NGOs border role

Chittagong Hill Tracts: Indigenous People Or Ethnic Minority?

As every year, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Facility (CHTDF), UNDP-Bangladesh is going to organise Cultural Diversity Festival 2011 this year over a one week period from 2 December to 8 December 2011 in Dhaka. Though UNDP-CHTDF used the word “indigenous peoples” in the previous cultural diversity festivals in the last four years, however, this year UNDP-CHTDF has used the word ‘ethnic minorities’, ‘small ethnic group’ and ‘tribal’ in its ‘Concept Note: Cultural Diversity Festival 2011’ and several documents excluding the term ‘indigenous peoples’. Indigenous leaders protested against the term ‘ethnic minorities’, ‘small ethnic group’ and ‘tribal’ saying that it has undermined indigenous peoples’ rights.

Indigenous leaders said that UNDP may use the word ‘ethnic minorities’, ‘small ethnic group’ and ‘tribal’ to comply with the recent government stance on indigenous issues undermining its Policy of Engagement with Indigenous Peoples and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Sources confirmed that no indigenous peoples’ organistion (IPO) including Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum was consulted by the UNDF-CHTDF in organising the event.

In addition, indigenous leaders also expressed their concerns regarding engagement of event Management Company in managing the seven-day cultural diversity event. Indigenous rights activists said that generally event Management Companies run by mainstream population win the open tender and accordingly these companies are appointed to manage and oversee all aspects of the event. Indigenous rights activists are of the opinion that engagement of such Management Companies often creates negative social impact on indigenous peoples and undermines indigenous peoples’ perspectives.

Sanjeeb Drong, General Secretary of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, a national platform of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh says, “We are indigenous peoples. There are several laws and government documents where the word ‘indigenous peoples’ is used. Even, several UN documents also use the word ‘indigenous peoples’. According to UNDRIP, we are entitled to determine our own identity or membership.” Despites government position against the use of term ‘indigenous peoples’, citizens’ rights groups, NGOs, media irrespective of print and electronic media have frequently been using the word ‘indigenous peoples’, then why UNDP uses ‘ethnic minorities’ and ‘tribal’ excluding the word ‘indigenous peoples’, questioned Mr. Drong.

Rabindranath Soren, Chairperson of Kapaeeng Foundation, a national human rights organisation of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh, expressed his concerns saying that UNDP’s stance in compliance with government position is nothing but to suppress the rights of self-identification of indigenous peoples. He added that every event relating to indigenous peoples including cultural diversity festival should be managed in accordance with indigenous peoples’ perspectives, customs and traditions. Indigenous peoples must be visible in managing and overseeing all aspects of the diversity festival.

President of Khagrachari Headmen Association Mr. Shakti Pada Tripura criticised UNDP’s stance. He says, “UNDP’s role is nothing but suppressive to indigenous peoples.” Regarding to engagement of event Management Companies, he says, “Cultural diversity festival should not be managed by the corporate company. It is against the spirit of indigenous values.” According to UNDRIP, indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions and manifestations of their sciences and technologies as well as the right to intellectual property over those assets, Mr. Tripura says.

“UNDP-CHTDF should re-decide in consultation with indigenous peoples’ organisations and institutions including CHT Regional Council and Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum regarding organising the cultural diversity festival” said eminent writer and indigenous rights activist Mr. Mangal Kumar Chakma. Mr. Chakma is of the opinion that UNDP-CHTDF should ensure decision-making role of indigenous peoples in organising the cultural diversity festival. Indigenous peoples organisations (IPOs) should be engaged in managing the event particularly cultural shows, theater festival, event management etc with the aim to build capacity of the IPOs. This year most of the IPOs may boycott the festival protesting UNDP’s stance, feared Mr. Chakma.

It is mentionable that last year Chairman of the CHT Regional Council Mr. Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma blasted UNDP-CHTDF. He said that the cultural festival was good, but the orgnising pattern of the festival was in sharp contrast to the traditional culture of the indigenous peoples (The Independent, 4 December 2010). A number of indigenous students, who came to the festival last year, accused the UNDP-CHTDF of depicting the indigenous peoples’ cultural heritage in a distorted way at the festival (The Independent, 4 December 2010).

Associate Professor of Mass Communication and Journalism Department of the Dhaka University, Robaet Ferdous, who went to the festival last year, expressed his frustration over the function and observed that at the reception he thought it was an exposition of corporate houses due to the employees of an event management firm were receiving the guests and visitors, instead of the indigenous people. “It can not be a cultural diversity festival as there is no sign of diversity and representation of cultural heritage of the indigenous community,” he said. It is quite an exposition of entrepreneurs and not a cultural festival, Robaet observed. “I was astonished to see the name of stalls in Roman alphabet, instead of indigenous alphabet, which was humiliating to the cultural tradition of indigenous peoples,” Robaet noted.

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