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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

RIGHTS-BANGLADESH: Glimmers of Hope Amid an Elusive Peace

Source: IPS

Catherine Makino interviews leading Bangladeshi human rights activist SULTANA KAMAL.

TOKYO, Sep 22 (IPS) - Sultana Kamal dreams of a country "where every single citizen will live in democracy, in equality" and where everyone has "equal share to resources and opportunities." Fulfilling this dream has been her lifelong advocacy as a human rights advocate.

The former adviser to the caretaker government of Bangladesh has served as a United Nations legal consultant for Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong. As a legal practitioner, she is committed to providing legal services to the poor and underprivileged.

Kamal joined the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, which pitted the West Pakistan (now Pakistan) against East Pakistan, resulting in the latter’s secession as an independent state, now called Bangladesh. Among others, she helped collect information for the guerilla forces, Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army), and gave shelter to people displaced by the conflict.

Kamal completed her law degree at Dhaka University in 1978, and later a master’s degree in Women and Development Studies in the Netherlands.

She has played a key role in bringing to international attention the long drawn-out conflict involving the indigenous people living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the south-eastern region of Bangladesh. Even after a peace accord was signed in 1997, violations of human rights in the region persisted and peace remains elusive.

Some critics warned that Bangladesh could become the next Sri Lanka, which only recently emerged from a decades-long civil war.

Kamal, who was in Japan in mid-September, shared with IPS her aspirations for her country and what she hoped a developed country like Japan could do.

IPS: What did you hope to achieve for your people by coming to Japan?

SULTANA KAMAL: (My) main objective was to share information regarding the implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Accord, which was signed in 1997 between the government of Bangladesh and Shanti Bahin (the United People's Party of the CHT).

The Accord was to end the armed conflict, which has been going on since 1976 in the region, and to settle questions regarding the rights of the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. These included land rights, natural and environmental practices, rights to their culture and, most importantly, the constitutional recognition of their rights and identity.

I wanted to see greater awareness of the problems of indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, their struggles and demands, which should lead to more support for them by the Japanese.

IPS: Why Japan in particular?

SK: Some Japanese groups are concerned with the rights of the disempowered and disadvantaged, especially indigenous people, who have been engaged in working towards the realization of (those) rights.

IPS: Is your government sincere in its support for the CHT?

SK: The present government of Bangladesh is committed to implementing the Accord, but it is facing challenges from the anti-Accord forces. There is a need to strengthen the people and government's support of the CHT.

This trip to Japan will help us reach the international community and get stronger opinions favorable to the Accord.

IPS: What do you expect from the new government of Japan?

SK: This government is liberal, so we can expect the benefits of a liberal and progressive outlook on (its) international policies. More importantly, we hear that the government will put more emphasis on strengthening relationships with its Asian neighbors, which means more support to the people of Asia who need it most.

IPS: What do you envision Japan will do now that it is under new leadership?

SK: New leadership means new hopes…. not (only) for its own people, but for the (rest of the) world, because Japan is among the league of world leaders.

This time the hope is even greater for Asia as the (Japanese) government is likely to be more forward-looking and has already committed itself to closer ties with (its) Asian neighbors.

IPS: Please tell us about your organization, the Law and Mediation Center or Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK)?

SK: (ASK) started in 1986 as a legal aid centre to provide free legal aid to the disempowered. Since most of the disempowered happen to be women, it had a special focus on them, especially poor women.

It provides legal aid to victims of state or social violence, arbitrary arrest, preventive detention, and community and class violence.

It started in a garage of a well-wisher of the organisation and has since grown into a 17-unit composite programme known as a human rights and legal aid center, or Ain o Salish Kendra.

ASK cooperates with many national, international and regional networks on human rights issues. With the UNECOSOC (United Nations Economic and Social Council) (consultative) status, ASK works closely with the U.N. special rapporteurs and on some government committees as civil society members to give advice. In short, ASK is considered to be one of the most active human rights groups (in the world).

IPS: What is the situation of women in your country?

SK: I am very proud to say that the women have made a lot of progress. But because of the existing patriarchal systems… in both private and public life, women have to face a lot of challenges in realising their rights.

The Constitution of Bangladesh commits to equality in public life for women. It goes further to say that special measures will be taken to bring the disadvantaged groups, including women, at par with everyone, and everyone will be equal before the law.

IPS: Is that happening in reality?

SK: Since in private life, laws based on religions govern people, women are discriminated against in marriage, divorce, guardianship and custody of children and in inheritance.

The discrimination is not only between women and men of the same religion; it is between women of different religions, too. For example, the Muslim women have limited rights to divorce and inheritance, which the women of other religions don't have.

The situation of minority women is even worse, particularly in a conflict situation where their interests and rights are considered secondary to the larger interests of the community which, as we all know, are defined by (traditional) patriarchy.

IPS: What is being done about it?

SK: The women's movement is very vibrant in Bangladesh. The present government also has promised to declare policies for women's development. We can hope for the best, but we know very well that there is no respite from hard work for us to gain what we aspire for.

IPS: What urgently needs to be done in your country?

SK: The most important duty we have now is supporting the democratic processes and be firm on not allowing any anti-democratic, anti-human rights, fundamentalist or corrupt measures, to foil it. Seeing that democracy gets a ground in this country is a job of the people as well as the government. Establishment of justice, rule of law, human rights and security and peace are the priorities now.

IPS: You have given so much energy and time for causes. How has this affected you personally, and have you had to sacrifice a lot?

SK: If I have been able to give my energy and time to causes in my life, I will consider that to be my good fortune. What better use could I put my energy and time to?

The main impact it has had on me personally is that it has taught me to understand and love my country better and to feel a part of the whole of humanity. I don't feel that I have sacrificed a lot. I think I have done nothing more than my duty. (END/2009)

BANGLADESH: Missioner priest preserves tribal musical heritage


TANGAIL, Bangladesh (UCAN) -- The beat of traditional tribal Garo drums are being heard a little more often these days in Pirgacha in Mymensingh diocese.

The playing of these and other traditional instruments is undergoing a revival thanks to the efforts of American Holy Cross Father Eugene Homrich, parish priest of St. Paul's Church in Pirgacha, Tangail.

Father Homrich, 85, has been working in this forested tribal area in the northwest since 1952 and has established a small museum to preserve traditional tribal musical instruments, some of which risked being lost forever.

He has also employed four elderly Garo musicians to teach youngsters how to play these instruments.

"After having spent over 40 years with the Garo people, I found that ... they have a rich musical heritage. So I've tried to be of some help" in this area, said the priest, who is known affectionately as Achchu (Grandfather) Nokrek.

Father Homrich started collecting and preserving instruments in Pirgacha parish, northwestern Bangladesh, in 1993. Since then, he has preserved about 300 instruments, spending about 197,500 taka (US$2,857) in the process.

Just like Western musical instruments, their traditional Garo counterparts include wind, string and percussion instruments.

Father Homrich says he had to obtain many of the instruments from India. "My friends in America and some wealthy local and foreign donors helped me to finance the scheme," said the priest, who speaks the Garo language and often celebrates Mass in the Garo tongue.

The museum also has a collection of traditional Garo household utensils, some of which are no longer to be found in the Garo community in Bangladesh.

Father Homrich has employed 90-year-old Sohin Mree as museum curator, as well as a teacher of traditional Garo music to 25 young Garo people.

"I learned to play musical instruments from my father," said Mree, who used to be a farmer. He added that he had not imagined that he would one day become a music teacher.

For Father Joyonto Raksam, a native Garo himself, Father Homrich "has revived interest in traditional Garo music which is also a part of local Catholic liturgy."

Father Raksam, rector of St. Paul's Seminary in neighboring Jalchatra parish, said, "The Garo have hymnbooks and Mass books in their native language," so musical instruments are important for accompanying hymns sung during Mass and other liturgical celebrations.

The tribal priest also said that Father Homrich's initiative has helped reawaken cultural awareness among parish priests in the diocese. They too, have started collecting and preserving traditional musical instruments in their own parishes, he said.

According to the Bangladesh Catholic directory, Catholics in the diocese numbered 72,952 in 2007. Most of the Catholics are tribal Garo.

Muslims in Bangladesh Seize Land Used by Church


Aenon Shalom

Compass Direct News

September 7, 2009

DHAKA, Bangladesh (CDN) — Bengali-speaking, Muslim settlers have seized five acres of abandoned government property used by a church and falsedly charged Christians with damaging the land in southeastern Bangladesh's Khagrachari hill district, Christian leaders said.

Kiron Joti Chakma, field director of Grace Baptist Church in Khagrachari district, told Compass that the settlers had taken over the church building and the five acres of land in Reservechara village in June and filed a case on Aug. 4 against five tribal Christians. The Bengali-speaking Muslims had come from other areas of Bangladesh in a government resettlement program that began in 1980.

"In the case, the settlers mentioned that the Christians had cut the trees and damaged the crops on their land and that they should pay 250,000 taka [US$3,690] as compensation," said Chakma. "We cultivated pineapple in the land around the church. But the settlers damaged all of our pineapple trees and built two houses there."

The government has allowed the Christians to use the land. Tribal leaders said that land-grabbing in the area hill tracts, undulating landscape under Dighinala police jurisdiction 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of the Dhaka, began again during the army-backed interim government of 2007-2008.

"It is still continuing, and our demands to stop land-grabbing do not rate very high with the administration and law enforcement agencies," said one of the accused, 32-year-old Mintu Chakma.

When he went to the police station regarding the false case filed against the Christians, he said, the leader of the Bengali settlers was there and threatened him in front of officers, telling him, "I can devour dozens of people like you - I will finish your life."

Church leaders have informed a nearby army camp of the seizure. Military officers said they would take action, but they have done nothing so far, Christians said.

"Our leaders informed the army zone commander, and he assured us they would take necessary action, but nothing has happened so far against those land grabbers and arsonists," said 25-year-old Liton Chakma (Chakma is the name of the tribe), one of the Christians accused in the Grace Baptist case.

The Muslim settlers had burned a Seventh-day Adventist Church building in 2008 in Boachara village, close to the Grace Baptist Christians' village, in an effort to frighten tribal people away from becoming Christian, said Liton Chakma. He told Compass that Bengali settlers had also hindered their attempt to construct the church building in August in 2007.

"Many new believers saw nothing had happened to the arsonists, and many of them reverted to their previous Buddhism," he said. "The army and local administration allowed them to run wild. They always threaten to beat us and file cases against us."

Mintu Chakma said that Muslim settlers seized a garden next to his house in 2007.

"They not only destroyed my pineapple garden, but they built a mosque there," he said.

Land Ownership
Local police inspector Suvas Pal told Compass that neither tribal people nor Bengali settlers were the owners of that land. It is government-owned, abandoned land, he said.

"The Bengali settlers claim that the land was assigned to lease to them, but we did not find any copy of lease in the deputy commissioner's office," said Pal. "On the other hand, the tribal people could not show any papers of their possession of the land."

Investigating Officer Omar Faruque told Compass that the Muslim settlers had built two houses there, though they did not live there or nearby.

"I told the Bengali settlers that if they [tribal Christians] worship in the church there, then do not disturb them," said Faruque.

Dipankar Dewan, headman of the tribal community, told Compass that the tribal Christians have an historical claim to the land.

"The land belonged to the forefathers of tribal Christians, so they can lay claim to the property by inheritance," said Dewan.

During conflict between tribal people and Bengali people in the hill tracts, the tribal people left the country and took shelter in neighboring India, leaving much of their land abandoned. Bengali settlers took over some of the land, while the government leased other tracts to Bengali settlers, Dewan said.

"Many lands of the tribal people were grabbed in the hill tracts in the two years of state-of-emergency period of the previous army-backed, interim government," he said. "Those Bengali settlers tried to grab the land during the tenure of the army-backed, interim government."

Members of the Shanti Bahini, tribal guerrillas who fought for autonomy in the hill tracts, ended a 25-years revolt in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area in 1997 under a peace treaty in which the government was to withdraw troops and restore land acquired by settlers to local tribesmen.

Some 2,000 Shanti Bahini guerrillas surrendered their weapons following the 1997 treaty. But the tribal people say many aspects of the treaty remain unfulfilled, including restoration of rights and assigning jobs to them.

The guerrillas had fought for autonomy in the hill and forest region bordering India and Burma (Myanmar) in a campaign that left nearly 8,500 troops, rebels and civilians killed.

Recently the Awami League government ordered one army brigade of nearly 2,500 troops to pull out from the hill tract, and the withdrawal that began early last month is expected to be completed soon. Four brigades of army are still deployed in the hill tracts comprising three districts - Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban.

Copyright 2009 Compass Direct News. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thakurgaon clash over temple: 5 held

Source: The DailyStar

About 200 followers of International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), including chief of Gorea ISKCON Temple Pushpa Shila Sham Das, have been sued on charge of killing a traditional Hindu devotee at Bhatgaon village under Sadar upazila on Friday.

Bhabesh Chandra Roy of Bhatgaon village filed the case with Sadar Police Station on Friday night, accusing 62 identified and about 150 unidentified ISKCON followers of killing traditional Hindu devotee Fulbabu.

Fulbabu was killed and 15 others were injured in a clash between the ISKCON followers and traditional Hindu devotees over control of a local temple.

Police arrested five of the accused yesterday. They are Jogesh Chandra Roy, Motilal Roy, Jatish Chandra Barman, Harandranath Barman and Khirmohan Barman.

Following the clash, police ousted the followers of both sects from the temple and took control of it.

Bangladesh celebrates Durga Puja:


Bangladesh is perhaps one of the few Islamic countries where a Hindu festival like Durga Puja is celebrated with gusto. All are welcome to the puja pandal irrespective of the religious association.

BANGLADESH IS one of the few countries that call themselves Islamic Republic and yet celebrate a Hindu festival like the Durga Puja. It has historical reasons. In the pre-independence undivided India, a large number of Hindus lived in the cities and villages that later became East Pakistan and on independence from Pakistan was renamed as Bangladesh. Indeed the tempo of trouble free celebration of a Hindu religious cum social function depends on the attitude of the government of the day. Right now, the Awami League is in power and instructions issued by it from the capital Dhaka is that the Hindus should have full freedom of practising their faith.

The number of puja pandal in Dhaka, Sylhet, Khulna, Chittagong and other towns and cities has never been so large after the country declared itself an Islamic republic. Now, this year the Hindu population has more religious freedom. There is enthusiasm and fun and frolic in the air and on the ground in Bangladesh with Sheikh Hasina as the powerful and effective Prime Minister.

It may be recalled that Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur rehman who became the Prime Minister after the then East Pakistan was liberated with the help of the Indian Army. Notwithstanding ups and downs in the diplomatic relationship between the two countries, the Bangladeshis can never forget that they are enjoying the fruits of freedom after being liberated from the iron clutches of Pakistan, thanks to India and the Indian support.

By the way, Durga Puja commences its ten day celebrations with worship of the goddess on the mahalaya and it reaches climax with Maha Ashtmi and Maha Navami. Children and adults look forward to the Pooja with great expectations. After the religious part is over, the socio-cultural aspect comes into prominence and staging of plays or screening of movies hold sway. The audience swells beyond the capacity of the pandal. Men, women and children of all faiths living in Bangladesh flock to the Hindu celebrations without a hitch.

The only other country that stages plays from the Hindu epic, Ramayan, where mostly Muslims play the roles is Indonesia. Among numerous islands of the country, Bali is the only Hindu island but Ramayan is staged all over Indonesia, specially the capital Jakarta.

As neighbours of Bangladesh and as one who was with them in shaping history, the Indians naturally feel close to them. We wish one and all Happy Durga Puja.