More From Alder's Ledge

July 17, 2015

When Simply Staying Alive Becomes Resistance

The Struggle of Bangladesh's Indigenous Peoples
(part of The Darkness Visible series)

Marma Children in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

Where Dreams Go To Die

We are all born with the desire to have certain things in life. We are born to desire a certain degree of freedom in this life. We are born with a fire inside that rages within us till we can quench this hunger for liberty. It is the natural state of man to crave freedom. It is why we are restless when we are deprived of it. It is why we feel hollow when it is stolen from us and replaced with one form of tyranny or another. It is a fire that either creates within us the desire to sustain our own freedoms or destroy the world as we know it till we can obtain said freedoms. All of human history attest to this.

It is no wonder that societies deprived of their basic human rights, their essential liberties, begin to reflect the symptoms of a staving body. Their minds become fixated upon what the hunger for it. They show it in their view of the world. They show it in the expressions of joy when they get a passing taste of it. But mostly... they show it in the ways they resist those who oppose their rights and keep them trapped in this state of hunger. 

For generations now the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts have been forced to dream of what it would be like to be free in their own homeland. They have been deprived of the rights that their ancestors once enjoyed. They have been kept in a perpetual state of craving what others enjoy daily while they are forced to suffer. For generations now the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts have simply stayed alive as an act of defiance to a nation that continually pushes them toward extinction. 

This is both what they resist and how they defy a nation. 

This is just a glimpse of what they endure.

The Jumma Tribes Of
The Chittagong Hill Tracts 

To understand the struggle one has to understand the people themselves. This article will not be able to, as no one article ever could, give you a full introduction to the indigenous tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. So in addition to this post we would like to invite all our readers to research and find reliable sources (some posted in the links below) to understand the Jumma tribes more than what we have written here. 
There are eleven tribal groups that are indigenous to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. These include the Bawm, Chakma, Khumi, Khyang, Lushai, Marma, Uchay, Mru, Pankho, Sak, and Tanchangya peoples. Each are linguistically, culturally, and ethnically different from the Bengali majority that lives on the plains below the Chittagong Hills. They have distinct cultures that focus heavily on their traditional ways of life and individual religious beliefs. While the Chakma and Marma, numbering around 350,000, are mostly Buddhists the remaining tribes are comprised of Hindus, Christians, and traditional religions unique to their tribal groups. 

The traditional cultivating practices of the indigenous peoples lends to their collective name of Jummas. It is a system, called jum, of small patchwork fields that rotate in both location and the crops planted in them. It is also a system that the government of Bangladesh attempts to prevent the indigenous peoples from using. 

The Chittagong Hills stretch along the the southeastern border of Bangladesh, Inida, and Myanmar (Burma). It is a stretch of land that contains thick forests and mountain lakes. While difficult to cultivate, the Chittagong Hills do offer enough arable soil for the indigenous peoples to support their communities. 

In 1971 the Jumma tribes were practically the only inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Their ancestral land had been exploited under Pakistan's rule yet had not been occupied in the way it would be once Bangladesh gained independence. From the very start of Bangladesh's rule the Jummas began to lose lands to the new tyrant ruling over them. 

First Came The Military

In the late 1970s the president of Bangladesh, Ziaur Rehman, signed into law a series of programs designed to create a government-run "population transfer" in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. His government immediately sat out to displace as many of the Jumma tribal groups as they could in the shortest period of time they could manage. These dictates issued the orders to begin creating a system of military installations that would gut the Chittagong Hills and divide the tribal peoples. Within just a matter of years the Bangladeshi army had created hundreds of military camps across the mountain tops along the roads they paved through the heart of the Chittagong Hills. This was a campaign to divide and conquer the Jumma peoples. 

When the Jumma peoples began to resist the military occupation of their homelands in 1976 the Bengali army moved in even more troops. By 1977 the Bengali military had begun a full scale assault on Jumma lands by ordering Jumma tribes off their land to make way for more roads and military camps. When Jumma tribes dared to stand and fight for their lands the army of Bangladesh willingly committed massacres and torched Jumma villages. The direct response to resistance was the placement of military camps on and near Jumma villages. Any route the Jumma could take to move from one village to the other was suddenly blocked by checkpoints. The strategy had shifted to complete isolation and starvation of the Jumma people in less than a year of resistance efforts by the Jumma tribes. 

The Jana Samhati Samiti, with a military wing, attempted to negotiate with Bangladesh some form of peace between the Jumma tribes and the Bengali military. Yet from 1976 till December of 1997 the government of Bangladesh only sought to forcibly expand it's presence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Their aim was to displace the vast majority of the Jumma tribes and drive as many of the indigenous civilians as the could out of Bangladesh. This aim was made clear as the number of Jumma peoples internally displaced rose to 100,000 while the number of Jumma refugees fleeing the country rose to 70,000. 

As Bengali troops sat out to put Jumma villages to the torch the issue of rape became ever more prevalent. From 1971 on through 1994 the military of Bangladesh has been reported to have committed over 2,000 rapes of indigenous women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This is in part due to the fact that Bangladesh's army was given permission to engage in rape as a means of displacing Jumma families and keeping the victims silent after atrocities were committed. Jumma women were raped both for the fact that Bangladesh had indoctrinated it's troops in the belief that the Jumma women were subhuman and the enemy. In addition it was seen as a way of keeping Bengali soldiers motivated and a perverse way of keeping moral of the troops high in the isolation of the Chittagong Hills. 

It has also been reported several times that Bangladesh's military committed at least 13 large scale massacres of indigenous peoples during the Jummas' struggle to resist occupation. These attacks are often denied by Bangladesh and attributed to "crossfire" incidents. This became very clear when in August of 2013 the government of Bangladesh tried to explain away the deaths of 776 indigenous peoples as "victims of crossfire". The main problem with this explanation is that from 2004 to 2013 the government of Bangladesh only lost 18 soldiers during combat operations. The sheer number of deaths involved in these incidents disproportionately falls in favor of Bangladesh while offering only slaughter as an explanation when talking about indigenous deaths. 

After the Peace Accords of 1997 were signed the military of Bangladesh was supposed to begin dismantling it's camps that now choke the Chittagong Hills. Of the more than 500 military camps installed since the 1970s, Bangladesh has only closed a meager 29 camps. And most of these have simply been moved to other areas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Of course the government of Bangladesh does come up with excuses for building even more military camps today; such as how they most recently used the migrant crisis in the Andaman Sea as a reason for military expansion.

Today the government of Bangladesh keeps over 1/3rd of it's military in the Chittagong Hills at any given time. The UN called this "excessive" in it's most recent review of Bangladesh's failure to implement the 1997 Peace Accords. The UN went on to note that having 1/3 of the military occupying an area of land that constitutes less than 1/10th of Bangladesh's territory was unjustifiable. It also noted that the Jumma people themselves account for less than one percent of Bangladesh's population and yet are the most policed portion of the overall population. 

Unlawful Settlers

When president Ziaur Rehman began his displacement of the Jumma people he started a program of offering Bengali citizens bribes to uproot and settle on Jumma lands. According to UN mandates, to which Bangladesh has agreed, this policy of displacement not only violates international law but also the human rights of the Jumma peoples. Namely the ILO Indigenous And Tribal Populations Convention No. 107, to which Bangladesh agreed and signed in 1972. 

Yet in spite of having agreed to international laws which prohibit the displacement of indigenous peoples the government of Bangladesh pushed forward with it's policies. Between 1971 and 1997 the government moved more than 500,000 illegal Bengali settlers onto indigenous lands. Each and every one of these settlers were encouraged by bribes from the government and promises of "free" and "open" land in the Chittagong Hills. They were told that areas would be provided for them and all they had to do was squat on lands not their own. 

From the start the Bengali settlers found themselves at odds with the indigenous population of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Settlers were prone to set up their unlawful settlements near military camps. And since the military camps were inevitably placed directly on indigenous lands this led to the intended conflict. 

Settlers were encouraged by the military to engage in evictions of their own. Bengali men were told that they had the right to utilize rape in order to force Jumma families from their homes. This was an aspect of the settlements that rapidly became one of their defining characteristics. It became so problematic that Bangladesh has resorted to telling doctors in the Chittagong Hills to exclude any evidence of rape when reporting on Jumma women and young girls. And yet at the same time the government of Bangladesh is quick, at times quicker than the actual facts, in reporting the rape of any Bengali squatter in the Chittagong Hill tracts. 

 One such case of Bengali rape of a Marma girl took place as recently as January of 2015. The eight year old girl was on her way home when a Bengali plantation owner brutally raped her. The savage attacker had left the girl to bleed out after his barbaric assault. Yet the hospital staff refused to communicate in the girl's native language and the doctors were unclear as to how they would record the attack. The perpetrator of the rape was not reported to have been arrested. And this is not an isolated incident. It is in fact far too common throughout the Chittagong Hills. 

In 2014 alone there were 75 reported cases of sexual violence against indigenous women in the Chittagong Hills. These 75 cases account for the sexual assaults of 117 indigenous women (57% of these cases also involved children). Of these cases a total of 21 involved gang-rape, 55 were victims of physical assault in addition to rape, seven of the victims were murdered, and 11 involved abductions of indigenous women. Yet despite these staggering numbers the reality is that the majority of rapes in the Chittagong Hills go unreported due to both societal and religious stigmas surrounding the crime itself. 

One could continue by detailing how in 2013 there were 175 reported incidents of sexual violence being committed against indigenous women in the Chittagong Hills (49 of which involving gang-rape). Or how of all the identified rapists from January of 2010 to December of 2011 were never convicted for their crimes against indigenous women and girls in the Chittagong Hills. But the numbers aren't as important here... it's the lives of the victims (who are increasingly ending up dead and are more often now below the age of 18) and their families that matters. This is an aspect of Bangladesh's occupation that is overlooked because it isn't something anyone wants to talk about. It is a part of the genocidal occupation that leaves scars which time itself cannot heal. And yet Bangladesh refuses to put an end to the culture of impunity that allows both Bangladesh's military and it's Bengali settlers to rape indigenous women without ever facing the consequences.

The illegal Bengali settlers are also allowed to forcibly evict and attack the Jumma without facing any legal consequences. Nearly every time the Bengali settlers attack and burn Jumma homes, villages, temples, and crops the army of Bangladesh offers support for the hordes of illegal settlers. This is most evident during incidents as that which occurred in Burighat, Naniarchar on December 16th of 2014.

This was a deliberate attack in which over 500 Bengali settlers marched into a Chakma village with the intent of destroying the entire village. The attack would last for almost two hours before the Bengali assailants would return to their own village. The attackers burned over 50 Chakma homes and several Chakma shops during the attack. They also looted and vandalized the Karuna Bihar Buddhist Temple, making off with several bronze statues. 

This attack was immediately followed by Bengali settlers attempting to take the land upon which several Chakma homes had previously stood. The illegal settlers attempted to pressure the military into offering them protection as they squatted on the land they had just torched. Meanwhile the Chakma tried desperately to keep what was being stolen from them. In the end, the government of Bangladesh blamed the Chakma and rewarded the illegal settlers with rice and cash for their assault on indigenous homes. 

This the climate in which genocidal attacks are permitted to occur. This is the work of a government that has refused to allow peace to once again come to the Chittagong Hills. It is the deliberate attempt to ethnically cleanse the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. A government so determined to undermine indigenous rights that it would unlawfully settle over 15,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar on the lands of Jumma tribal peoples. This is the face of a government devoid of any sense of morality. 

So Why Does The World Remain Silent?

It is unreasonable when presented with the facts to think that anything in the Chittagong Hill Tracts will change without pressure being applied to Bangladesh from the outside. The government of Bangladesh has carried out it's crimes for generations. It has shown that it is willing to commit the same crimes against humanity as is Israel, Myanmar, North and South Sudan, Eritrea, and any other genocidal regime. 

Yet when it comes to the issue of indigenous peoples facing genocidal regimes the outside world has a long legacy of remaining silent. We tend to respond to genocide only when it is too late. But in the case of indigenous peoples, we tend not to respond at all. Their fate is one that we have relegated to history books and the storylines of romanticized movies. 

In the case of Bangladesh there is also the fact that the perpetrator is often seen as an impoverished nation struggling to provide for it's own people. This is an image that Bangladesh is all to happy to perpetuate as it openly claims (with yet another lie) that there are supposedly no indigenous peoples in Bangladesh. And thus it's conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is one that it continues to lie about by calling it anything but what it is... genocide. 

As for the twitter realm of humanitarians...

The issue of Bangladesh's genocide in the Chittagong Hills is one that does not currently fit the prevailing narrative. It is a genocide in which the perpetrators are Muslims while the victims are Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and those of indigenous religions. For this reason it does not gain the same favor as that of the Rohingya, Palestine, or the Uyghur of China. And this is an aspect of the silence that should be more damning than all others... but it's one never admitted to. 

There are currently more Bengali settlers on Jumma lands than there are Jumma tribal members. This is a genocide that is already passed the breaking point. It is one that is now headed for completion as the world continues to watch in silence. It is a genocide that needs addressed. And it is one that must be stopped soon before the damage is irreparable. 

We as a world community must start screaming for all those who are suffering in the Chittagong Hills (and across the globe) regardless of their race, religion, social standings, or creed. We must not only scream for the Jumma people but help their voices be heard. We must amplify their voices whenever and wherever we can.

If you call yourself a humanitarian these are not suggestions.

If you call yourself anything related to such a word as that.... then this is your fight as well.

Articles used in the research of this article:
(not all sources listed)

Survival International

Dhaka Tribune 


Cultural Survival

The Citizen (India)


University of Notre Dame

The Daily Star

Asian Tribune 


Asian Center For Human Rights