By Chris Chapman, Amnesty International’s Indigenous Rights Researcher/Adviser
This month marked 18 years since Kalpana Chakma was forcibly disappeared – taken from her home in Rangamati in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts by a group of plain-clothed security personnel believed to have been from a nearby army camp. She has not been seen since. There has been a judicial commission of inquiry established by the Prime Minister and a report by the Criminal Investigation Department, but the details of their findings are not publicly known.
Also this month, Amena Begum, the local Superintendent of Police, missed the 11th deadline she had been set to submit a progress report on the investigation. No one has been brought to justice for Kalpana’s disappearance and her family know no more about what happened to her now than they did 18 years ago.
So who is Kalpana? At the time of her disappearance, she was 23, an indigenous woman from the Chakma community, one of the peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), who are also known as Pahari. She was the organizing secretary of the Hill Women’s Federation, an organization that campaigns for the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the CHT. Weeks before she disappeared, she had been campaigning in local elections for an independent candidate, who had widespread support among indigenous civil society groups.
Kalpana’s disappearance, and the subsequent failure by the authorities to shed any light on it, took place against a backdrop of conflict and tension between the Indigenous Peoples of the CHT and the government that has been ongoing since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. In particular, Indigenous Peoples resent the massive influx of ethnic Bengalis into the region, pushing them off their land, and potentially turning the indigenous communities into minorities in the CHT. These tensions led to an uprising led by Shanti Bahini, the armed wing of an indigenous political party. According to a report published by Amnesty International last year:
“From 1977, the Bangladesh army flowed into the Chittagong Hill Tracts and there were regular armed clashes with the Shanti Bahini. There followed a long period of violence and repression of Pahari. Members of the army were involved in frequent human rights violations, including massacres, which have been well documented and internationally publicized by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International. These reports contained detailed accounts of torture and killings of Pahari villagers.”
A peace accord was signed in 1997, but many of its provisions have failed to be implemented. For example, the army was required to progressively dismantle its camps in the region. The army claim that 200 out of 500 camps have been dismantled; an indigenous political party says it is only 75. An expert from the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues stated that: “Military officials attest to the fact that one third of the army is deployed in the region, an area which accounts for one tenth of the total territory of the country. This is an excessive amount, by any standard, especially in a country that is not participating in a war, is at peace with its neighbours and has no prevailing insurgency situation.” According to the peace accord, a schedule was to be drawn up for the withdrawal of temporary army camps. This has not been done.
When justifying her failure to complete her investigation into Kalpana’s disappearance by the latest deadline, the Superintendent of Police said that she had been unable to complete one of the tasks set by the judge, which was to “rescue Kalpana”. The statement appears to embody what civil society activists in Bangladesh categorise as a strategy of stalling tactics and misinformation, in what may be an attempt to protect members of the military accused of human rights violations.
But Kalpana’s case is not unique – the Pahari people of the CHT face a number of challenges in obtaining justice. According to a report by the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, an independent advocacy NGO, in cases where indigenous women report rape by Bengali settlers, doctors are pressured by the authorities to report no evidence of rape in their medical reports, arguing that a finding of rape would contribute to tensions between Indigenous Peoples and Bengalis. In a recent case of alleged rape and murder of a 30-year-old Chakma woman, Sabita Chakma, the local police superintendent, when reporting that no arrests had been made, stated that: “The upazila parishad election was our first priority. Arresting someone could have raised Bangalee-Pahari tensions. So, we are taking our time.”
However, the impunity for crimes committed against members of the indigenous community in fact only stokes greater anger among the community. Ten people were injured earlier this year when clashes erupted between members of the indigenous CHT communities and Bengalis at a protest over Sabita’s murder and the lack of any progress in the investigation. The authors of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission report found that: “Impunity has been the single most important factor contributing to increased incidents of sexual and gender- based violence in the CHT. The biases of the administrative, political and judicial systems prevent access to equality and justice by Indigenous Peoples and minorities.”
Yet, Kalpana’s disappearance is not a complete mystery. There is a very important lead. Two of Kalpana’s brothers, Kalindi and Lal, were abducted with her, but managed to escape. They identified by name three of their abductors. And last week, there was a small breach in the wall of disinformation – or rather, non-information – surrounding this case: Begum, the police official mentioned above, stated that she had interviewed one of the suspects but did not reveal anything about what was said.
As part of its Write for Rights campaign, Amnesty International encouraged its members and school children to write letters of support to Kalpana’s family and also to petition the government to ensure that a thorough, independent re-investigation of the case takes place, and that the perpetrators are brought to justice. More than 5,000 letters were collected, and finally handed over to Kalpana’s brother, Kalindi, four days before the 18th anniversary of her disappearance. Seeing the letters, he said: “I am very happy that young children across the world expressed their concerns for my family; at the same time, these letters remind me of my sister, whose fate remains unknown to us.”