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2005 International Conference on Engaging Communities - International Conference on Engaging Communities, Brisbane, Australia

2005 International Conference on Engaging Communities

International Conference on Engaging Communities, Brisbane, Australia

An Initiative of the United Nations and Queensland Government

14 - 17 August 2005

Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre

Queensland, Australia

Background Paper by Mangal Kumar Chakma for

UN Workshop on Engaging the Marginalized: Partnerships between Indigenous Peoples, Governments & Civil Society

Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), southeastern part of Bangladesh from time immemorial have been home to eleven indigenous ethnic peoples. They collectively identify themselves as the Jumma people (High Landers), the first people of the CHT. They are the Bawm, Chak, Chakma, Khumi, Khyang, Lushai, Marma, Mro, Pangkhua, Tanchangya and Tripura. The Jumma people are distinct and different from the majority Bengali people of Bangladesh in respect of race, language, culture and religion.

Prior to British annexation of the region to Bengal, Jumma people were independent. Even during the British colonial period, the CHT was regarded as an "Excluded Area", in order to protect the indigenous Jumma people from economic exploitation by non-indigenous people and to preserve the indigenous peoples' socio-cultural and political institutions based on customary laws, community ownership of land and so on. In fact, several provisions of the CHT Regulation of 1900 functioned as a safeguard for the Jumma people and it prohibited immigration into the region and land ownership by non-indigenous people.

However, during the Pakistani period and even after Bangladesh became independent in 1971, the entire CHT region was thrown open for unrestricted migration and acquisition of land titles by non-indigenous people, in violation of the letter and spirit of the 1900 Regulation. Although general Bangladeshi and CHT laws acknowledge the CHT peoples as "indigenous", this was not formally acknowledged in the national Constitution of Bangladesh, which was adopted in 1972. The Constituent Assembly members adopted an Article which made all the citizens of the country to be known as Bengalis.

With this backdrop, the indigenous Jumma people led by Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) started a movement in democratic way for achieving their just rights. Unfortunately the situation deteriorated into a conflict and armed struggle for Jumma peoples' rights.

The PCJSS always kept the door open for dialogue for resolving the CHT problem through political and peaceful means. For this purpose, the PCJSS held 6 and 13 rounds of formal dialogues with the government of General Ershad and Khaleda Zia respectively. At last, after holding 7 rounds of dialogue with Sheikh Hasina government, 'CHT Accord' was signed between the government of Bangladesh and PCJSS on 2nd December 1997.

CHT Accord paves opportunities to meaningful engagement of indigenous peoples in CHT:

The CHT Accord had ended the decades-long fierce armed conflict between the Jumma people and government of Bangladesh. This Accord was hailed and welcomed by not only the Jumma people of CHT and democratic and progressive political parties and other sections of Bangladesh, but also by the United Nations, European Union and many democratic governments of the world. The following are among the important provisions of the CHT Accord:

  1. Recognizes the CHT region as Jumma indigenous peoples-inhabited area;
  2. Introduces a special administrative set-up led by indigenous Chairpersons;
  3. Recognizes the CHT as a distinct region with a Regional Council (CHTRC) as the apex body and the three district councils (HDCs) under its supervision and coordination;
  4. Government of Bangladesh shares executive and development powers with the regional Council and three district councils;
  5. Recognises supervisory and coordinating authority of the regional council and district councils over general administration, law and order, development, land and land management, hill district police, education, culture and etc.;
  6. Recognizes the rights of the non-indigenous permanent residents in the CHT;
  7. Recognises and strengthens the traditional institutions, control over customary laws and social justice (tribal);
  8. Provides for the de-militarisation of the region;
  9. Provides for the restoration of alienated indigenous lands through land commission;
  10. Stipulates that the premier regional development authority, the CHT Development Board, would be supervised by the Regional Council;
  11. Introduces a new ministry for the CHT region with the Minister belonging to one of the indigenous peoples of the region;
  12. Makes it obligatory for the Government to consult the CHT councils before legislating for the region;
  13. Initiatives for proper rehabilitation of internally displaced indigenous people and India-returned Jumma refugees to their homes and villages;
  14. Filling up of all posts of all government, semi-government, local government and autonomous bodies of the CHT by permanent residents, giving priority to the indigenous peoples;
  15. Puts restriction to acquire and transfer any land in the region (except Reserve Forest areas and some classified lands/areas) without the prior approval of the concerned HDCs;

The CHT Accord recognizes the CHT region as tribal-inhabited region and introduces a quasi self-rule government system. Under the quasi self-rule government system, three Hill District Councils (HDCs) at district level and CHT Regional Council (CHTRC) at regional level were established in CHT region. CHT Regional Council is the apex body in the quasi self-rule government system of CHT.

Following the signing of the CHT Accord in December 1997, between the government of Bangladesh (GoB) and PCJSS, a favourable atmosphere has been created for initiating sustainable development interventions in the CHT. Therefore, the Jumma people have been urging upon the donor community and funding institutions to take development initiatives ensuring acceptability to the local people of CHT through involving them in development activities. It has been observed that many donor appraisal missions consulted and involved the Jumma and CHT people actively. But in some cases, many donors have not been undertaking its projects in CHT in accordance with its policy of engagement with indigenous peoples.

The proper implementation of the CHT Accord is the only pre-condition for any sustainable development work in CHT and there is no alternative of local councils and special administrative system for ensuring good governance. Proper implementation of the CHT Accord such as executing of CHTRC and three HDC Acts, withdrawal of security forces from their temporary camps to three cantonments and three district headquarters camps, disposal of land disputes through the Land Commission, rehabilitation of returnee Jumma refugees, internally displaced Jumma people, ex-combatants of the PCJSS and etc. are the most urgent issues to be resolved immediately.

Land issues are the main problem of the CHT, since non-indigenous Bengali settlers have encroached on the lands of the Jumma people and there are problems with the proper functioning of the Land Commission. In fact, overall development in CHT mainly depends on the proper implementation of CHT Accord.

Crucial issues to be addressed:

1.1 Constitutional Recognition and Rights to Development

It is also the conviction of the indigenous Jumma peoples that development not only concerns the socio-economic progress of the peoples and communities concerned, but that it equally includes the enjoyment of key fundamental rights. With this view in mind, the long-term positive implications of the followings are crucial:

  • Recognition of the indigenous peoples in the Constitution of Bangladesh and rights to self-determination;
  • Full and faithful implementation of the CHT Peace Accord 1997;
  • Strengthening the role, functions and mandate of key representative institutions (e.g. Ministry of CHT Affairs, CHT Regional Council, three Hill District Councils etc.)
  • Full operationalization of the CHT Land Disputes Resolution Commission and the CHT Refugees Task Force along with adequate resource allocations for the aforesaid bodies. Similarly, land administration in the CHT needs to be fully transferred to the hill district councils in accordance with the Hill District Councils Acts of 1989;
  • Proper rehabilitation of the repatriated Jumma refugees and the Internally displaced Jumma people;
  • A civilian law and order management and administration in the CHT, including a strong role for the hill district councils in accordance with the Hill District Councils Acts of 1989.

1.2 Representation, participation and institutional arrangements

The Jumma people have been deprived and neglected by different administrations for a long time. The CHT people have not been consulted and involved in the low-scale development that has taken place so far in the past. A top down approach has been imposed which has been non participatory and without the free, prior and informed consent of the Jumma people for more than two decades in the region.

To make the representation of the indigenous Jumma peoples meaningful and effective, the government ensures their adequate representation in consultative processes through proper consultations with their recognized representative organizations/bodies (e.g. Ministry of CHT Affairs, CHT Regional Council, Circle Chiefs, Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, Hill Tracts NGO Forum, etc.)

  • Holding of election to the HDCs and CHTRC as per the relevant acts;
  • Proper execution of the CHTRC Act and HDC Acts
  • Transfer of all subjects to the HDCs, giving priority to Land and Land Management, Police (local), Law and Order, Forestry & Environment, Primary and Secondary Education etc.;
  • Provision of capacity building and more resources to the CHT institutions including traditional institutions;
  • Reservation of three seats of national parliament for indigenous Jumma peoples.

1.3 Control over resources and recognition of the customary practices

Rights to control over land and other natural resources - natural, public or otherwise - is absolutely crucial for the survival and livelihood of the indigenous peoples. However, it is a generally recognized fact that the indigenous Jumma peoples have very little or no control/rights over these resources. Any control/rights that may exist in this regard are gradually being eroded due, among many factors, to: rapid competition over natural resources; demographic shifts; and unplanned development policies, and the non-recognition of customary land and resource rights except in a limited manner.

In this context, the following issues should be addressed:

  • Relevant policy measures to establish, and where applicable, to strengthen, the land and natural resource rights of the indigenous peoples of the country.
  • Legal and constitutional recognition of customary laws, practices and usages of the indigenous peoples over ownership, management and utilization of lands and other natural resources, as justiciable and enforceable rights.
  • Pro-active measures are necessary on the part of the government to not only prevent further alienation of aboriginal or indigenous lands, but to restore alienated lands of indigenous peoples.

1.4 Formulation and amendment of sectoral policy

Sectoral policies, e.g. on Health, Education, Forest, Land, Environment, etc. need to be correspondingly amended to account for the special needs and situations of indigenous Jumma peoples. The Government will take appropriate measures in this regards (it may be noted, e.g., that the National Education Policy requirements for students and teachers' numbers and qualifications in order to receive state support are inappropriate for remote and sparsely-populated areas in the CHT).

2. Partnership between Indigenous Peoples, Governments and Civil Society in Bangladesh:

The overall picture of partnerships between the Government of Bangladesh, on the one hand, and indigenous peoples and civil society, on the other, is far from good. With regard to indigenous peoples and other minorities, the general situation of widespread discrimination and policy neglect has been a continuing phenomenon for almost all successive governments. Moreover, bureaucratic red-tapism, over-centralization of government, corruption, and other ills in poor governance have also not enabled other members of civil society more than a marginal role in democratic governance. Whatever little gains have been made over the years in the case of joint endeavours by government agencies and civil society, including indigenous peoples, have generally resulted due to lobbying efforts of civil society and indigenous activists and workers, and sometimes on account of pressure from bilateral development agencies of the industrialized countries. In the case of the CHT, among the most important factors behind the bipartite and tripartite development efforts involving indigenous peoples are the provisions of the CHT Accord of 1997 and the support of some development agencies of industrialized countries. Of course, not all of these efforts have necessarily been pro-people or truly inclusive, but some limited success can be seen in some areas, as mentioned below.

There are different examples of on-the-ground partnerships involving government, indigenous peoples and civil society, such as those mentioned below. However, among the most unique of such "best practices", is the process of peace-making leading to the signing of the CHT Accord of 1997. Other notable examples include the Danida-funded development projects in the CHT; the UNDP-funded development project; the Asian Development-Bank-funded projects in the CHT; customary law-based natural resource management and the drafting process of the National Poverty-Reduction Strategy Paper.

2.1 Accord-making without Third Party Mediation

The CHT Accord was reached between the Government of Bangladesh and the PCJSS without any involvement of third parties as mediators. This was possible on account of a spirit of goodwill, practical politics, and a principled stand on vital issues, such as human rights. Although the PCJSS and the Government of Bangladesh were the key parties to the accord, various sections of civil society on both sides had provided their valuable inputs in to the peace process.

2.2 Danida Funded Projects

The Danish Government, and its development agency, Danida, have been among the strongest supporters of the peace process in the CHT. This has resulted, amongst others, in cooperation between Danida and CHT-based organizations of indigenous peoples and non-indigenous permanent residents of the CHT. One particular example is the Pilot HYSAWA project, the acronym HYSAWA coming from the words "hygiene, water and sanitation". Under this project, a national NGO holds the project that undertakes activities on facilitating access of impoverished indigenous communities to potable water and sanitation facilities. The Government of Bangladesh, besides having the ultimate say in providing or withholding its mandatory consent for projects involving foreign funds, has a leading role in a National Project Steering Committee, whose members also include representatives of the project-holding national NGO, and the Hill Tracts NGO Forum (HTNF), the representative body of local NGOs of the CHT. At the regional level, HTNF chairs coordination committee meetings, and the coordination committee also include representatives of the CHT Regional Council and local government bodies. This is one of the very few examples in Bangladesh where governmental, non-governmental and indigenous representatives sit and work together.

2.3 Drafting Process of the National Poverty-Reduction Strategy Paper

In line with the World Development Summit's Millennium Development Goals and other related developments at international levels, the Government of Bangladesh has been involved in a process of drafting a national policy or "Strategy Paper" on Poverty Reduction, generally known as the "Poverty Reduction Strategy paper" or "PRSP". Initially, the draft included only a few insignificant sentences concerning "tribal" people with insufficient information, totally bypassing all issues of vital interest to indigenous peoples. However, after intense lobbying, the Government amended its earlier draft, and also held formal consultations with indigenous peoples in Dhaka on 28 April, 2005. Representatives of indigenous peoples offered various concrete suggestions on the Strategy Paper, including on terminology (they prefer the term "indigenous: and reject the terms "tribe" or "tribal"), need for amendments to constitutional provisions and sectoral policies, participation, projects and programmes, and so forth. It appears that the Government representatives agreed to some of these demands, including to accept the term "indigenous" along with its vernacular variants. The process is still going on. On 7 July, the facilitating agency, UNDP, is holding a meeting to discuss the implementation of the PRSP with major donor agencies, to which a few representatives of the government and indigenous peoples have been invited. With all-round support, this effort may provide a good precedent of indigenous people's involvement in policy-drafting processes.

2.4 Customary system of land and natural resource management

Among local best-practices might be mentioned natural resource management systems in vogue in the CHT. At the formal level, the hill district councils and the deputy commissioner's offices retain supervisory authority, while traditional headmen, with the assistance of village elders known as karbaries, manage and protect small forest, grazing and water commons, through customary laws and practices. These systems are also heavily dependent upon community acceptance and community involvement. In some case, local NGOs have also joined village communities in natural resource management. One noteworthy example is a local NGO known as Taungya (mostly indigenous members and employees), which is facilitating traditional forest management practices in the CHT.

3. Conclusion

These are some initiatives which can help create a more conducive atmosphere of engagement. However it is most important for national and local governance processes to implement the provisions of the CHT accord and draw upon the traditional administrative system and structure. The indigenous people of the region are more familiar and comfortable with the traditional administrative system and it is this system that forms the basis for decision making at local levels within communities. This system still remains the most common form of resolving disputes and conflicts within the community and one that local and national government officials can utilize to engage indigenous people in the CHT.

Last updated 24 January 2006.