A Tripura Catholic family in Hatibhanga Para village of Bandarban district in Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. It is one of three predominantly Christian villages in Bandarban facing an alleged land grab by a Bengali Muslim businessman. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
Nearly two centuries ago, dozens of indigenous Tripura people migrated and settled in Saingya Tripura Para village of Bandarban district in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of southeast Bangladesh.
“Several generations have been born and raised here. While many young people got an education and live in cities and towns, their roots are here, so they visit their families in the village from time to time,” Joseph Tripura, an ethnic Tripura Catholic, told ucanews.com.
Joseph, 34, lives with his wife and a son in the capital Dhaka, where he is employed as the public information officer at the country office of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). His parents and eight siblings are still based in the village, so he visits them during holidays.
This Tripura village sits just beneath hills surrounded by lush green forests, close to Nilachal (Blue Edges), a popular tourist spot in Bandarban.
For years, tourism in the area has been a blessing for villagers, allowing them to earn a living by selling various indigenous products such as clothes, food and honey to mostly Bengali visitors from the plains of Bangladesh.
But now tourism has emerged as a big threat to their very existence.
Some 295 Christian families in a cluster of three villages — Saingya Tripura Para, Hatibhanga Para and Laimi Para — are concerned that a Bengali Muslim businessman intends to build a five-star hotel on 101 hectares by allegedly exploiting his financial and political clout.
In June, a group of panic-stricken indigenous families filed a complaint with the deputy commissioner, the chief government officer in Bandarban, against Jashim Uddin, chairman of Sylvan Wye Resort and Spa Ltd., accusing him of illegally grabbing their land.
The complaint letter alleged that Uddin used fake documents to establish his permanent residency in Bandarban and bribed local administration and politicians to grab the land belonging to villagers.
They also accused him of destroying natural resources and blocking roads between three villages, and also threatening villagers by filing “false charges” against them for illegal trespassing on his land.
Joseph alleged that at first Uddin wanted to buy their land but they refused, and since then he has been trying to grab the land by force.
“There was a Marma village nearby, and Jashim was able to force the villagers to sell their land at a throwaway price. He wants to do the same to other villagers,” Joseph said.
Uddin is a resident of Chittagong district and the younger brother of Nazrul Islam Chowdhury, a ruling Awami League politician and the current MP for Chittagong-14 constituency, reported leading English daily newspaper The Daily Star.
He told the paper that he purchased the land like everyone does and there was nothing wrong. “Many outsiders are buying jhum land [hilly agricultural land] this way in Bandarban. I did it too,” he said.
A view of the three villages facing a land grab seen from Nilachal in Bandarban district of Chittagong Hill Tracts. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
Marginalized ethnic minorities
Over the past two decades, 13 indigenous villages have disappeared in Bandarban amid an onslaught of land grabbing by Bengali settlers and businessmen, according to the Chittagong Hill Tracts Forest and Land Rights Protection Movement.
They have highlighted how opportunist and influential men from the Muslim-majority Bengali community can breach national and international conventions to take away the land of poor and marginalized ethnic minorities.
According to the Hill District Council Act 1989, no land in a hill district should be transferred to a person who is not a permanent resident.
The act protects the land rights of indigenous people but allows “non-tribals” to own land with conditions.
“Non-tribal permanent residents shall mean a person who is not a tribal but has legal land in the hill district and generally lives in the hill district at a specific address,” the act states.
Moreover, Article 10 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states: “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.”
Daudul Islam, Bandarban’s deputy commissioner, said he is investigating how Uddin was able to buy land in Bandarban.
“We have launched a probe after villagers filed a complaint. I am not aware that Jashim has obtained clearance for buying land and constructing a hotel. It requires further investigation to determine what we need to do,” Islam told ucanews.com.
Saingya Para has 25 Tripura Catholic families and Hatibhanga Para 70. About 200 families in Laimi Para are ethnic Baum and Protestant Christians.
The villages fall under the jurisdiction of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Bandarban, the largest Catholic parish in the CHT region of Chittagong Catholic Archdiocese.
Holy Cross Father Binoy S. Gomes, the parish priest, described attempts to grab the land of indigenous peoples as a “grave injustice.”
“The Church is trying to understand what is going on and will support people’s right to their land. We will get in touch with the local administration to solve the problem through peaceful means. If we cannot, we will join with people in a movement against the injustice and aggression,” Father Gomes told ucanews.com.
The CHT, comprised of the hilly, forested districts of Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari, is the only mountainous region of Bangladesh and borders India and Myanmar. The region is home to dozens of indigenous groups, mostly Buddhists and some Christians.
Since late 1970s, the region has seen an influx of Bengali Muslim settlers under state-sponsored population transfer programs, and the settlers started occupying the land of ethnic communities.
Indigenous peoples formed a militia group, Shanti Bahini (Peace Force), and started attacking settlers. In response, the government militarized the region and a "bush war" continued on the hills for over two decades.
The conflict ended with the 1997 Peace Accord, but the CHT, despite its natural beauty and burgeoning tourism, remains a restive region where land disputes and sectarian violence between indigenous peoples and Bengali Muslims are common.