Rapes &
Jumma Refugees
CHT Treaty
Foreign Aid


  By Peter Idenburg, Coordinator of R.I.O.P. (Research Institute of Oppressed Peoples)

1. Introduction

Why should the world care about the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts? Although generally it would not be put in this explicit form, this is basically the question that has to be answered when one is trying to mobilize governments and public opinion on the issue of the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Or, for that matter, of any relatively small national minority anywhere. In this paper we should like to analyze and discuss the main ar- guments that are most frequently used in this matter. In doing so we wish to develop an answer not only to the question why the world should care about these people, but also to the question how the world could care. As someone who works at RIOP, I am confronted daily with the tragedy of oppressed peoples and cannot help noticing the striking similarities. There are similarities in the pattern of oppression all over the world as well as in the arguments used to deny the very existence of this oppression. In our opinion this universality of both the pattern of oppression and the arguments used to deny them is not accidental. They are interconnected; both can be interpreted as aspects (or functions) of a process that is essentially worldwide : the development of the nationstate as the cornerstone of the world political system. Anything that appears to threaten this universal order tends to be eliminated physically but also mentally by universal mechanisms like rationalization and denial. We argue that denying this reality of oppressing national minorities is self-defeating because oppressing national minorities undermines the nation-state morally and legally in the long run.

2. Patterns of oppression

The people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts share with many other oppressed people the fact that their oppression is above all a denial of their very identity. They are people for whom there is no place; who are not expected to exist as such. This is the situation of the Kurds in the Middle East, the Indians in the Americas, the Papuans in West New Guinea. The pattern of oppression should be understood in this light.

  1. One of the more pronounced forms of oppression by denial is denial of a place of one's own, as expressed by a systematic policy of in-migration of majority-group settlers at the expense of the local population. This is the case with the so-called 'Bengalization' of the Chittagong Hills. It is a denial of the local people's identity because it makes them 'strangers in their own land'. Not only are the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts a minority in quantitative terms as a result of the rise of the proportion of Bengali Muslims from 2 to probably more than 50% within 20 years; they have also become extremely vulnerable as a result of a complex of factors which tend to reinforce each other. Not only do the newcomers receive land at the expense of the local population; the newcomers also adapt more easily to official economic development policies and to the economic activities of people who act as links to the outside world: traders, middlemen and moneylenders. An important reason is that these people belong to the same majority group in the country. This situation leads to a vicious circle of economic decline for the local people, a further decrease of their status and social position and a lowering of their morale. This is probably the most universal pattern of oppression of national minorities. It is a type of oppression which is all too often justified by the 'Third World'-ideology of economic assistance and development, but which contradicts the basic principles of that ideology. The same reasons that can be adduced to justify foreign aid to 'Third World' countries can be adduced to argue that these national minorities, or 'Fourth World', need special assistance and Protection.
  2. An equally clear expression of the denial of 'a place of one's own' is forced out-migration from the area, whether as a result of a well-defined government policy of 'relocation', or as a result of 'force of circumstances' when the situation has become unbearable both physically and psychologically. Under certain circumstances, of course, 'relocation' may be justified as an inevitable consequence of national or regional development. But the reality of the so-called 'model villages' in which people are 'relocated' is that they seem primarily intended to destroy the original cultural identity of these people. This is a wellknown phenomenon in countries with oppressed minorities like Guatemala and Ethiopia. It generally acts as an additional incentive of involuntary migration to neighbouring countries. In the case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, too, there is a growing 'spill over' to the states of Tripura and Mizoram in India. Flight means an escape from the immediate threat of physical and cultural extinction, but it can hardly be called a solution. Not only does India not want them because it fears tensions with its own population as well as with the Bangladesh government; there is also the material and psychological deprivation to which refugees are subjected even if they are tolerated.
  3. An obvious form of 'identity denial' is cultural-religious oppression in its many manifestations. It is prominent in the case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. There are many examples of destruction of monasteries, persecution of monks, prohibition of Buddhist rituals, forced Islamization, and so on. Generally the significance of this type of oppression is underestimated by materialist and secularized minds. In traditional societies the cultural-religious phenomena play a central role in organizing all aspects of life and are for that reason in a way very 'material'. When 'traditional' people are deprived of their cultural and religious modes of expression they are deprived of their general orientation in life and of a system of mutual obligations that is vital in a society with no other institutions to take care of old or less productive people.
  4. The starkest form of oppression is physical terror and extinction. The case of the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts is certainly part of this shameful chapter of human history. The more recent examples are the massacres of Kaukhali, Mubhachari, Panchari and Bhusanchara in which thousands of people were killed. In accordance with the general character of identity denial', oppression thrives on the hatred, fear and frustrations of those who are mobilized to do the dirty job: the lower echelons of the military apparatus, the 'people's militias' and the poor migrant settlers.
  5. In general one might characterize the situation of such oppressed peoples as one of uprootedness and withering. So many of them are deprived of their land, their relatives, their leaders, and therefore they are deprived of hope in the future. Like other people they should have the chance to re-assemble and develop their identity by having their own historical background recognized.

3. Fallacies

The arguments against which we make a stand in this paper can be characterized briefly as follows: denial (It is just propaganda'), minimizing ('There are so many other problems in the Third World'), formalism ('This is a sovereign state'), and 'realism' ('It would not be in their interest to create false hopes'). Generally, these arguments are not articulated or are used with hindsight to rationalize vaguely one's resignation or lack of interest. Those who doubt that such arguments play a decisive role in world-wide acceptance of serious oppression, or even genocide, should recall the effective fallacies that were used to cover up the persecution and genocide of European Jews before and during the Second World War.

  1. Denial: "These stories should be taken with a pinch of salt" or "It is all (or mostly) propaganda". These arguments often succeed in keeping at bay awkward and undesirable information and act as barriers to what is known as 'cognitive dissonance'. Information which does not fit in with one's ideological system is ignored: "These things do not happen in civilized countries or "Communist countries do not have such problems (Ukranians? Estonians? Tibetans?)". Of course there are generally organizations that struggle against oppression and will use propaganda in their struggle. But this does not justify the disqualification of all information as propaganda. On the contrary, it only emphasizes the importance of gathering reliable information. Despite the inevitable margins of uncertainty that have to be tolerated when we collect hotly contested information, it is possible to bring together knowledge that is both relevant and reliable.
  2. Minimizing: This technique is important in the case of the Chittagong Hills: "It is only 600,000 people", or "Bangladesh is such a poor country with so many problems -- why all this special attention for this small group?". Of course, there is an element of truth in it. When means are scarce, not only financially but also in terms of world attention and political pressure, priorities have to be made. However, for the people concerned there is little consolation in such considerations. Whether one belongs to a tribe of one hundred or to a nation of a hundred million does not make any difference when one is oppressed. But even to the outside world arguments in terms of numbers or 'size' of the problem are often dubious and of a limited value. By using 'quantitative' arguments one loses sight of fundamental 'qualitative' consierations too easily. One of these is the consideration that certain things are just unacceptable, only because they affect the foundations of our moral and legal convictions. Quite rightly slavery is banned unconditionally and without any quantitative considerations today, because it is felt to be against the basic rules of our moral order. And it is exactly because of the same dehumanizing character of oppression that it should not be tolerated, in whatever its 'quantity'. There is a basic difference between the enormous problems of poverty and economic development of Bangladesh and other Third World countries and the oppression of national minorities, whether they are Jews in the Soviet Union or the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.
  3. Formalism: "This is an internal affair" or "Intervention from outside would run counter to the basic principles of our international legal and political order". Again, there is some sense in the argument. But falsehood lies in the absolute form of the statements. It is more a matter of degrees. In the first place it should be realized that there is a difference between direct interference and endeavours to influence other governments in, among other things, the way they treat their minorities. And there is nothing unethical in stipulating certain conditions when giving development aid when these conditions refer to the position of the weakest group in society. On the contrary one might say. But even interference cannot be completely excluded on legal grounds, especially not in the case of genocide and severe oppression of national minorities.
  4. Realism: "It would be against the interests of the people themselves to create false hopes by supporting them in their struggle". Indeed, external support to liberation movements may not only be ineffective but even counterproductive. It may lead to the severest forms of oppression in the name of the integrity of the state and national security. A certain stage of the struggle in Biafra be cited as an example. As an outsider one cannot get away from evaluating the prospects of the struggle. But even so one must take care to avoid too simplistic a reasoning in terms of effectivity. In many cases the real aims are more modest and restricted than the declared aims, e.g. the conquest of certain fundamental rights or of some kind of autonomy, as a 'next best', or 'mini' option in the back of the struggling party's mind. From a strategic point of view this can be a very rational policy. From the point of view of political morality one should realize that, when survival and the fundaments of self-respect are at stake, it is up to the people themselves to decide whether they wish to fight or not.

4. Structural causes

As we have already observed, the universality of the pattern of oppression of national minorities should primarily be explained by the universality of the proces behind it, namely the process of the development of the nation-state as the basic macrosocial and political unit in today's world. Oppression of others is no doubt as old as man himself: oppression between tribes within the structures of the great ancient empires and the not so ancient colonial systems. The system of the sovereign nation state provides a new type of oppression of peoples, with specific patterns and mechanisms, specific 'rules of the game', and specific denials and rationalizations. There are certain aspects of this process which need further examination.

  1. We should realize that the present form of the nation state is neither arbitrary, nor accidental. Its size, its inner rationality and its basic ideology correspond to a certain level of productivity and certain modes of production. Whether one likes it or not, everybody has to live in a nation-state today and there is no room for a nostalgic longing for a society organized on tribal principles. Certain foundations of the present economic system, e.g. the monetary system, a certain level of education and the material infrastructure can only be realized in the structure of the modern nation-state.
  2. The nation-state can by definition only survive on a common identity and certain shared values. This is obvious, and may be considered the crux of the problem of national minorities. It should also be obvious, however, that these requirements work in two directions: the dominant majority should also be ready to create real opportunities to develop this feeling of common identity within the nation as a whole, and to participate in shared value system.
  3. Heterogenous nations have an added handicap in developing such a common identity. And it should be realized that any basic identity or fundamental value system can only develop on the basis of existing, historically-developed social identities and value systems. Nobody who claims to have any social and political understanding would deny the importance of Islam and Bengali culture for the development of Bangladesh as a nation-state. But it is precisely because of this that the religious and cultural background of the minority peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts should be taken seriously.
  4. In some cases the ethnic, cultural and religious background of the minority is so different from the majority (e.g. the black minority in South Sudan, the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka and the Papuans in west New Guinea) that only a federal structure, or some well-defined rights or regional autonomy will be feasible. In my opinion the people of the Chittagong Hills certainly belong to this category.
  5. In general we would like to argue that it would be wrong to interprete the problem of the oppressed national minorities as something which is mainly a matter of idealism or good intentions. It has everything to do with the viability of the nationstate, which is, as we have tried to make clear, the corner-stone of the world system. While the problems of the Third World remain largely unresolved and will remain a major challenge to our generation and many to come, the problems of the 'Fourth World' are equally important, even though most people are still unaware of their existence.

5. Strategies

  1. I have interpreted the problem of the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts as an example of the wider problem of identity denial and denial of a right to social, economic and political participation. It is clear that they can only preserve and develop their own identity by organizing themselves and thus making themselves heard. Since effective political representation within the political system of Bangladesh is hardly possible, the development of an unofficial, or even illegal, type of pol tical representation has become almost inevitable. Such defiance of the moral and legal basis of the political system itself is not restricted to the case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts but occurs among many other oppressed minorities all over the world, e.g. the well-known case of the black people of South Africa who have developed the ANC and the UDF as their major organizations. The case of the ANC and the UDF shows that private organizations as well as governments have many ways in which to deal with liberation movements, and that these certainly need not imply official or legal recognition. Unofficial contacts should not, however, imply exclusivity. I recommend to consider the major minority organization, the Shanti Bahini, as a serious informant, but not as our only informant. I wish to stress the importance of representation and information. Limited funds should be made available to cover the cost of travel and the like. It would be premature, however, to decide now on further financial aid.
  2. Outsiders are now severely handicapped by a lack of reliable information. This hampers the development of adequate policies by governments and non-g vemmental organizations. In this light it is essential to support the initiative, taken by the IWGIA (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs) in Copenhagen and the Organizing Committee to send an international committee of experts to the Chittagong Hills in order to jnvestigate.
  3. Clearly the implications for foreign aid are that there should be no reason at all for donor governments and non-governmental organizations to restrain from asking special guarantees to the effect that their aid should not be used, either directly or indirectly, in policies - such as repression and settlement of Bengalis - which harm the indigenous population of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. For a further elaboration of this aspect we would like to refer to Chapter 6.
  4. Finally, a category that needs special attention is that of refugees. In tune with world-wide developments, the number of refugees from the Chittagong Hill Tracts is increasing, and they live in the dreariest and most desparate circumstances.


  1. The Charge of Genocide: Organizing Committee of the CHT Campaign, 1986