Guest post: Justice for Sujata
- May 17, 2012
The rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh has cast a grim light on a tragedy that has previously received little attention from the outside world – the culture of impunity that surrounds crimes of sexual violence inflicted on indigenous women and minors by Bengali settlers, which include rape, murder, sexual assault, trafficking and abduction.
The following post is written by a former aid worker in the CHT:
On 9 May 2012 an 11 year old girl named Sujata Chakma was raped and hacked to death with a machete in the Bangladesh Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The culprit was identified almost immediately as a 30 year old Bengali named Mohammed Ibrahim.
Ibrahim had good reason to believe that he would be able to act with impunity. Sujata Chakma was an indigenous Jumma, one of 11 indigenous groups who were once the majority population in the area until the 1970s, when the Bangladesh government starting moving Bengalis there.
In 1947 less than 2% of the population were Bengali. Today the proportion is approximately 50 percent. The culprit ´s family originally came from Jessore, and had recently been moved to the CHT as part of an ongoing government resettlement project for landless Bengalis.
His crime was not an isolated incident. According to a UN report Bengali settlers carried out acts of sexual violence against 66 indigenous women and minors, including a three and a half year old child, between 2007 and February 2012, six of which were murders.
Not a single one of these cases has resulted in a conviction, except for the court martial of some military personnel – who are often involved in such episodes – more than ten years ago.
Assuming this case does get to court therefore, Ibrahim will be provided with a large, well-funded defense team and has good reason to believe that he may walk free. In June last year Ibrahim was arrested and charged with the rape of a 15 year old Jumma girl. He was eventually acquited after an appeal to a higher court. It is not known why this appeal was seen as appropriate or who funded it.
Land is at the root issue of the institutionalised injustice in the CHT. Most sexual crimes of this nature have taken place in areas where disputes over land ownership between Bengalis and the CHT indigenous population are particularly fierce.
What generally happens is that settlers are brought to a piece of land in busses during the night, under the protection of security personnel. The local community may well have farmed the land for hundreds of years, only to be gradually displaced by Bengali settlements.
The legal processes that determine land ownership are circumvented by various means, so Bengalis may find themselves living next to next to a resentful indigenous community.
Sujata was a victim of the next stage of the settlement process. The local women of the CHT are permitted greater freedom than the women of most of south Asia. They do not have to cover themselves and can confidently take a full part in community life.
The Bengalis often misinterpret such openness and Bengali men tend to regard indigenous women as sinful – and worthless.
The word used in Bengali to describe Indigenous people (“upajatiâ€) also means “sub-humanâ€, and Ibrahim ´s crime was one more product of a generalised sense of superiority and entitlement shared by many settlers.
The Bangladeshi government has generally preferred to conceal or cover-up such incidents whenever they happen. On 30th July 2011 there was a triple murder and the attempted rape of a 13-year-old Marma girl in a village near Bandarban.
The area was immediately cut off and I myself was held in a police station on spurious grounds.
In 1992 settlers tried to rape a group of indigenous women herding cows. The women fought off the settlers and one died of his injuries. In revenge settlers and security forces massacred 1,200 villagers and burnt the village. Within days the security forces built new homes to cover the evidence.
The CHT is now virtually closed to foreigners. All foreign visitors have to apply for permission to enter the area and are escorted. Foreigners have been expelled from the area for talking to indigenous people without prior arrangement.
But Sujata”s brutal death has generated an unusual level of disgust and international concern, which is partly due to the horrific and widely circulated photographs of the victim.
A demonstration took place in Dhaka on 12th May to increase awareness about these crimes, and a campaign has begun to gather ground to ensure that this time, the murder of an indigenous ´sub-human ´ does not go unpunished.
Further details on this and other recent incidents are available from the Indigenous People ´s of Bangladesh group – kapaeeng.org.