic and political conflicts are still rife in the CHT.