Published on bdnews24.com on May 27, 2011

Sultana Kamal

A former advisor to the caretaker government has asked the government to clarify who are indigenous and who are not.

Sultana Kamal, also a member of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, told bdnews24.com the government cannot establish something forcibly.

She was responding on Friday to the comment of Iqbal Ahmed, first secretary of the Bangladesh Mission in the United Nations in New York at a session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on Wednesday New York time.

The UN official said that Bangladesh had no indigenous population and claimed that “forum did not have any locus standi in discussing issues related to the accord”.

Stressing that Bangladesh did not, in fact, have an indigenous population, he suggested that Forum members tended to consider the words “indigenous” and “tribal” or “ethnic minorities” as synonymous, which was not the case.

He, rather, said “for the first time, the government is actively considering to recognise the distinctive identity of ethnic minorities in the country’s constitution”.

The 12th and 13th meeting of the session were held to discuss on the report on 1997 Accord on Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Prime minster Sheikh Hasina on Apr 27 at a press conference said the same thing— “no indigenous”, but the Santals.

Iqbal, however, did not even name the community living sprinkled in different parts of the country.

But Sultana Kamal, executive director of Ain O Salish Kendra, an NGO that provides legal support, asked: “Should we now ask if we came before them [indigenous people], or not? Why did she (the prime minister) only recognise the Santals? What about the others?”

According to Sultana, a lawyer by training, indigenous people are those that have their own customs, rituals and culture.

“We should have an open mind to analyse these things in this time, not by forcibly labelling communities.”

She pointed that the word “indigenous” or “Adivasi” was used by the prime minister and her government top brass too, on several occasions. “But now (the government) is refusing to recognise them [indigenous people]”.

The indigenous people of the CHT and the other parts of the country have long been demanding their recognition in the constitution to preserve their existence.

In the ensuing debate, many representatives of indigenous organisations expressed solidarity with the people of the region and called for their recognition as indigenous people.

Many stressed at the UN session that, with hundreds of army camps scattered across it, the region was still reeling under militarisation. A number of other speakers said the Special Rapporteur’s report could be a basis for future initiatives.

Saul Vincente Vasquez, a forum member from Mexico, in the discussion after Iqbal’s speech asked: “If indigenous peoples did not, in fact, exist in Bangladesh, should Bengali Permanent Forum member Devashish Roy give up his membership to the Forum?”

Special Rapporteur Lars-Anders Baer carried out the study upon charged by the forum’s ninth session.

He said the accord recognised the Chittagong Hill Tracts as a tribal inhabited region, while also acknowledging its traditional governance system and the role of its chiefs.

Baer urged the UN to play a greater role for the realisation of the peace accord since there was “lack of political motivation in the government”, suggesting more in-depth case and comparative studies on the peace accords.

“That lack has reached beyond the party running the government.

“The study attested to how challenging it was to implement peace agreements when political will was overridden by other interests,” the website said.

Responding with his own list of provisions the government had implemented, Iqbal expressed serious concerns about the report’s contents, as well as the way in which it was formulated.

He, however, avoided talking about the army issue, only giving the accounts for withdrawals.

Iqbal said since 1998 until 2004, a total of 200 army camps were withdrawn and another 34 were withdrawn in August and September last year.

Around 300 camps are still there in six cantonments.