Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 September 2014, 16:29 GMT

Bangladesh: Battle lines drawn over "indigenous" label

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 2 September 2011
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Bangladesh: Battle lines drawn over "indigenous" label, 2 September 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e65b6782.html [accessed 24 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Human rights activists are abuzz over the implications of the possible removal of the word "indigenous" from official documents relating to some of the poorest and most marginalized ethnic groups in Bangladesh.

Talk of eliminating the term comes after a constitutional amendment, passed on 30 June 2011, recognizing "small ethnic groups", without referring to them as indigenous.

Member of Parliament Hasanul Haq Inu of the parliamentary caucus on indigenous peoples said the amendment's much anticipated passing was bittersweet, as groups in question prefer to be described as "indigenous" rather than tribal groups or ethnic minorities.

"For 25 years we have fought for constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples. The first phase of the struggle has been won, now the second phase is to use the right name - indigenous," he said.

In the wake of the amendment, the rift between those in the government who object to the term, and some MPs and human rights campaigners who favour it, has resurfaced.

The current Awami League government came to power in 2008 with a promise to improve the plight of the nation's "indigenous people". According to Bangladesh's now disputed 2011 census, of the country's more than 142 million inhabitants, just 1.2 percent are described as indigenous. Most live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), an area with rates of infant and child mortality among the highest in the country.

Raja Devavish Roy, "king" of the Chakma circle, the nation's largest ethnic minority, and a member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, told IRIN he had often witnessed a pendulum of interest and disinterest in indigenous rights, but he believes this most recent debate is semantics.

Devavish Roy believes the government will ultimately not ban use of the term indigenous in official documents, but he said successive governments had shown "an erratic policy on indigenous issues" since the International Labour Organization's Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention 107 was ratified in 1972.

Flawed accord?

The signing of the CHT Peace Accord in 1997 was considered a major step forward when it ended a 25-year low-intensity guerilla war between 11 ethnic groups in CHT and the government, and allowed for regional autonomy. However, a recent study by UN Rapporteur Lars Anders Bar found the Accord has not been fully implemented, and human rights violations continue.

The government rejected Bar's report: A Foreign Ministry statement objected to the term "indigenous", stating: "The ethnic Bengali population… are more indigenous to their land than the tribal peoples" and that the demand for "indigenous" recognition was aimed at "securing a privileged status".

Foreign Minister Dipu Moni says the "indigenous" debate was a distraction hindering the government's implementation of the Accord.

Deleting the term from official documents would have little effect on the Accord and ILO Convention 107, said Devavish Roy: "The Accord's provisions are not dependent on changes in terminology. ILO Convention 107 applies to indigenous and tribal populations… and the government is not denying the existence of `tribal' groups."

Opposition activists insist the term "indigenous" is useful: "We will continue to fight," said MP Rashed Khan Menon, chair of the parliamentary caucus on indigenous issues.

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