The most important distinguishing factor between a refugee and an internally displaced person (IDP) is cross border movement. Unlike refugees, who cross the international border for fear of persecution, IDPs do not cross a border.
There is very limited legal protection offered to IDPs due to this unique context, as the state itself is the perpetrator of violence instead of providing protection to the IDPs.
The United Nation’s working definition of the internally displaced is,
‘…persons who have been forced to flee their home suddenly or unexpectedly in large numbers, as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, systematic violations of human rights or natural or man-made disasters, and who are within the territory of their own country’.
Another report by Janie Hampton, the editor of IDP: A Global Survey states,
‘Unlike refugees who cross international borders, those who stay within their own country must rely upon their own governments to uphold their civil and human rights. If the state chooses not to invite external assistance, then the international community has limited options to protect these people. In many countries, it is the government or its military forces that have caused the displacement or prevent access to their citizens.’
Numbers of IDPs from the region are unfortunately growing, and reasons include armed conflict (Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq), environmental disasters (Indonesia, Burma, China), construction of dams (China, India, Bangladesh), industrialisation, famine and economic upheavals (the Philippines, Cambodia).
Internal displacement of the Adivasi people in Bangladesh is the result of post-colonial nationbuilding and identity conflict.
Because of their traditional practice of shifting cultivation they are also collectively referred as ‘Jumma’ people.
This self-identification is also used by various CHT political communities to frame their own Adivasi/Jumma nationbuilding strategies.
The CHT has geopolitical and strategic significance for Bangladesh and South Asian security due to its location and proximity to India and Burma, and the porosity of the border; its richness in commercial natural resources; and historical, political and social contexts that constitute the communities of the CHT as the ‘other’ (in times of conflict also internal enemy) within a Bangladeshi state.
A low-intensity conflict that is deeply embedded in the struggle over land and existence in the CHT has contributed to massive internal displacement over the years.
While the long-term benefits from the construction of Kaptai Dam in order to generate hydroelectricity in 1962 should not be underestimated, the massive dislocation caused by this decision; the seeds of conflict that it sowed; the militarisation of the region and its effect on the society; and the huge economic costs of the conflict in the CHT should not be ignored either.
It flooded 54,000 acres area and displaced 100,000 people, most of whom were Chakmas (IDMC Report, 2006).
According to Amnesty International, more than 40,000 Chakmas left for Arunachal Pradesh in India, where a majority still remain as stateless persons.
The construction of the dam led to the initial crisis of internal displacement, loss of control over natural resources, threats of forced assimilation, construction of non-permanent army camps, and oppression by the Bangladeshi state and an armed insurgency.
As a counter-insurgency strategy, the government relocated over 400,000 Bengalis to the region between 1979 and 1983.
Many of the Chakmas crossed the border to Mizoram and Tripura. By 1983, nearly 40,000 Chakmas had arrived in Mizoram and by May, 1986 another 50,000 Chakmas had taken shelter in five refugee camps in Tripura.
There are no accurate statistics on conflict-induced displacement in CHT.
The Government task force on internal displacement stated in 2000 that there were 90,208 Adivasi and 38,156 Bengali families or 500,000-555,000 people.
Ironically, the Bangladesh government also considers the Bengali settlers displaced. NGOs, Bangladeshi scholars and indigenous leaders argue that this figure is inaccurate.
Amnesty International estimated that 60,000 Adivasis were internally displaced between August 1975 and August 1992.
The 1997 Peace Accord was internationally considered a successful case of conflict resolution, but it involved no third-party mediation or direct intervention by international actors, nor was civil society involved in the peace process.
These factors contributed to the weakness of the Accord. IDMC suggests that by December, 2009, there were still around 300 military camps in the region.
Vast power inequalities between the state (and the armed forces) and the Adivasi communities made it impossible to achieve peace and stability in the region.
Following the Peace Accord, the Indian government forcefully repatriated 65,000 Chakma refugees from Tripura.
Many of the families, upon their return found their homes occupied by Bengali settlers and properties appropriated either by army or local administration. They became internally displaced.
Various international and national human rights organisations pointed out human rights violations of the displaced Adivasi communities.
For example, the CHT human rights groups alleged that many of their leaders have been arrested and imprisoned during the state of emergency that was declared in Bangladesh in January, 2007.
On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Accord, the Londonbased Survival International (SI), a worldwide support group for indigenous people, stated that violence, land grabbing and intimidation have still continued in the region and have been a major source of displacement.
One example was the displacement of the Mru people. The Mru, one of the Adivasi communities, rely on their land as their only source of survival.
750 Mru (or Mro) families were either evicted from their land or were forced to flee from their home and moved to remote villages of the Bandarban Hill District of the CHT in December 2006.
After protesting against the eviction of his people from their land to make way for an army training centre, one of the leader of the Mru people and the Chairman of Sulaok Union Parishad in Bandarban, Ranglai Mro, was arrested and it was alleged that he was tortured.
He was charged with possessing illegal firearms and sentenced to 17 years in jail in July. It was alleged that the charges were invented in retaliation for his defense of the Mru’s rights to their land.
While Ranglai Mro was eventually freed in 2009, this case demonstrates that intimidation still continues even after the Accord was signed, and intense fear of the state is still very real even after the rhetoric of peacebuilding by the state.
The situation remains volatile even after the election of the Awami League in 2008. Both the BNP and the military elite repeatedly advocate that the state has to maintain a strong military presence in the area because of the risk of transnational crime networks operating in some of the impenetrable areas, illegal movement of people, drugs, arms and other goods on the porous borderland and potential armed insurgency.
As a consequence, it is not only the military, but the functions of the police and border patrol have been increased over the years in the CHT.
In December, 2007, Bangladesh issued an official statement that rejected the allegations of continuing abuse of rights of Adivasis in the CHT as false and baseless and stated they enjoy more privileges than other citizens.
A senior official of the Ministry of CHT Affairs was quoted in the media:
‘The allegation of any violence against the Adivasi is totally false. We have found no evidence of it’.
The attack on 14 villages under Sajek Union in 2010 and the government’s subsequent refusal to allow access to the area is a recent example of the state’s extreme sensitivity, regardless of the change of government, when it comes to CHT.
The displaced and dislocated people are subjected to torture, violence and intimidation with little or no justification.
When members of the Adivasi community are taken into custody for breaking the law, they receive harsher punishment than the Bengalis.
A significant aspect of their persecution continues to be land grabbing.
The other deeper issue is the discourse of citizenship that questions the status of Adivasis as ‘good’ citizens: whether Adivasis are loyal Bangladeshis who deserve to have the equal right to belong to the nation.
The state repeatedly invokes its moral authority through the lens of national security and state sovereignty in dealing with the Adivasis.
While civil society does not always draw upon the paradoxical history in its advocacy campaign for the rights of indigenous people in the CHT, law enforcement authorities justify their severe treatments of the Adivasis based on this ‘good’ citizens model.
For them, disloyalty to the idea of a Bangladeshi statehood is demonstrated by the Adivasi communities, such as when the armed resistance started in the Hills in the late 1970s.
This is very similar to the Burmese military regime and some of its Rakhine population’s arguments about the Rohingyas as disloyal people who also opted for a separate homeland for themselves, and whose citizenship was eventually taken away from them.
Unlike the Rohingyas, who could be forcefully evicted because they became effectively stateless due to a change in the Burmese Citizenship Act, for the Adivasi community in the CHT the situation is more complex.
The status of protection that was granted by the British to the indigenous people in the Hills is unique and saved them from the fate of the Rohingyas across the border.
Many members of the government are also sympathetic to the Adivasi causes.
However, when members of the law enforcement authorities are posted in the CHT, they are confronted by differences- in physical features, lifestyle, culture and religion; but ‘disloyalty’ is the key protagonist.
Many remember the history, and for many it is indeed an ‘us versus them’ situation. If the Adivasis could prove that they are law-abiding ‘good citizens’ then they are less likely to be treated like ‘aliens’ or non-citizens.
However, for the dislocated Adivasi, civil disobedience is never a question of breaking the law, rather advocating for her or his rights as a member of the indigenous community that exists beyond the idea of a Bangladeshi state.
When Adivasi communities demonstrate for their rights to land it becomes a political statement for the whole community.
Such actions have lost their private or individual claim. Adivasi causes are inherently public and are the subject of an intimate violence constantly produced and reproduced by the state-Adivasi dynamic.
The gruesome violence, abduction and killings that occur here, the fire that burns houses and sacred spaces such as temples, are all elements of the spectacle of violence that has two different kinds of audiences—the Bengalis and the Adivasis.
The demonstrations that take place on the streets or in the bazaars, and in the presence of the media, the NGOs and the activists, all are part of this public spectacle of violence in the place called ‘the Hills’.
The janus-faced narrative of nationbuilding has taken over everything that is sacred. How can this dislocation be ever resolved?
This excerpt is from D’Costa, Bina, ‘Strangers within our Borders: Human in(security) and Identity Politics in South Asia’, paper first presented at the Social Science Research Council Border Workshop, Dubai, 2008.
Writer : Bina D’Costa