MANIKJOR CHHORA, Bangladesh (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ripon Chakma’s octogenarian parents were visiting the village of Manikjor Chhora in the southeast of Bangladesh for a religious ceremony when the arson attack took place in early June.
Chakma’s parents survived, but an elderly neighbor, Gunamala Chakma, succumbed to the flames that engulfed her mud-walled home.
Police said settler Bengalis - the majority ethnic group - set light to more than 200 homes and shops of the indigenous Pahari people in the Longadu area of Rangamati, one of three districts that comprise the Chittagong Hill Tracts region, where most of Bangladesh’s ethnic minorities live.
The attack came after the body of a Bengali was found near Dighinala road in neighboring Khagrachari district, according to police. The Bengali settlers accused the mountain-dwelling Pahari community of the killing.
The Paharis deny the accusation, and say the arson attacks were pre-planned and mask a more sinister motive of driving the them from their fertile uplands - sought-after land in densely populated and low-lying Bangladesh.
“This is all staged drama,” said Ripon Chakma, executive director of Trinamul, a local non-profit group that works for the rights of the Pahari community.
“These attacks are happening to grab the land. Otherwise, why would they burn houses in Longadu for a death in Dighinala?”
The Chittagong Hill Tracts region of Bangladesh, which shares borders with India and Myanmar, spans just over 13,000 sq km (5,000 sq miles), and is home to about half a million Paharis from nearly a dozen indigenous groups.
The lush region, in the country’s southeast, is rich in natural resources, particularly timber and bamboo. Possibilities for oil exploration have also been identified.
The region has been the site of violent ethnic conflict for decades, which has displaced tens of thousands of indigenous people. The lands they vacated were occupied by Bengali settlers.
Activists say the government has failed to honor an agreement signed 20 years ago to restore their lands in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which were declared a protected area under colonial rule.
After the partition of the Indian subcontinent, the special provisions for the indigenous population were diluted.
Following an armed conflict, the Bangladesh government agreed to the Chittagong Hill Tracts peace accord in December 1997 that promised a measure of autonomy to the Pahari people, and gave them economic, social and political rights.
The government promised to undertake development for their economic empowerment, while allowing them to keep their cultural practices, including communal ownership of land.
Displaced Paharis were to be rehabilitated with land and housing, and a land commission was to resolve land disputes.
But the commitments were not kept and disputes over land remain resolved, activists say.
“There was a hope for change when the peace accord came into being, but it got entrapped in politics,” said Meghna Guhathakurta, head of think tank Research Initiatives, Bangladesh.
“The government must empower the Paharis through education and pave the way for their political empowerment. The Paharis also need to lobby for themselves,” she said.
The government has cordoned off areas of the region for development projects including a hydroelectric project that flooded vast swathes of cultivable land and displaced thousands.
Activists say the government did not seek the consent of the Pahari people before taking their traditional lands.
Nor were the displaced people adequately compensated or rehabilitated.
Amnesty International has called for the government to respect the rights of the Pahari people, including over their land and ensure the land commission functions with the participation of the community.
There must be legal recognition of the collective rights of the Paharis to their traditional lands and remedies for anyone whose land was taken without their consent, it said in a report.
A senior local government official who declined to be named said both Bengalis and Paharis had been living in the Chittagong hills for centuries.
“So, they (the Pahari people) cannot claim that the land is the absolute area of their own, because the Bengalis living there can say that as well,” the official said.
He said indigenous people were well represented on the Land Commission. “The setting up of such an institution is in itself a step toward upholding the peace accord, so it is unfair to say the treaty has not been implemented,” he added.
As for the arson attack in Longadu, the high court last month gave the government eight weeks to explain why it had not investigated the matter and found the perpetrators.
But the Pahari people are not hopeful of a positive outcome.
“This was a communal attack against Paharis,” said Yan Yan, queen of the Chakma indigenous community.
“Until the people’s land rights issues are addressed, the houses of Paharis will keep burning,” she said.
(This story was written as part of Uncovering Security, a media skills development program run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Stanley Foundation and Gerda Henkel Stiftung.)