Protest rallies have been widespread in Bangladesh following recent reports alleging the sexual assault of two minority indigenous Buddhist sisters by security forces in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).* The allegations have drawn widespread public condemnation, with human rights groups inside and outside the country demanding an independent investigation and swift punishment for the perpetrators.
Bangladesh’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has formed a three-member committee to probe the assault allegations, with chairman Kazi Reazul Hoque pledging that the NHRC would do its utmost to bring the culprits to justice. Meanwhile, in response to a recent petition, the appellate division of Bangladesh’s Supreme Court on 22 February directed the High Court to settle the case of the Marma sisters within six weeks.
According to local media reports, a joint security team of Bangladesh Army and Ansar** personnel raided the indigenous Marma village of Orachari in Rangamati District on 22 January. During the raid, two members of the team are alleged to have raped an 18-year-old girl and sexually assaulted her 13-year-old sister in their home, after detaining their parents. Security officials have denied the allegations.
The Marma people are one of 11 indigenous ethnic communities living in the CHT, the majority of whom follow Theravada Buddhism. The region has been plagued by conflict for decades, amid tensions with the South Asian nation’s Muslim-majority population, and with minority communities complaining of persecution by the government and security forces stationed there.
The two girls were treated and confined in Rangamati Sadar Hospital for several days following the incident, where police and security personnel blocked access to journalists and human rights activists. According to subsequent reports, the girls were removed from the hospital on 15 February and detained by security forces in the house of a local government official.
Rani Yan Yan, queen of the Chakma community,*** who has been working to ensure the girls’ welfare, was reportedly attacked by security personnel while attempting to prevent the detention of the sisters. According to a statement from Rani Yan Yan’s husband, Chakma King Devasish Roy, following the incident: “They kicked and punched Rani Yan Yan and the other woman volunteer, who were both thrown to the ground and beaten further The volunteer was . . . sexually molested by the men.” (Raja Devasish Roy Facebook)
In a media statement, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission condemned the alleged sexual assault of the sisters and the attack on the Chakma queen, calling for an independent investigation and prosecution of the culprits. Meanwhile, Naripokkho, a women’s rights organization, criticized the lack of justice in the region, demanding decisive legal action.
“Such incidents should not occur . . . in a civilized country like Bangladesh,” said Chanchana Chakma, secretary of the Bangladesh Indigenous Women Network, speaking at a protest rally in front of Bangladesh National Museum in Dhaka last week. “We want justice and exemplary punishment for the culprits.” (The Daily Star)
Also last week, some 200 torch-wielding demonstrators marched through Dhaka University, chanting slogans and demanding demanding justice for the two sisters.
In a public statement, the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development expressed deep concern and called on the authorities to take immediate action, including ensuring independent investigations into the sexual violence against the Marma sisters, and the attack on Rani Yan Yan. “The violations against the Marma sisters is not an isolated incident of violence against indigenous women,” the statement said. “The CHT. . . is the most militarized zone in Bangladesh where threats and violations against indigenous peoples committed by both state and non-state actors are commonplace. . . . Yet none of the cases filed at the courts resulted in a conviction to date.” (Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development)
The main religion in Bangladesh is Islam, observed by 90.2 per cent of the population, according to government statistics for 2010. Hindus constitute 8.5 per cent, Buddhists (mostly Theravada) 0.9 per cent, and Christians 0.3 per cent. The CHT, comprised of Bandarban, Khagrachari, and Rangamati districts, is home to more than 11 indigenous ethnic communities, most of whom follow Theravada Buddhism. According to a 2012 report by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, one third of Bangladesh’s army is stationed in the region, along with thousands of personnel from other state military agencies, making it the most militarized zone in the country.
** A paramilitary force.
*** The Chakma people are the largest indigenous ethnic community in the CHT, making up roughly half of the region’s population.
NHRC probe committee to meet Marma sisters on February 21 (Dhaka Tribune)
Citizens condemn attack on Chakma queen (Dhaka Tribune)
CHTC calls for independent probe into Marma sisters’ abduction, Chakma queen’s assault (Dhaka Tribune)
Attack on Rani Yen Yen, Marma sisters by law enforcers condemned (New Age)
Rape epidemic as perpetrators enjoy impunity, say speakers (New Age)
Bring the culprits to book (The Daily Star)
Settle rule in six weeks (The Daily Star)
Torch march at Dhaka University for Marma sisters (The Daily Star)
Rape of Marma sisters (The Daily Star)
Statement from Chakma King and Queen (Raja Devasish Roy Facebook)
Statement: APWLD calls on Bangladesh Government to end impunity for violations against indigenous women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development)