US honors tribeswoman from Chittagong Hill Tracts, 5 others as anti-racism champions

John Bechtel and Mahbub Leelen
US honors tribeswoman from Chittagong Hill Tracts, 5 others as anti-racism champions Rani Yan Yan, a Bangladeshi Indigenous human rights activist, receives her Global Anti-Racism Champions Award from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, Aug. 9, 2023.
Saul Loeb/AFP

A woman from the Marma tribe in southeastern Bangladesh spoke passionately about systematic marginalization of indigenous people worldwide as she accepted an award at the U.S. State Department on Wednesday.

Rani Yan Yan was one of six people to receive the agency’s inaugural Global Anti-Racism Champions Award in a ceremony here that coincided with the United Nations International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The five other awardees – four women and a man – were from Nepal, Tunisia, Moldova, Brazil and Peru.

Yan Yan, 39, an indigenous human rights defender and women’s rights activist from Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts region – where indigenous communities are struggling to survive amid a growing population of Bangladeshi settlers – was chosen to speak at the ceremony. She was recognized for bringing international attention to the plight of her community.

“Militarization of our territory, state-sponsored settlement of hundreds and thousands of non-indigenous peoples on our land, ongoing land-grabbing by politically backed individuals, entities and security forces … are just a few examples that are eerily similar to what indigenous and racially marginalized communities are facing elsewhere in the world,” Yan Yan, a member of the Marma tribe and a queen of the Chakma tribe, said in her speech in Washington.

As she paid tribute to her fellow honorees, Yan Yan tied her own work that focuses on raising awareness about “systematic marginalization of indigenous peoples” and helping “such communities to mobilize and defend their right to land” to her colleagues’ advocacy around the world in fighting racism and xenophobia.

“To move forward ... we need to ensure that rule of law prevails in our countries within open and democratic governments that are accountable to citizens and within ever-shrinking civic spaces,” she said.

“The path to justice is never meant to be easy,” Yan Yan said. “We are here, standing our ground.”

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Rani Yan Yan speaks during a ceremony where she and five others were honored as Global Anti-Racism Champions, at the U.S. State Department in Washington, Aug. 9. 2023. [screengrab from video by State Department/YouTube]

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who introduced the awardees, praised their efforts in their communities. The ceremony was the first of what is to be an annual event.

“We all know that for far too many individuals, there continue to be challenges when their fundamental rights are violated or denied because of their race or ethnicity,” he said.

As for Yan Yan, the State Department said she had “emerged as a fearless voice and outspoken advocate for equal rights and justice, despite facing immense discrimination and even violence.”

A leader of the Chakma Circle, one of three hereditary “chiefdoms” in the region, she “actively advocates for vulnerable populations facing government-sponsored discrimination, land grabbing, violence and the adverse effects of climate change,” a State Department biography of Yan Yan said.

In addition, Yan Yan has advised local and global organizations on “on climate resiliency and gender equality, researched the political participation of indigenous women, and mentored youth activists on diversity and social inclusion.”

While introducing her, Blinken recounted a 2018 incident where “police violently attacked her” while she was translating for two indigenous teenagers who had been sexually assaulted by security forces.

“If they hoped to silence her advocacy, they failed,” Blinken said, noting that Yan Yan had participated in the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues two months later.

“She said, and I quote, ‘Since I have the means and the capacity to amplify the voices being left unheard, I think I need to act on it. I am simply fulfilling my responsibilities as a citizen.’”

“What an incredibly powerful message to all of us,” the top American diplomat said.

‘They became my inspiration’

On Tuesday, the eve of the ceremony, Yan Yan said her focus was on youth and women.

“Because rights cannot be achieved within a certain period of time, youths need to carry forward the movement in the future,” she told BenarNews. “And women’s challenges are many times higher than those of just an indigenous society.

“Women need to ensure their rights inside their traditional society too, so they need to come forward as members of the indigenous community, as well as women.”

After returning home in 2014 from Australia, where she had obtained a bachelor’s in development studies from the University of Adelaide, she began her field work in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, she told BenarNews after Wednesday’s ceremony.

“As I got involved with the people on the ground, they became my inspiration,” she said, adding, “This award and recognition will make us and our issues visible to others. We need to inform others about our issues. This visibility will help us with that.”

Back in Bangladesh, a human rights activist praised Yan Yan for her courage as he recalled the attack on her five years ago.

“She was physically assaulted in that incident. Still, no amount of intimidation or threats could stop her,” Nirupa Dewan, a former member of the National Human Rights Commission, told BenarNews, adding, “The incident will surely be remembered by all.”

“We are proud of her receiving the award as she is a courageous figure in asserting the rights of the hill people,” he said. “She faced many hurdles because of her commitment to the rights of tribal people, especially women. But she never backed down.”

The Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development reported details of the attack on its website.

Human rights report

According to the 2022 Bangladesh census, the total population is nearly 170 million while the 50 indigenous communities total a little more than 1.65 million – the largest is Chakma, 483,000, followed by Marma, 224,000. Yan Yan is a member of the Marma community and after marrying the Chakma king she is the queen or “rani” of the Chakma community.

In its “2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” the State Department estimated that about 90,000 indigenous internally displaced persons lived in the tract region.

“The indigenous community of the CHT experienced widespread discrimination and abuse despite nationwide government quotas for participation of Indigenous CHT residents in the civil service and higher education.

These conditions also persisted despite provisions for local governance in the 1997 CHT Peace Accord, which has not been fully implemented, specifically the portions of the accord empowering a CHT-specific special administrative system consisting of the three Hill District Councils and the Regional Council,” the report said.

“Local organizations claimed the army and intelligence forces carried out extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests; beat, harassed, threatened, and jailed Indigenous people on false charges; and labeled rights activists as terrorists and extortionists.”

Sunil Barua in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, contributed to this report.


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