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Free talk with indigenous people barred

Foreign visitors, diplomats need permission before visiting CHT

The Home Ministry decision to restrict direct communication between any local or foreign person, or an organisation, with indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts has drawn severe criticism from citizens’ platforms.

The government directives, already sent to the administrative bodies in the three hill districts, mention that the presence of a representative of the local administration, whether the military or the Border Guard Bangladesh, is mandatory if any local or foreigner or an organisation wants to meet any indigenous person.

The eleven-point decisions, made on January 7 during a discussion at the Home Ministry, were finalised based on a report prepared by the BGB aimed t improving law and order and preserving sovereignty.

As per the decisions, the law enforcement agencies will ensure law and order in the CHT in collaboration with the 24 Infantry Division of Army.

On January 22, the decisions were forwarded to the prime minister’s principal secretary; LGRD senior secretary; principal staff officer of the armed forces; inspector general of police; secretaries of the CHT and foreign ministries; heads of BGB, ANSAR, DGFI and NSI; NGO Affairs Bureau; additional inspector general of the special branch of police; additional secretary of the Home Ministry, and deputy commissioners and superintendents of police of Bandarban, Khagrachhari, and Rangamati.

When contacted, Bandarban Deputy Commissioner M Mizanul Haque Chowdhury told the Dhaka Tribune: “Yes, we have already received the Home Ministry’s instructions.

“As soon as the government takes any decision, it comes into effect, when the order reaches the field level administration. The law enforcement agencies have already started working in line with the decisions.”

These decisions also include applying “codes of conduct” for foreign visitors, which say they would require permission of the Home Ministry about a month earlier. The ministry will approve their application upon positive feedback from the respective intelligence agency.

In addition, the foreign visitors will have to submit their addresses and travel schedules to the DCs and SPs.

The codes mention that the diplomats will have to take permission from the Foreign Ministry before visiting the CHT area.

According to the decisions, UNDP’s development project, worth $160m, and activities of other NGOs would be monitored, while the NGO Affairs Bureau has been asked to change the name of the International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC) since it had no legal base.

The 11-point decisions also suggest joint drives to prevent killings, abductions, and drugs and arms smuggling; improve the capacity of the BGB; and transfer police and Ansar members, who had been former members of Shanti Bahini (now PCJSS), to other places.

CHTC Member Dr Iftekharuzzaman termed the government decisions “embarrassing and shameful.”

He strongly criticised the decision to ensure the presence of local administration or military or BGB men during communication with the indigenous people. “Such a decision is stupid and an expression of communal mentality.”

Iftekhar made the remarks at a discussion, organised by citizens’ platform Nagorik Somaj, held at Dhaka Reporters Unity yesterday.

Condemning the restrictions, other speakers alleged that the constitution and the rights of the indigenous people would be violated if the decisions were implemented. They threatened to go to court if the decisions were not scrapped.

Iftekhar, also executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, said: “When the government is trying to implement the [1997 CHT] peace accord, a group has acted clandestinely to make these decisions only to embarrass the government. People who do not want to see the execution of the accord can take such decisions.”

On applying a “code of conduct” for foreign tourists and diplomats, he said such restriction should be imposed on all including the law enforcement agencies.

He also suggested that while monitoring the UNDP project’s implementation progress, the government should disclose the expenditure of “Operation Uttoron” carried out by the military in the name of establishing peace in the CHT, to ensure transparency. “Without ensuring this, such a decision will be one-sided and unacceptable.”

Mentioning that the BGB’s responsibility was to secure the country’s borders, he said in the name of improving capacity, the BGB should not grab the lands of the indigenous people to construct camps.

Iftekhar said the government should refrain from using the BGB to implement the army’s job.

Columnist Syed Abul Maksud, who presided over the programme, said: “The Home Ministry decision violates not only the rights of the indigenous people but also the rights of the citizens of the whole country. It violates sections 7, 27, 28, and 32 of the constitution as well as the CHT peace accord.”

Dhaka University teachers Syed Robayet Ferdous, Sheikh Hafizur Rahman Karzon, and Mesbah Kamal, rights activist Dr Hamida Hossain, Oikya NAP’s Pankaj Bhattacharya and barrister Sara Hossain were also present.

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