Bangladesh: Glimmers of Hope Amid an Elusive Peace

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IPS
Catherine Makino interviews leading Bangladeshi human rights activist Sultana Kamal.
Sultana Kamal dreams of a country "where every single citizen will live in democracy, in equality" and where everyone has "equal share to resources and opportunities." Fulfilling this dream has been her lifelong advocacy as a human rights advocate. The former adviser to the caretaker government of Bangladesh has served as a United Nations legal consultant for Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong. As a legal practitioner, she is committed to providing legal services to the poor and underprivileged.
Kamal joined the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, which pitted the West Pakistan (now Pakistan) against East Pakistan, resulting in the latter’s secession as an independent state, now called Bangladesh. Among others, she helped collect information for the guerilla forces, Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army), and gave shelter to people displaced by the conflict.

Kamal completed her law degree at Dhaka University in 1978, and later a master’s degree in Women and Development Studies in the Netherlands.

She has played a key role in bringing to international attention the long drawn-out conflict involving the indigenous people living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the south-eastern region of Bangladesh. Even after a peace accord was signed in 1997, violations of human rights in the region persisted and peace remains elusive.

Some critics warned that Bangladesh could become the next Sri Lanka, which only recently emerged from a decades-long civil war.

Kamal, who was in Japan in mid-September, shared with IPS her aspirations for her country and what she hoped a developed country like Japan could do.

IPS: What did you hope to achieve for your people by coming to Japan?

SULTANA KAMAL: (My) main objective was to share information regarding the implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Accord, which was signed in 1997 between the government of Bangladesh and Shanti Bahin (the United People's Party of the CHT).

The Accord was to end the armed conflict, which has been going on since 1976 in the region, and to settle questions regarding the rights of the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. These included land rights, natural and environmental practices, rights to their culture and, most importantly, the constitutional recognition of their rights and identity.

I wanted to see greater awareness of the problems of indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, their struggles and demands, which should lead to more support for them by the Japanese.

IPS: Why Japan in particular?

SK: Some Japanese groups are concerned with the rights of the disempowered and disadvantaged, especially indigenous people, who have been engaged in working towards the realization of (those) rights.

IPS: Is your government sincere in its support for the CHT?

SK: The present government of Bangladesh is committed to implementing the Accord, but it is facing challenges from the anti-Accord forces. There is a need to strengthen the people and government's support of the CHT.

This trip to Japan will help us reach the international community and get stronger opinions favorable to the Accord.

IPS: What do you expect from the new government of Japan?

SK: This government is liberal, so we can expect the benefits of a liberal and progressive outlook on (its) international policies. More importantly, we hear that the government will put more emphasis on strengthening relationships with its Asian neighbors, which means more support to the people of Asia who need it most.

IPS: What do you envision Japan will do now that it is under new leadership?

SK: New leadership means new hopes?. not (only) for its own people, but for the (rest of the) world, because Japan is among the league of world leaders.

This time the hope is even greater for Asia as the (Japanese) government is likely to be more forward-looking and has already committed itself to closer ties with (its) Asian neighbors.

IPS: Please tell us about your organization, the Law and Mediation Center or Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK)?

SK: (ASK) started in 1986 as a legal aid centre to provide free legal aid to the disempowered. Since most of the disempowered happen to be women, it had a special focus on them, especially poor women.

It provides legal aid to victims of state or social violence, arbitrary arrest, preventive detention, and community and class violence.

It started in a garage of a well-wisher of the organisation and has since grown into a 17-unit composite programme known as a human rights and legal aid center, or Ain o Salish Kendra.

ASK cooperates with many national, international and regional networks on human rights issues. With the UNECOSOC (United Nations Economic and Social Council) (consultative) status, ASK works closely with the U.N. special rapporteurs and on some government committees as civil society members to give advice. In short, ASK is considered to be one of the most active human rights groups (in the world).

IPS: What is the situation of women in your country?

SK: I am very proud to say that the women have made a lot of progress. But because of the existing patriarchal systems? in both private and public life, women have to face a lot of challenges in realising their rights.

The Constitution of Bangladesh commits to equality in public life for women. It goes further to say that special measures will be taken to bring the disadvantaged groups, including women, at par with everyone, and everyone will be equal before the law.

IPS: Is that happening in reality?

SK: Since in private life, laws based on religions govern people, women are discriminated against in marriage, divorce, guardianship and custody of children and in inheritance.

The discrimination is not only between women and men of the same religion; it is between women of different religions, too. For example, the Muslim women have limited rights to divorce and inheritance, which the women of other religions don't have.

The situation of minority women is even worse, particularly in a conflict situation where their interests and rights are considered secondary to the larger interests of the community which, as we all know, are defined by (traditional) patriarchy.

IPS: What is being done about it?

SK: The women's movement is very vibrant in Bangladesh. The present government also has promised to declare policies for women's development. We can hope for the best, but we know very well that there is no respite from hard work for us to gain what we aspire for.

IPS: What urgently needs to be done in your country?

SK: The most important duty we have now is supporting the democratic processes and be firm on not allowing any anti-democratic, anti-human rights, fundamentalist or corrupt measures, to foil it. Seeing that democracy gets a ground in this country is a job of the people as well as the government. Establishment of justice, rule of law, human rights and security and peace are the priorities now.

IPS: You have given so much energy and time for causes. How has this affected you personally, and have you had to sacrifice a lot?

SK: If I have been able to give my energy and time to causes in my life, I will consider that to be my good fortune. What better use could I put my energy and time to?

The main impact it has had on me personally is that it has taught me to understand and love my country better and to feel a part of the whole of humanity. I don't feel that I have sacrificed a lot. I think I have done nothing more than my duty.

Source: IPS