A landslide in Chittagong Hill Tracts, South Bangladesh, left over 150 people dead this week. The death toll is certain to rise as the ethnic tribal and minority population, cut off from the rest of the country, calculates the full extent of the calamity. The government has not declared a national emergency as is customary in the event of a natural disaster, or even issued a statement mourning the tragedy. Then again, to call the disaster “natural” would not be entirely correct.
The ruling class, comprising all political parties and the military, has overseen over four decades of unlawful land-grabbing, unplanned hill-cutting and unbridled deforestation in the region, to enrich themselves and the capitalist class at the expense of the environment and the inhabitants, for whom this land is their birthright.
Just as there will be no state-sanctioned emergency effort to alleviate the suffering of the devastated people, there will be no enquiry into the activities of the moneyed classes that have caused what is essentially state-sanctioned corporate manslaughter.
The landslide came on the heels of another tragedy. On April 5, Romel Chakma, a visually impaired student was buying groceries at the weekly market when he was abducted by an army contingent led by one Major Syed Tanvir Saleh. His family filed an application with the National Human Rights Commission in Dhaka the following day, but the incident did not even register on media and civil society radars. This was not the first time men in uniform had taken away a member of one of the indigenous minority communities in the Tracts without charge, formal or informal, nor would it be the last. Thus, writing about it would be a waste of ink for the media, and there was the added disincentive of inviting the ire of the army.
Chakma, his battered and broken body showing signs of torture, died on April 19. The media finally reported about him the next day, by which time the state concocted the story that he was a “dangerous insurgent” wanted for crimes that had, in reality, not been committed, and that he had been interrogated lawfully and humanely before succumbing to a pre-existing health condition.
Reign of terror
In the Tracts, anyone who is not a Bengali Muslim is an insurgent. This is how the Dhaka establishment persecutes and subjugates the people of the region, in direct contravention of The Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accords, signed by the Awami League government on December 2, 1996 but never implemented. The latest tactic, to which Chakma fell victim, is to demoralise the tribal political movement and the demand for human rights by targeting their leaders on the pretext of “suspicious behaviour”.
Two successive military dictators, Ziaur Rahman and HM Ershad, embraced Islamism to define the identity of Bangladesh and intensified counter-insurgency efforts against the indigenous peoples of the Tracts through the 1980s. Massacre, rape, torture, enforced disappearance and extra-judicial killing marked the offensive that continued into the 1990s, well after military rule had ended.
The military and its business interests, including heavy troop contributions to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force, constitute the third rail of Bangladeshi politics. The elite class in Dhaka – including the opportunistic civil society and the media that wholeheartedly supported the 2006-2008 military regime and still harbour the same political aspirations – does not interfere. Citizens who dare to raise their voice often pay with their lives. This is why demands for justice in the wake of Chakma’s death did not reverberate across the country. When community activists threatened to become too loud, their swift silencing was not newsworthy.
Evidently, dissent is unbecoming of Bangladeshis. Protests are, therefore, suppressed as a matter of national duty. When the army desecrated temples in Naniachar on May 18 and severely injured several people in the subsequent protests on May 22, there were no media reports. Naniachar is the site of the brutal massacre carried out by the armed forces with the endorsement of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami government in 1993. Nearly a quarter of a century later, the state keeps inflicting more scars before the old ones have healed, the apathetic country accrues more sins with its deferential silence.
Still, the unrest continued unabated and its public relations implications made it difficult for the government and the armed forces to control the situation. On June 2, the authorities manufactured public outrage to regain the upper hand and reassert its dominance: the discovery of the body of an Awami League activist sparked riots. Bengali Muslim settlers, who have assisted the state-backed colonisation of the tribal lands since Independence, were incited to violence by the ruling party and the army before the death had been investigated.
More than 300 homes were set on fire in Langadu, the scene of a massacre in 1989 that left scores of people dead and over 13,000 fleeing to India. This time, the displaced thousands sought refuge in the receding woods, leaving behind charred bodies as the government enforced Section 144 of the Penal Code, to prohibit assemblies. Arrests were made across Chittagong Hill Tracts – from peaceful demonstrations against the death of Chakma, faux outrage instigated by the authorities in Langadu, and continued injustices directed at the ethnic population of the region.
The landslide intervened before the voices of the minority communities telling tales of lament could be heard, quietly ushering the Chittagong Hill Tracts back to the shadows where oppression with impunity dwells.
The Language Movement of 1952 established the Bengali language as the embodiment of equality and justice. The noble egalitarian principles were polluted by misplaced nationalistic politics after Independence, turning Bengali Muslims into a bigoted oppressive force. Bangladesh, obeying the diktats of the ruling and elite classes of Dhaka, excels at corrupting beauty and morality. In Chittagong Hill Tracts, this corruption is metaphysical, literal, absolute. The majoritarian Bengali Muslims have silently, violently and efficiently oppressed the native population for decades in the blind spot of the country and the world. The military’s active involvement means this is unlikely to change – to the relief of the elites.
The ruling and the elite classes, who have a mutually parasitic relationship, have turned to Islamism to ensure continuation of the reign of oppression in Bangladesh. It is working, too. More and more indigenous people are fleeing to what remains of the wilderness, to escape the violence inflicted by the military, law enforcement agencies, mobs of private citizens and nature. They are being forced to be homeless refugees in their own country, on their own land. These people are too alien, too insignificant for the Bengali Muslims scurrying up the socio-economic ladder in Dhaka, stepping on broken backs and crushed bones, to care.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a columnist for the Dhaka Tribune and author of the socio-political short story collection Yours, Etcetera. He is on Twitter as @ikhtisad.