The Indigenous World 2023: Bangladesh
Bangladesh is a country of cultural and ethnic diversity, with over 54 Indigenous Peoples speaking at least 35 languages, along with the majority Bengali population. According to the 2022 census, the country’s Indigenous population numbers approximately 1,650,159 or 1% of the total population. Indigenous Peoples in the country, however, claim that their population stands at some five million. The majority of the Indigenous population live in the plains districts of the country, and the rest in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).
The State does not recognize Indigenous Peoples as “Indigenous”. Nevertheless, since the 15th amendment of the constitution, adopted in 2011, people with distinct ethnic identities beyond the Bengali population are now included. Yet only cultural aspects are mentioned, whereas major issues related to Indigenous Peoples’ economic and political rights, not least their land rights, remain ignored.
The CHT Accord of 1997 was a constructive agreement between Indigenous Peoples and the Government of Bangladesh intended to resolve key issues and points of contention. It set up a special administrative system in the region. Twenty-five years on, the major issues of the accord, including making the CHT Land Commission functional, orchestrating a devolution of power and functions to the CHT’s institutions, preserving the “tribal” area characteristics of the CHT region, demilitarization and the rehabilitation of internally displaced people, remain unsettled.
The Government’s prohibition on using the term “Indigenous”
Prior to the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in 2022, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting of Bangladesh issued a circular directing all the electronic media of Bangladesh not to use the term “Indigenous”.
The official notice (memo number – 15.00.0000.028.18.183.14.596) directed university professors, experts, newspaper editors, and other members of civil society not to use the term in any TV talk shows arranged on the day. It also directed the media to refrain from using the term as it is not constitutionally approved. However, there is no such State law or restriction in the Constitution of Bangladesh.
The circular is an undemocratic, derogatory directive to Indigenous Peoples, and a serious threat to the freedom of speech of citizens. It is disrespectful towards Indigenous communities and violates the right of Indigenous Peoples to freely self-identity.
Hope turned to despair: 25 years of the CHT Accord
2 December 2022 marked the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Accord, a historic turning point for the Indigenous and permanent Bengali residents of the CHT. The signing of the accord in 1997 raised hopes that peace would be restored and the processes of self-determined development would speed up in this conflict-ridden region. The signing of the accord did bring an official end to armed conflicts between Bangladeshi State forces and armed members of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samity (PCJSS).
Yet, two and a half decades later, peace remains elusive and violent armed conflicts routinely ravage the lives of Indigenous Peoples. Various development initiatives during the post-accord period, in the form of tourism, infrastructure, connectivity and business, among others, resulted in the loss of ancestral lands and destruction of lives and livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples.,,, Moreover, neoliberal State policies and corporate greed have put the natural environment and ecology of the region under serious threat.,
A main cause of this deplorable state is the delayed and improper implementation of the CHT Accord, particularly the provisions that are vital for ensuring sustainable peace and development. The State claims that 48 out of 72 provisions have been fully implemented and 15 have been implemented in part. However, the PCJSS claims that only 25 provisions have been implemented fully and 18 partly, while 29 provisions remain outstanding.
Indeed, the implementation process has remained either very slow or virtually stagnant over the past few years. Non-implementation of the decisions of the CHT Accord Implementation and Monitoring Committee clearly illustrates this claim. In the sixth meeting of this committee (held in December 2022), it was revealed that none of the decisions concerning various provisions taken at the fifth meeting, held one year earlier, had been implemented, as concerned State authorities had not taken any initiative in this regard.
Contrarily, attempts to violate provisions continued. For example, the government issued a decision in April 2022 to set up a camp of the Armed Police Battalion (APBn) on the land of an army camp abandoned as part of the accord implementation process rather than returning the land to the actual owners. Naturally, the non-implementation and violations of the provisions have led to a growing sense of betrayal and mistrust of the government among Indigenous Peoples. Santu Larma, the signatory on behalf of the PCJSS, even noted in a recent public meeting that he does not see implementation as being possible any more.
Given such a frustrating situation, Indigenous Peoples of the CHT and various rights groups within and beyond the country have remained active in urging the government to implement the accord, particularly considering that it is critical for the rights and development of the CHT’s local populations. For example, on 20 December 2022, an urgent appeal was submitted to the Government of Bangladesh by 54 organizations and 187 individuals from 42 countries for the proper, speedy and full implementation of the accord. While expressing his concern, Francisco Calí Tzay, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, highlighted in a statement on 2 December 2022: “The non-implementation of the accord … has left the Indigenous Peoples vulnerable, marginalized, and deprived of determining their own development, as they are entitled to in the accord.” Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights likewise called for full implementation of the peace accord during her first visit to Bangladesh in August 2022. No response has been reported from the government regarding her urge to implement the accord.
Alarming state of human rights in the CHT
While the CHT Accord implementation process is stuck in a quagmire, the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the CHT remains in an alarming state. A PCJSS report documented 235 incidents of human rights violations in 2022 whereby 1,935 Indigenous persons from the CHT has been subjected to violations, forms of which included land grabbing and forced eviction, trumped-up charges, arbitrary arrest, temporary detention, torture, sexual assault and killing. State agencies, alongside non-State groups such as “army-backed terrorist groups”, “communal and fundamentalist quarters”, “Muslim Bengali settlers”, and “land grabbers”, were identified as the main perpetrators of these incidents. The report notes:
79 people in 110 incidents were victims of human rights violations by security forces and law enforcement agencies, 708 people in 85 incidents by army-backed armed terrorist groups, 448 people in 40 criminal incidents by communal and fundamentalist groups, Muslim Bengali settlers and land grabbers.
Alongside these human rights violations, spaces for political activism and fundamental freedoms of expression, association and movement remain critically limited in the region. Hundreds of Indigenous political activists and supporters remain on the run due to fear of State persecution. While restrictions on foreigners visiting the CHT without prior permission have been continuing since 2015, foreign citizens concerned with human rights have rarely been allowed to enter the region in recent years. During her August 2022 visit, Michelle Bachelet was reportedly not allowed to enter the CHT to observe the human rights situation. In November, a delegation of foreign diplomats, spearheaded by the UN Resident Coordinator to Bangladesh, was allowed to visit the CHT but only on 10 conditions set by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA). One of them was the mandatory presence of the local MP of the ruling party and the local Deputy Commissioner (DC) in the event the delegation should meet the chair of the CHT Regional Council (CHTRC) as well as the mandatory presence of the DC during the delegation’s meeting with the Chakma circle chief in Rangamati district. Similar directives were also issued in October 2022 during a visit by the Danish ambassador to the CHT. These instructions from the MoFA have been identified as racist and colonial by Indigenous activists.
Khasi villages under threat
The very survival of several Khasi villages (punjis) in Moulvibazar district, located in north-eastern Bangladesh, is under serious threat due to ongoing coercion and harassment by forest department officials and a corner of influential local Bengalis with diverse backgrounds, including employees and owners of surrounding tea estates, petty entrepreneurs, politicians and farmers. The ongoing compulsion of these influential actors, with the use of violence as well as legal means, targeted at the ancestral lands of these Indigenous villagers, has put their everyday life as well as their sustainable livelihood practices in danger. Incidents of ravaging betel leaf farms (paan jhum)  has remained a common and frequent phenomenon over the past few years in an attempt to coerce Indigenous Peoples out and off their lands so that they can be used by government and private entities for projects.
Betel leaf farming is an age-old agricultural practice of Khasi villagers, which is considered by scientists to be supportive of conserving local biodiversity. Since farming of betel leaves remains the main source of living for most Khasi people, the betel leaf vines (paan gach) form a main target of attacks. A protest against harming betel leaf vines can even lead to experiences of violence, as a young Khasi man from Nunchhari Punji survived a violent attack by a group of influential Bengalis on 23 December 2022. Khasi leader Flora Bably Talang suspects that the ultimate motive behind the attacks on the vines is to grab the land of the betel leaf farms (paan jum) of Khasi villagers.
Together with attacks, a protracted problem these Khasi villagers have been enduring for over two decades is the criminal cases filed by the forest department. For instance, 15 criminal cases have been filed against members of 50 families from Doluchhara Punji since 2011. Seven of these cases are still ongoing. The forest department blames the villagers for encroaching on State land. Some Khasi villagers have even been involved in multiple criminal cases. With the cost of a single hearing in the court amounting to between five and seven thousand takas (up to 60 euro), running a case for several years can cost a significant amount for an individual. As in the case of the villagers of Doluchhara Punji, therefore, these cases are being handled collectively so that the villagers can pool their resources together. Nevertheless, this excessive financial burden has resulted in the forced dropout of several Doluchhara Punji children from school.
The problems facing Khasi villagers are rooted in the absence of land titles. Since the British colonial period, the ancestral lands of various Khasi villages have been turned into State lands, currently managed by the forest department. Khasi villagers have been fighting to recover the legal rights to their own lands over the past few decades. The villagers of Doluchhara, for example, have been involved in a court case in this regard since 1999, and it still remains unresolved. Nevertheless, forest department officials have been trying to repeatedly implement so-called social forestry projects by making local Bengali beneficiaries grab their land. Indigenous activist Helena Talang noted that the Doluchhara Punji villagers’ current conflict with the forest department started with a social forestry project being implemented on their land since 2010-11. Khasi villagers living in and using this land were not the beneficiaries of this project but a group of influential Bengalis were. Later, since around 2017-18, these rich and influential Bengali beneficiaries forcibly took over 12 betel leaf farms. Villagers from different Khasi villages of the region have been in fear of eviction ever since.
Indigenous Peoples’ land being grabbed by rubber company
Indigenous Peoples in Lama, in Bandarban Hill District, are facing ongoing violence as part of land grabbing. Lama Rubber Industries Limited has been trying to evict the local Mro people living in Langkom Karbari Para, Joychandra Tripura Karbari Para, and Rangen Karbari Para of Sarai union under Lama Upazila of Bandarban for a long time. The group allegedly grabbed 400 acres of land belonging to the Mro and Tripura people (comprising 65 families) in 2022 and, when the Mro and Tripura people protested, the company filed at least three court cases against them.
Additionally, company employees attacked and seriously injured local Indigenous villagers 11 times. Other acts of violence against the Indigenous Peoples of this area have also been reported. For instance, on 26 April, a group associated with the company cut and set fire to trees, orchards, and jum fields belonging to Indigenous Peoples. On 11 August, land grabbers attacked and ransacked the Ashoka Buddhist temple in Rengyen Karbari Para. On 1 September, other attackers allegedly looted 25 maunds of pumpkin from gardens belonging to the local Mro people. On 6 September, workers from the company allegedly mixed poison into a stream that is the only source of drinking water for the residents of Rengyen Karbari Para. Further, on 24 September, the company allegedly cut down some 300 banana plants belonging to the local Mro people. With all these criminal acts, the company is trying to create an environment of terror and destroy the livelihoods of local Indigenous Peoples so that they can grab the remaining lands.
Unfortunately, despite instructions from the National Human Rights Commission to ensure the security of the local people, and recommendations put forward by the Bandarban Hill District Council to cancel a lease given to Lama Rubber Industries Limited following a fact-finding mission, the local administration is reluctant to take any action against the rubber company. Indigenous Mro and Tripura people are therefore living in fear of further attack and eviction.
Violence against Indigenous women and girls
Following a trend similar to previous years, Indigenous women and girls in Bangladesh survived multiple forms of violence in 2022. According to a human rights report from the Kapaeeng Foundation, Indigenous women and girls from the plains as well as the CHT were subjected to violence in at least 21 cases. Nine of these cases took place in the plains, while the rest in the CHT. At least 22 Indigenous women and girls suffered from the reported cases of violence. The Kapaeeng Foundation’s report notes that two women and girls were killed, two women were gang raped, five women were raped, seven women sustained rape attempts, four women were physically assaulted and one woman was sexually harassed. The age of the victims ranged from 3–75 years.
This article is part of the 37th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2023 in full here.
Notes and references
 Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. “Population and housing census – preliminary report 2022.” Government of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, 2022, p10
 Barkat, Abul. “Political Economy of Unpeopling of Indigenous Peoples: The Case of Bangladesh.” Paper presented at the 19th biennial conference, Bangladesh Economic Association, 8-10 January 2015
 Halim, Sadeka. “Land loss and implications on the plain land adivasis.” In “Songhati”, edited by Sanjeeb Drong, p. 72, Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, 2015
 Article 23A stipulates: “The State shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities.”
 “Bangladesh government instructs TV channels not to use the word ‘Indigenous’ when referring to ethnic tribes.” Global Voices South Asia, 9 August 2022, https://globalvoices.org/2022/08/09/bangladesh-government-instructs-tv-channels-not-to-use-the-word-indigenous-when-referring-to-ethnic-tribes/#:~:text=On%20July%2019%2C%202022%2C%20the,15th%20amendment%20of%20the%20constitution.
 Adnan, S. and R. Dastidar. Alienation of the Lands of Indigenous Peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission and IWGIA, 2011
 Tanzimuddin Khan, Mohammad. Neoliberal Development in Bangladesh: People on the Margins. (Dhaka: The University Press Limited, 2019)
 Chakma, M.K. and S. Chakma. “Adivasi Odhyushito Onchole Porjoton o Unnayan: Adivasider Ongshidaritto o Sorkarer Bhumika.” Paper presented at a roundtable organized by Kapaeeng Foundation on 20 August 2015 at CIRDAP Auditorium in Dhaka.
 Adnan, S. “Alienation in Neoliberal India and Bangladesh: Diversity of Mechanisms and Theoretical Implications.” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 13, 2016
 Azad, Abu., and She Thowai Marma. “Greed for land burns hills to ashes.” The Business Standard, 30 April 2022, https://www.tbsnews.net/bangladesh/greed-land-burns-hills-ashes-412390
 “Key provisions in CHT accord yet to be implemented: discussion.” New Age Bangladesh, 24 November 2022, https://www.newagebd.net/article/187390/key-provisions-in-cht-accord-yet-to-be-implemented-discussion
 “6th meeting of the CHT Accord Implementation Committee held after one year.” Hill Voice, 6 December 2022, https://hillvoice.net/en/6th-meeting-of-the-cht-accord-implementation-committee-held-after-one-year/
 Chakma, Mangal Kumar. “Can police be deployed in the army-withdrawn camp sites in the CHT?” The Daily Star, 2 July 2022, https://www.thedailystar.net/views/opinion/news/can-police-be-deployed-the-army-withdrawn-camp-sites-the-cht-3061406
 “Peace deal no longer implemented, struggle inevitable: Santu Larma.” BD News 24, 23 December 2022, https://bangla.bdnews24.com/samagrabangladesh/f6kqpfcu11?fbclid=IwAR0-nO8hfoJpp8UCgWzjKVrbCnn3gcbR99vja-9qvxCN3bDtnXd47Se_VvE
 “Appeal for International Community to the Govt of Bangladesh for Full Implementation of CHT Accord.” Hill Voice, 22 December 2022, https://hillvoice.net/en/appeal-of-international-community-to-the-govt-of-bangladesh-for-full-implementation-of-cht-accord/
 “Bangladesh: UN expert concerned about non-implementation of Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord.” OHCHR, 2 December 2022, https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/12/bangladesh-un-expert-concerned-about-non-implementation-chittagong-hill
 “UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet concludes her official visit to Bangladesh.” OHCHR, 17 August 2022, https://www.ohchr.org/en/statements/2022/08/un-high-commissioner-human-rights-michelle-bachelet-concludes-her-official-visit
 “PCJSS Annual Report of 2022 on Human Rights Situation in CHT.” Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, 1 January 2023, https://www.pcjss.org/pcjss-annual-report-of-2022-on-human-rights-situation-in-cht/
 Chakma, Pallab and Bablu Chakma. “The Indigenous World 2020: Bangladesh” in The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 202-211. IWGIA, 2020, https://www.iwgia.org/en/bangladesh/3598-iw-2020-bangladesh.html
 “Foreigners’ entry to hills restricted.” The Daily Star, 6 February 2015, https://www.thedailystar.net/foreigners-entry-to-hills-restricted-63486
 “Organizations protest against human rights violation in Chittagong.” Dhaka Tribune, 13 August 2022, https://www.dhakatribune.com/nation/2022/08/13/organizations-protest-against-human-rights-violation-in-chittagong
 “Racist instructions issued by Foreign Ministry again on the visit of diplomats to CHT.” Hill Voice, 16 November 2022, https://hillvoice.net/en/racist-instructions-issued-by-foreign-ministry-again-on-the-visit-of-diplomats-to-cht/
 “Chittagong Hill Tracts ruled by apartheid and colonialism.” Hill Voice, 24 November 2022, https://hillvoice.net/en/%e0%a6%ac%e0%a6%b0%e0%a7%8d%e0%a6%a3%e0%a6%ac%e0%a6%be%e0%a6%a6%e0%a7%80-%e0%a6%93-%e0%a6%94%e0%a6%aa%e0%a6%a8%e0%a6%bf%e0%a6%ac%e0%a7%87%e0%a6%b6%e0%a6%bf%e0%a6%95-%e0%a6%95%e0%a6%be%e0%a7%9f/?fbclid=IwAR0TcQ6nzD1qgvtoO_sWhBGDi3_B9R_vR7N_TPVqu0NFrjn33n6z2pP0S28
 “Miscreants destroy 150 betel leaf trees of Moulvibazar jhum farmers.” The Daily Star, 12 September 2022, https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/crime-justice/news/miscreants-destroy-150-betel-leaf-trees-moulvibazar-jhum-farmers-3117451?fbclid=IwAR0kpI_0OW76KWQfEp9u3dOh1bs8R6xekT6WEUJL_xovxZNjkMAQlg5Bzis
 T.K Nath., Inoue Makoto., M.J Islam., and M.A Kabir. “The Khasia Tribe of northeastern Bangladesh: their socio-economic status, hill farming practices and impacts on forest conservation.” 25 May 2003, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14728028.2003.9752467
 Juri, Moulvibazar. “A complaint has been lodged with the police regarding the stabbing injury of a young man in Kulaura.” Prothomalo, 23 December 2022, https://www.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/district/rhwjpz3dns?fbclid=IwAR3HT6uKCsBGcJ0fFXIVcPwmbSbDfneXNwVjHNvGw7c1j7tCDXMtr0rjCdQ
 Deshwara, Mintu. “No Christmas for them.” The Daily star, 25 December 2022, https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/news/no-christmas-them-3204436
 “Protection sought for 400 acres of Mro, Tripura land in Lama.” New Age Bangladesh, 22 September 2022, https://www.newagebd.net/article/181758/protection-sought-for-400-acres-of-mro-tripura-land-in-lama.
 “Heinous attack and torching of indigenous Mro houses by Lama Rubber Industries in Bandarban.” Kapaeeng Foundation, 5 January 2023, https://kapaeengnet.org/heinous-attack-and-torching-of-indigenous-mro-houses-by-lama-rubber-industries-in-bandarban/
 Information obtained from written press statement read out at a press conference organized by affected Indigenous communities from Lama in Dhaka on 5 September. More about the press conference here: “Demand for protection of land in Bandarban.” Bangladesh Post, 5 September 2022, https://bangladeshpost.net/posts/demand-for-protection-of-land-in-bandarban-93969
 “CHT Commission urges govt to protect indigenous people in Lama.” The Daily Star, 28 September 2022, https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/news/cht-commission-urges-govt-protect-indigenous-people-lama-3130126
 “This time there is a complaint against Lamay Rubber Company for cutting 300 banana trees.” The Daily Star, 26 September 2022, https://bangla.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/news-397771
 “Stop harassment of Mros, Tripuras at Lama: NHRC.” New Age Bangladesh, 4 October 2022, https://www.newagebd.net/article/182764/stop-harassment-of-mros-tripuras-at-lama-nhrc
 It is notable that bypassing the customary land rights of Indigenous Peoples and leasing land to outsiders for commercial and non-commercial purposes started in CHT in the mid-1980s, which caused the displacement of many Indigenous communities. In Bandarban district alone, a total of 46,775 acres of land divided into 1,871 plots were leased out to influential outsiders for horticulture and rubber plantations. In this process, in 1994, the Lama Rubber Industries shareholders, who are outsiders to the CHT, took out a lease of 375 acres of land in Sarai mouza and 1,225 acres of land in Daluchhari mouza for a rubber plantation for a period of 40 years from the district administration. However, it is alleged that the company occupied much more land than they had been allotted.
 Kapaeeng Foundation. Human Rights Report 2022 on Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh. 2023.
Tags: Global governance