Battered Hills: The Struggle Of Bangladesh’s Indigenous Jumma Tribes

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (C.H.T.) are home to Bangladesh’s indigenous Jumma tribes, which consist of eleven ethnicities and predominantly Buddhist, Christian, and animist believers and which are, like Indigenous and Aboriginal groups in the United States, Canada, and Australia, battling an encroaching oblivion. The Bangladeshi government at Dhaka’s brutal crusade to submerge the Jumma in a sea of Muslim Bengali settlers for the sake of “modernization,” “development,” “assimilation,” or inevitable “progress” is nearing fruition. Indigenous peoples are fast becoming a minority in their own lands as the number of (often illegal) Bengali settlements, backed by overwhelming military firepower, continues to rise.

The marginalization of the Jumma arguably began in the late 70’s and 80’s. Dhaka’s merciless response to the indigenous Shanti Bahini insurgency terrorized the entire Jumma population. The Bangladesh Armed Forces, in close cooperation with Bengali settlers, murdered thousands of indigenous civilians, destroyed or desecrated dozens of Buddhist temples and Hindu shrines, looted and burnt down innumerable homes, and raped women with impunity. Victims told Amnesty International that torture was endemic and arbitrary: “We were all thrown into the pit … soldiers came and threw boiling water at us whenever they felt like having a little fun.” Troops flung infants into burning huts and shouted “No Chakmas will be born in Bangladesh” as they shot women in the stomach.

These hellish scenes compelled countless Jumma to brave unforgiving terrain to flee to refugee camps in India. Scholar Zobaida Nasreen interviewed women like Rajeswari Tripura, who remembered mothers abandoning and occasionally killing their own crying babies so as not to alert army patrols as they fled through the forests bordering India. Many children died of disease before reaching safety as well. History has largely forgotten this Jumma trail of tears, but countless survivors never recovered: “I am the most unfortunate mother in the world, who could only save my life, but not my child,” one told Nasreen.

The Jumma weathered extreme hardship in India. Professor Asha Hans says poverty in the Tripura refugee camps dwarfed that of India’s urban slums. Authorities in Delhi took a long time to construct housing that could accommodate thousands of refugees escaping seemingly incessant massacres in the C.H.T. Warm welcomes were in similarly short supply. The Indigenous Refugee Welfare Association claims that Indian doctors and paramedics only performed their duties sporadically. In the early months of 1987, approximately 900 refugees died of diarrhea. Indigenous women, who grew up in a culture which prized self-reliance, discipline, and hard work, had trouble adjusting to lives of dependency. Depression, anemia, and many other health problems spread like wildfire in the camps. Any compensation Dhaka offered to refugees who returned to the C.H.T. after the insurgency ended was meagre.

Moreover, political scientist Donald Beachler argues that the incremental extermination of the Jumma peoples prevents Bangladeshi intellectuals and politicians from speaking freely and objectively about Bangladesh’s liberation war against Pakistan in 1971. The Pakistani army pursued a genocidal strategy to crush the Bangladeshi independence movement. This barbaric campaign killed one to three million people, lead to the mass rape of 200,000-400,000 Bangladeshi women, and displaced approximately ten million refugees to India.

Successive Bangladeshi administrations, especially Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Ershad’s Islamic-oriented military dictatorships, have proven reluctant to draw attention to the 1971 genocide because Dhaka would leave itself wide open to accusations of ethnic cleansing in the C.H.T. in turn. Historians like Mark Levene have already compared Dhaka’s abhorrent mistreatment of the Jumma to a “creeping genocide.” Bangladeshi governments shield themselves from legitimate criticism about their ongoing repression of the Jumma by staying silent about Pakistan’s crimes in 1971. When they do discuss the campaign, they regurgitate distorted, biased, incomplete, and “safe” accounts that are unlikely to ruffle too many feathers at home or abroad.

Today, Dhaka pursues its relentless war against the Jumma unchallenged. Professors Pranab Panday and Ishtiaq Jamil say that the 1997 Peace Accord, which promised to demilitarize the C.H.T., protect indigenous land rights, revive the Jumma’s religious and cultural distinctiveness, rehabilitate refugees, and grant the Jumma a degree of autonomy via regional and district councils, has failed to bring about lasting peace. The military simply refuses to decommission hundreds of bases and encampments scattered throughout the C.H.T. In a blatant violation of the Accord, troops erected 19 new camps between 2019 and January 2021, according to the Hill Voice. Adding insult to injury, army officers force Jumma villagers to re-build camps and cut down forests without pay. They have faced no consequences. As Jumma politician Santu Larma put it last year, “The entire government and state machineries are against the implementation of the accord.”

Meanwhile, Jumma political parties like the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (P.C.J.S.S.) and the United People’s Democratic Front (U.P.D.F.) squabble amongst themselves instead of defending the interests of their constituents. Eurasia Review reported in 2021 that ethnic or ideological rivalries between these parties, and sometimes even within the P.C.J.S.S., often degenerate into violent internecine conflicts and turf wars – much to the delight of a military forever looking for opportunities to divide and conquer the Jumma. Professor Nasreen says that 50,000 P.C.J.S.S. and U.P.D.F. members were killed between 1997 and 2013.

Additionally, the P.C.J.S.S., U.P.D.F., and numerous other factions dabble in extortion rackets involving the timber trade, cattle markets, and transport routes. These illicit activities generate enormous amounts of money that various factions squander on weapons and ammunition. Ordinary Jummas have become disillusioned with their leaders as a result: “No one is good, neither the J.S.S. nor U.P.D.F.; we are frightened of both of them.”

What can be done to improve the Jumma’s lot? Above all else, the U.N. must immediately sever its ties with Bangladeshi armed forces until military garrisons, checkpoints, and command posts in the C.H.T. are permanently dismantled. Multiple organizations, like the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (I.W.G.I.A.), have warned for years that U.N. peacekeeping operations employ Bangladeshi soldiers guilty of committing heinous atrocities against the Jumma. In 2003, for example, Colonel Abdul Awal allegedly supported Bengali settlers who raped dozens of indigenous women, burnt down 359 indigenous homes, and destroyed three Buddhist temples in the Mahalchhari sub-district. Awal had only just returned to Bangladesh after serving in a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone.

The Bangladesh Armed Forces perceives the C.H.T. and its inhabitants as little more than training grounds for low-intensity warfare – valuable work experience, which the top brass in Dhaka views favourably when picking troops to participate in U.N. peacekeeping assignments. A 2012 I.W.G.I.A. report states that the Bangladesh Institute of Peace Support Operation Training hires army officers who served in the C.H.T. as instructors. Many of these peacekeepers then become involved in terrible crimes overseas. The Daily Star says that Bangladeshi personnel deployed to Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic sexually assaulted children, raped teenagers, and engaged in exploitative relationships with local women.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations must persuade Dhaka to prevent C.H.T. veterans from taking part in peacekeeping abroad. Furthermore, a more rigorous vetting process both at the U.N. and in Bangladesh is required to root out soldiers complicit in human rights violations.

Finally, civil rights groups and N.G.O.s must pool their resources and launch a massive information, boycott, and divestment campaign to dismantle the C.H.T.’s military-controlled tourist industry. Journalist and anthropologist Hana Ahmed amply demonstrated that hotels, resorts, and scenic getaways in the C.H.T. are often built over the ruins of indigenous homes, schools, and villages. Jumma groups estimate that the army has converted around 1,700 acres of land into tourist attractions, which resulted in the eviction of 700 indigenous families.

Tourism here is also giving rise to sex trafficking rings that target impoverished Jumma women and girls. Lawyers like Samari Chakma worry that traffickers force indigenous women to become surrogate mothers in exchange for money, yet N.G.O.s tend to avoid this issue for fear of alienating wealthy donors or angering local military authorities. Tourists are generally oblivious or indifferent to the oppression and humiliation Jumma people endure every day. Visitors see them as charming relics from a bygone age or “something to consume,” to quote women’s rights activist Dawnai Prue Naly, and rarely as human beings deserving of respect, sympathy, or solidarity.

The military’s systematic de-humanization of the Jumma is carefully concealed beneath layers of deceptive marketing and propaganda. It is up to us to tear down these fabrications and expose the ugly truth about what the Jumma are going through in the C.H.T.

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