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Starvation stalks Bangladesh tribal people after attack on plantations

A rubber company is accused of burning plantations of ethnic communities in Chittagong Hill Tracts

Starvation stalks Bangladesh tribal people after attack on plantations

Ethnic students distribute aid to families whose plantations were destroyed in an arson attack in the Lama area of Bandarban district in Bangladesh. (Photo supplied)

Published: May 11, 2022 06:13 AM GMT

Updated: May 11, 2022 07:14 AM GMT

Hundreds of indigenous people in a hilly district of Bangladesh are in dire need of food and water after thugs allegedly sent by a rubber company burned down their traditional fruit plantations.

An ethnic community leader said 40 families are affected in three villages — Langkam Mro Para, Joychandra Tripura Para and Renyan Mro Para — in the Lama area in Bandarban district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in southeast Bangladesh. The villages are home to ethnic Mro and Tripura communities.

Langkam Mro, village head of Langkam Mro Para, said their jums (plantations) of over 100 acres were destroyed after thugs from Lama Rubber Industries, a private company, set them on fire on April 26. The villagers cultivated mango, banana, pineapple and other fruits on the plantations.

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A hilly stream that was the only source water for villagers was polluted by the fire, he said.

“The rubber garden authorities have been torturing us in various ways for a long time to cultivate rubber in our three villages. Some of our people have left the village as they could not bear this torture,” Mro told UCA News.

Mro said villagers used to survive by selling their fruits in the market and buying daily essentials. “Everything has been burned and people have nothing to sell. People in the three villages are starving.”

“I will die of starvation but I will not take food from the hands of those who set fire to our gardens. We want our land rights, we want to live in safety and we want peace"

On May 9, students from ethnic organizations distributed food to villagers. “The aid has run out. This is no lasting solution for our crisis,” Mro said.

The community leader called for justice over the attack and a guarantee of peaceful living for villagers.

Meanwhile, as an act of protest, victims of the arson attack refused to receive aid from the local administration on May 8 as government officials were accompanied by representatives of the accused rubber company.

“I will die of starvation but I will not take food from the hands of those who set fire to our gardens. We want our land rights, we want to live in safety and we want peace,” said Pong Mro, a farmer from Renyan Mro Para.

Villagers have long accused the rubber company of repeated attempts to evict them for their ancestral land for expansion of rubber businesses in the area with latent support from local government officials.

UCA News called several company officials for comments but none responded.

Mostafa Jabed Kaiser, the chief government officer in Lama, said: “We reached out to people with aid after the fire, but they refused. We will visit them again with food aid soon.”

“We denounce such injustices and call on the government to be generous to people and ensure their safety and peaceful living"

He denied any involvement of the local administration with the rubber company and claimed he has made moves to ensure justice over the attack.

“We have drawn the attention of the higher authorities of the government to the issue and they will look into the matter,” he added.

A Catholic priest from Bandarban said the Church strongly condemned the unjust attack on tribal people and expressed concerns that such attacks instill fear among both Christians and non-Christians.

“We denounce such injustices and call on the government to be generous to people and ensure their safety and peaceful living,” the priest told UCA News on condition of anonymity.

The CHT is a politically sensitive place, and the Church has been instructed by government officials not to get involved or speak on political and social issues apart from offering spiritual and pastoral care to people, he noted.

A church official in Chittagong noted that cases of targeting tribal communities including Christians for land and other issues are common, but the Church is forced to stay silent due to pressure from the government in the restive, politically volatile region.

The official said the Church works under the surveillance of intelligence agencies as hardline Muslims often falsely accuse Christians of converting people.  

About 39,660 Catholics live in Chittagong Archdiocese and most are from ethnic groups based in the CHT, church data shows.

Composed of the hilly, forested districts of Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari bordering India and Myanmar, the CHT is Bangladesh’s only mountainous region. It is home to dozens of ethnic tribal groups, mostly Buddhists but also some Hindus and Christians.

Analysts say the migration program aimed to bring about a demographic change in the CHT as a countermeasure to a bubbling armed insurgency for secession.

The CHT's population is about 1.6 million, according to data from UNICEF. Researchers say tribal people now comprise slightly more than 50 percent and the rest are descendants of Bengali Muslim settlers. In the 1970s, tribal people numbered over 70 percent of the CHT population. It changed due to a planned scheme by Bangladeshi authorities since then.

Following Bangladesh independence in 1971, a state-sponsored population transfer scheme saw thousands of poor Bengali Muslims settle in the CHT. They eventually encroached on the land and livelihoods of ethnic communities, sparking communal tensions and violence.

Analysts say the migration program aimed to bring about a demographic change in the CHT as a countermeasure to a bubbling armed insurgency for secession.

As land grabbing worsened, Parbartya Chattogram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS or United Peoples Party of the CHT), an ethnic political party, formed a militia called Shanti Bahini and launched attacks on settlers.

In response, the government militarized the region and for more than two decades hundreds were killed in a deadly bush war on the CHT before PCJSS and the government signed the 1997 Peace Accord.

A faction of PCJSS opposed the treaty and formed a rival group, United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF). Both the PCJSS and the UPDF have seen further splits in recent years, with one group carrying out armed attacks on another and vice versa. Communal violence among Buddhists and Muslims is also common, rights groups say.

Following the latest violence, the International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, a group monitoring the rights situation in the region, issued a press statement to condemn the attack and to demand legal action against the perpetrators.

“The CHT Commission is alarmed by the continuous and widespread land grabbing and acts of violence including arson by corporate entities in the CHT and the government's repeated failure to provide safety and security for the indigenous peoples,” the group said.

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