On September 30, the Conscientious Citizens of Chattogram organised a rally protesting against the encroachment of land by Lama Rubber Industries Limited. — Thuikyaw Shing

With their backs against the wall, the Mro and Tripuras are fighting an unequal fight. The local administration is far from neutral and is reportedly in favour of the powerful companies, which have, unlike the poor Mro and Tripuras, easy access to the legal system, writes Sunayan Chakma

RECENTLY a private limited company, Lama Rubber Industries Limited, has been at the centre of a controversy over its activities in Bandarban. The company has already established a rubber plantation over a vast area in Lama and it has done so after evicting Mro and Tripura minorities from their ancestral land. And the company now is not satisfied with the land in its possession, it wants more. Its insatiable greed for more land and personal profit has thus dragged the company into a conflict with the local communities. At the centre of this conflict is four hundred acres of land, traditionally owned by three villagers from Mro and Tripura communities.

In order to appropriate this land, the company undertook a series of actions, which compelled the Mro and Tripuras to fight back and defend their land. On April 09, the Lama Rubber Industries Ltd. hired Rohingya refugees to destroy their fruit gardens. On April 26, the company burnt down their jum fields and their adjacent areas. The arson attack caused serious damage to the natural forest, environment and bio-diversity in a huge area. Pictures of dead birds and fishes circulated on social media, triggering an outrage of protest and condemnation. On July 13, the hired goons of the company physically assaulted Rongdhajhon Tripura, convener of the Action Committee to Protect Land in Soroi Lama. He was seriously injured to the extent that he had to be hospitalised for five days in Chattagram for treatment. On August 11, the company people looted and vandalised Ashoka Buddhist Temple, their place of worship, and took away two statues of the Lord Buddha. On August 14, a false case was filed against the leaders of the land protection committee, including its convener, Rongdhajhon Tripura. On September 01, approximately 25 mounds of sweet pumpkin were taken away from the vegetable gardens of the villagers. On September 04, another false and fabricated case was filed against Mro and Tripura villagers. On September 06, the company poured poison into a stream, the only source of water for the Rengyen Para villagers. The poisoning of the stream resulted in the death of fishes, crabs and shrimps and in the scarcity of potable water in the locality. On September 13, yet another false case was filed against Rongdhajhon Tripura and seven others. On September 17, the company hired Rohingyas to block roads to prevent a team of activists from Dhaka to enter Lama to investigate the allegations against the LRI Ltd. On September 24, company labourers destroyed a banana plantation belonging to a Mro family.

Marginalisation and expropriation of the ethnic Jumma peoples is nothing new in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Since the early days of British colonisation, the Jummas have continued to lose control over their land and resources. Every pretext was and is used to appropriate their land. The recent conflict over land in Lama Upazila in Bandarban district is a result of a government policy to lease out common lands of the Jumma people to private individuals, mostly from outside the CHT, for rubber and other plantations. The recipients of the leases include corrupt political leaders, journalists, college and university teachers, medical practitioners, film actors and military and civil officers and their spouses. According to a study, a total of 46,952 acres of land in 1,871 plots have been leased out since March 27, 1980. (Source: Juamlian Amlai and Buddhajyhoti Chakma, Bandarban Parbotto Jelai Adibashi Paharider Jomi Bohiragoto o Onabashider Kache Ijara Prodane Rashtrer Bhumica, in Parbotto Bhumi Sohayika, a publication from the office of the Chakma Raja, 2021) Sixty four persons, who make up the company in question, are such lease holders. In the lease deed, it is stipulated that lease shall automatically be terminated if the lease holders fail to grow the plantation within ten years of the signing of the lease contract. Many lease holders are reported to have failed to meet this condition, but yet not a single lease is known to have been cancelled on this ground. At present privately owned companies are crowding the landscape of Bandarban and some of these include Mannan Garden, Mokbul Ukil Garden, Clifton Agro, Meridian Agro, Gazi Group, Nizampur Agro Product Ltd, Hamela Hossain Foundation, Paharika Plantation etc.

It is reported that the shareholders of the Lama Rubber Industries Ltd have been granted leases of 1,600 acres of land. In reality, the company has acquired between 3,000 to 3,500 acres. Acquiring more than the leased-out amount did not stop them, the company wanted to grab more land and they would do anything for that. The company has little to no empathy for the livelihood of the indigenous Mro and Tripura people. It has little concern about the local biodiversity. Its only concern is land and profit. Since the company is socio-politically powerful with former army officers and civil bureaucrats being part of it, the poor and marginalised Mro and Tripuras were initially reluctant to confront the company. However, the company’s recent violent attempts to grab their land have left them with no choice but to resist. They formed a committee to fight back and defend their ancestral land. As Rongdhajhon Tripura, at a press conference in Dhaka on September 5 said, ‘our backs are against the wall and we have nowhere to go’.

Not long ago, the Mro and Tripuras had lived and practised Jum cultivation in an extensive area in Lama with land held in common. But with the advent of the modern zamindars (meaning the rubber and other companies), the area for jum cultivation shrunk dramatically and they had to move further to remote areas for jum.

With their backs against the wall, the Mro and Tripuras are fighting an unequal fight. The local administration is far from neutral and is always in favour of the powerful companies, which have, unlike the poor Mro and Tripuras, easy access to the legal system. This is one reason why, despite so many crimes committed by the Lama Rubber Industries Ltd against Mro and Tripura minorities and their environment, the company still does not face any legal actions.

 The resistance of the Mro and other minorities is always met with harsh measures from the authorities. In 2007, Ranglai Mro, a minority activist and the headman of Rainkyong Mouza, was arrested and tortured when he protested against land grabbing in Bandarban. Mro villagers of the Chimbuk area suffered repression when they opposed the construction of a tourist resort on their land. They were ultimately forced to leave the area. Now tourists from all over the country flock to Chimbuk and are awed at the natural beauty of its surroundings. Over the last few years the tourist industry has boomed in Bandarban, but only a handful of people benefit from it. The large majority, especially the Mro and Tripura, continue to reel under its impact.

The cause the Mro and Tripura people are fighting for is justified. Their survival is at stake. What they want is land and justice. Therefore, this is time the government stepped in. It has a responsibility to protect them from the wrongdoing of the rubber companies. It should not allow the companies to ride roughshod over their right to livelihood and dignity.

Sunayan Chakma is president of the Hill Students’ Council, an organisation affiliated with the United Peoples’ Democratic Front.

This article was published on October 06, 2022 in New Age.