Remembering Kalpana Chakma

It was about 14 years ago that a 20-year old indigenous rights activist Kalpana Chakma disappeared and is presumably dead.  We know that she was kidnapped along with two of her brothers in the middle of the night, the day before the 1996 general elections.

She was the fiery and young general secretary of the Hill Women’s Federation, a group dedicated to a peaceful Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).  She spoke out against abuses committed by the Bangladeshi Army in the indigenous areas that make up the CHT.  For this, she apparently paid with her life.

In human rights work, there is an immediacy that comes from ensuring that human rights defenders are protected now.  We also lose sight of activists in countries like Bangladesh with the whirlwind of Guantanamo Bay, Gaza and other human rights crisis closer to home.  But, we are sometimes forced to remember those rights activists who paid the ultimate price for defending the rights of their people.  Kalpana Chakma was one of those individuals and we must not rest until we bring the people who kidnapped her to justice.

Desi Spotlight Series: Drishtipat

This posting is part of our Desi Spotlight Series.

It’s time for another in my very irregular series featuring the amazing work of South Asians in the United States working on human rights back in South Asia.  Today, I’m featuring the organization Drishtipat, made up of a group of volunteers who are active in social justice and human rights in Bangladesh.

The success of Drishtipat truly lays in the passion, skills, and diligence of its volunteers, the generosity of its donors and the guidance, commitment and the network breadth of its leaders. Drishtipat is slowly but surely leaving its mark in alleviating the human rights crisis in Bangladesh and in eventually attaining its hopeful goal of giving every person the right to dignity, compassion and opportunity, and most importantly the right to be heard.  Their motto says it all: “Be the change you want to see.”

Thanks to Taniah, Farhana, Rafiq and Asif for the responses and multimedia!  You can check their organization out at drishtipat.org.  They also have an English-language blog called Unheard Voices.

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Pohela Boishakh

Pohela Boishakh to all!

Bengalis around the world celebrate the Bangla New Year this week and this year is especially sweet because just two weeks ago Bangladesh ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Bangladesh’s ratification is especially poingnant coming from a country that lost millions to massacres stemming from its 1971 independence struggle.

If the ICC had been in place then, would so many people have lost their lives?

Myanmar: Repression at Home, Starvation Abroad

A 50-year-old refugee mother sitting beside a pot of rice that she got from begging – all the food her family of four will have for the entire day. Her husband was arrested by Bangladeshi police for stepping outside the makeshift camp at Kutupalong. She had not seen him in 15 days. (c) Physicians for Human Rights

A 50-year-old refugee mother sitting beside a pot of rice that she got from begging – all the food her family of four will have for the entire day. Her husband was arrested by Bangladeshi police for stepping outside the makeshift camp at Kutupalong. She had not seen him in 15 days. (c) PHR

For the first time in twenty years, Myanmar (Burma) is preparing for elections.  To prevent another loss to the National League for Democracy like in 1990, the military junta has begun its crackdown on opposition forces and passed new election laws in order to solidify a win this fall.  The new laws have not only annulled the results of the 1990 election, but have also banned political prisoners, civil servants and monks from being affiliated with political parties and thereby standing in the polls.  Much of the recent news coverage and the State Department’s release of the Human Rights country Report on Myanmar today, has focused on the domestic situation leading up to the elections and prospects for future engagement with the West.  All the while, the often catastrophic situation for Burmese refugees in neighboring countries has largely gone unnoticed.  Concerned about a large increase in refugees leading up to the election, the Bangladeshi government has decided to adopt questionable practices that violate human rights to dissuade an influx of Burmese coming across its border. 

Refugees Face Humanitarian Crisis
Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) new Stateless and Starving report, calls attention to the campaign of discrimination being waged by the Bangladeshi government against Rohingya refugees and the humanitarian crisis faced by refugees.  Although the number of Burmese refugees in Bangladesh is said to number between 200,000 and 400,000, there are only 28,000 officially registered refugees in jointly administered UNHCR and Government of Bangladesh camps.  Since Rohingya refugees were not granted protective status after 1993, the “illegal” refugees have been subject to arbitrary arrest, illegal expulsion, and forced internment.  In addition to these human rights violations, PHR has documented that the Bangladeshi government has been actively blocking humanitarian aid which has contributed to the squalid living conditions and malnutrition of Burmese refugees.

Physicians for Human Rights is asking everyone to participate in its online action  to end the expulsion of Burmese refugees and ensure the delivery of critically needed food aid. We need to make sure that if Burmese escape the repressive confines of their own country they are not facing the same discrimination and human rights abuses outside or are being forcibly returned to Myanmar where their human rights are jeopardized.

Crackdown on Refugees from Burma

The humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is reporting that the Bangladesh government has launched a crackdown against the Rohingya community around the Cox’s Bazar district (see map).  The site of the crackdown is a makeshift camp of refugees in Kutupalong that is not recognized by the Bangladeshi government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has limited access to the area.  From MSF’s press release:

More than 6,000 people have arrived at the makeshift camp since October—2,000 in January alone,” said MSF Head of Mission in Bangladesh Paul Critchley. “People are crowding into a crammed and unsanitary patch of ground with no infrastructure to support them. They are prevented from working to support themselves and are not permitted food aid. As the numbers swell and resources become increasingly scarce, we are extremely concerned about the deepening crisis.”

The Myanmar government (note that Amnesty International requires use of the UN-recognized name of the country widely known as Burma) refuses to acknowledge that the Rohingya are from Myanmar rendering them stateless.

MSF is asking that the UNHCR increase protections to these Rohingya seeking protection in Bangladesh.  At the moment, only 28,000 of the estimated 200,000 of the refugees in Bangladesh are recognized as refugees.  The result, in an already overcrowded and poor country, is that the Rohingya are vulnerable.  Human rights groups have been campaigning on the plight of the Rohingyas for a number of years, but Myanmar’s neighbors have grown impatient with the scale of the humanitarian need.  But, as MSF makes clear, the international community must support the Government of Bangladesh and UNHCR to adopt measures to guarantee the unregistered Rohingya’s lasting dignity and well-being in Bangladesh.


Bangladesh Executes Five For Killing Independence Leader

I was going to write asking for readers of this blog to write to the Bangladeshi authorities and urge them not to execute the five convicted killers (Syed Farooq-ur Rahman, Sultan Shahriar Rashid Khan, Mohiuddin Ahmed, AKM Mohiuddin Ahmed, and Bazlul Huda) of Bangladesh’s first president Sheikh Mujibar Rahman.  But, I was too late– the execution happened today, US East Coast time.

The men were part of a conspiracy in 1975 aimed at toppling Sheikh Mujibhar Rahman (known as Mujib or Bangabandhu).  He took power in 1971 after a bloody liberation war that left upwards of 3 million people dead.  Mujib’s opponents believed that he was becoming increasingly autocratic and a coup overthrew his government.  He and his family, unaware of the coup plotter’s intentions, were captured by the coup plotters.  Then Mujib’s entire family (his wife and children) except for one daughter were killed (this article from today’s Daily Star in Dhaka describes the scene those many years ago).  That daughter, Sheikh Hasina, was in England studying and returned to Bangladesh where she is now the Prime Minister.

Amnesty International is opposed to the death penalty in all cases.  The death penalty is in violation of the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I can only imagine the heart break that Prime Minister Hasina feels about the loss of her family in such a tragic circumstances.  In fact, it is hard to feel any sympathy for the cold blooded murderers of her family.  But, Bangladesh’s government chose revenge over justice, and, it was the wrong choice.

Happy Birthday, Bangladesh

George Harrison, former Beatles, singing “Bangla Desh” (Ringo Starr, another Beatles member is at the drums) at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh in New York City.

Well, it’s technically, Liberation Day but close enough.  On this day, December 16, 1971, the Pakistani Army surrendered to the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army, ending one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II.  Some estimates put the death toll from the violence at upwards of 3 million people, mostly civilians.  Ten million Bangladeshis fled to neighboring India, where cholera and other diseases took their toll on the innocent civilians trapped by the fighting or forced from their homes by an occupying army. To date, almost no one has faced charges from these murders, rapes and other war crimes.

Though freed, it was completely devastated not just by the 1971 war, but also by the Bhola cyclone which killed 500,000 people in late 1970.  It was followed by a decade of at least 30 military coup attempts (at least 6 of them were successful) and other political instability.  Human rights violations abound.  Women especially face the brunt of a justice system that is unable and unwilling to protect them.  Yet, through it all, the country has made some amazing advances.

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