The tribal people living in Chittagong Hill Tracts are "ethnic minorities" and they should not be called "indigenous" in the region, the government said yesterday in clearing what it said some recent misconceptions about their identity.
Briefing foreign diplomats and UN agencies in Dhaka, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said Bangladesh is concerned over attempts by some quarters at home and abroad to identify the ethnic minority groups as indigenous people in the CHT region.
Neither Bangladesh constitution nor any international laws recognise these people as indigenous, she said.
Dipu Moni also explained the issue to editors and senior journalists from print and electronic media in a separate briefing yesterday and urged them to take note of it.
She told the diplomats that the tribal people most certainly did not reside or exist in the CHT before 16th century and were not considered "indigenous people'' in any historical reference books, memoirs or legal documents.
Quoting the Oxford dictionary, the foreign minister said indigenous people are those who "belong to a particular place rather than coming to it from somewhere else".
Rather, the CHT people were the late settlers on the Bengal soil and the CHT region compared to the Bangalee native ethnic vast majority residing here for more than 4,000 years, she pointed out.
Emerging from the briefing with diplomats, Dipu Moni told journalists there is a move to distract attention from the government's effort to implement the 1997 CHT peace accord by raising the issue that the tribal people are indigenous.
She said implementation of the peace accord is top priority of the government. But the process will be hampered if controversies are created over the tribal people's identity.
Dipu Moni told the diplomats, "We have noted with concern that the "tribal" people or ethnic minorities in the CHT region have been termed "indigenous peoples" of Bangladesh in two paras of the 2011 Report of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues-PFII, in the context of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord."
She asserted that there is no internationally accepted definition of "indigenous peoples", and there is no definition of indigenous at all in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the PFII in 2006.
Claiming that the CHT people are tribal and not indigenous, the foreign minister said it is well recorded, and recent history of the Indian subcontinent and the CHT region reaffirms that the tribal people of CHT migrated to Bangladesh between 16th and 19th centuries from neighboring countries and Mongoloid nations during the Mughal rule in Bengal, mostly as asylum seekers and economic migrants.
She said in all acts and laws on the CHT, including the Hill Tracts Act of 1900 and the Hill Districts Council Act of 1989, the CHT ethnic minorities have been identified as "Tribal" population.
Most significantly, in the CHT Peace Accord itself the CHT ethnic minorities have been categorised as "Tribal" and not "indigenous peoples."
As per the census of 2001, the people of CHT account for less than 1.8 percent of the total population of Bangladesh.
Giving a special and elevated identity to enfranchise only 1.2 percent of the total population of 150 million by disentitling the 98.8persent cannot be in the national interest of Bangladesh, Dipu Moni said.
Reaction of the diplomats was not immediately known.
However, Chakma Raja Devasish Roy told The Daily Star, "The government probably is under the impression that recognising indigenous people might mean extra responsibility to bear."
He went on, "The constitution does not say that there are no indigenous people in the country. It has not used the word indigenous, but it has not used the word minority either to identify anybody."
Devasish Roy also referred to the small ethnic group cultural institutions act made in 2010 by the present government where the law itself stated in its definition part that small ethnic group would mean indigenous people.