[Editor’s Note: Jerry Allen submitted this article about his experience in CHT to several deshi media outlets, who did not print it. AoD is printing it today in its entirety.]
Expulsion from Bangladesh
By Jerry Allen
In the summer of 2011 I was forced to leave Bangladesh due to fabricated press stories. I was a victim of anti-foreigner sentiment resulting from the politics and security situation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Since then other foreign tourists and NGO workers have been expelled or harassed from Chittagong Hill Tracts as well.
The experience was frightening, but also puzzling. I could not understand why I was a threat or why people, who obviously had resources, did not like my presence. It has taken me a long time to write the full story and to consider the reasons.
The role and perception of NGOs in developing countries needs to be examined as the result of incidents like this.
I went to Bangladesh in October 2010 to work to help the country and its people. I am a management consultant, who for 25 years managed projects for the British Government. I came to Bangladesh with the belief that I could help by advising on management processes. Bangladesh has problems that seem overwhelming to foreigners. We see people living on chars (temporary river islands), children breaking ships and the Dhaka traffic. We read the staggering numbers of people who are displaced each year by flooding. As a result, naïve and condescending foreigners like me think that Bangladesh should welcome international advice. However after many hours of police interviews, I realise that there is deep suspicion of us.
I was placed in Bandarban in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) to work on a project funded by UNDP to build the confidence of the indigenous leadership.
Before I came to Bangladesh I had travelled widely in South Asia, but I knew nothing about the CHT, about its unique ethnic and cultural mix. I was not a politically active person, though I felt strongly about Palestine and the actions of the west in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I was assigned to the Bohmong Chief Circle’s office. But when I arrived I was not permitted into the office where the work was done and the main person I was to work for would not meet me. There was already deep suspicion.
I informed UNDP and I asked several times to be given work to do. “Just enjoy yourself”, I was told by the UNDP management. After doing some English teaching I was eventually asked to do a study of the traditions and customary laws of the unique local people of the area. This required attending many cultural events and visiting remote areas. I loved doing this and, in hindsight, probably loved it too much for the Bangladeshi authorities to understand.
The police watched me from the moment I arrived in Bandarban and I received regular phone calls asking where I was in evenings. I accepted this, as I was for most of the time the only person there who was not local or Bengali and I rarely stayed at home.
One night I arrived back at my apartment after the gates were locked and had to climb over a high wall. I looked around in the dark empty streets and noticed a fit, Bengali with a neat haircut about 20 meters away. He was happy to help me over the wall. It was only later I realised that there was always someone 20 metres away.
Bandarban is a town of 2 halves. There are the indigenous locals who have been there for several hundred years and there are the Bengali newcomers, who see Bandarban as a new frontier with economic opportunity.
From my home, if I went to the main street and turned left I would be in an area that was noisy, male dominated and commercially oriented. As a foreigner in this part of town I was seen as a source of income, so I was harassed by shopkeepers and had to negotiate prices. Getting taxis was always painful. Meat fried in oil and flat breads dominated the food in this area. It was like many bazaars that I had enjoyed throughout South Asia and all the way to Istanbul. There were many soldiers on the street who were on or off duty. This is the nature of most frontier towns.
But if I turned right on the main street it was peaceful and colourful. The indigenous people were very shy at first but extremely generous and hospitable. Women confidently walked in the streets and it was women that seem to do most of the trading. I was not harassed and did not have to bargain for prices. The food was based on dried fish, bamboo and interesting meats and vegetables. It was similar to the food of the east. Social drinking in friendly bars was the culture of the evening, as it is in England.
There is no question which end of town I found friendlier and more interesting. In fact, within a few weeks I realised that the indigenous part of town was the friendliest place I had ever experienced and wanted to stay for the rest of my life. I went to many cultural and religious events, was invited to weddings and soon loved the dancing and music. But in hindsight my growing love was looked on with suspicion.
The approach to life of the indigenous people was refreshing. I am no anthropologist, but I came to realise they had learnt to survive in small village communities; so being shy of foreigners is natural. Kinship and strong, unwritten moral bonds are essential. This is demonstrated in the social drinking and the importance of preserving the culture. Trading is less important, when land is communally owned.
From April 2011 onwards it was apparent that I was under greater surveillance. My daughter visited. They were extremely suspicious and persistently asked to see papers.
From then on different branches of the police would interview me, often several times a week. I did not take it seriously enough at first, but it was annoying that they would continually want to see the same documents.
In June 2011 a change to the Bangladesh constitution increased the tension in the area. At first I did not understand the significance of the change. However to me it was very apparent that the security institutions were getting more vigilant because they realised the change was an insult to the local people, as it implied that Indigenous people are backward.
The police interviews lasted up to 3 hours and usually involved several policemen. On 31st July, 12 policemen held me in a room for an hour without actually asking anything. They were just being threatening. I remember the date, because the day before there had been a triple murder and the attempted rape of a 13-year-old Marma indigenous girl in a nearby village.
During these many interviews no evidence was presented of any wrongdoing, though some allegations were made. Allegedly I had 2 passports and had been a Tamil Tiger, which was totally fabricated.
Journalists and others started to wonder why I was being investigated; so the police had to feed them some news; and the spiral of suspicion was sustained.
Worryingly, articles started to appear in the local newspapers. Apparently “intelligence sources confirmed” I had been a Tamil Tiger and had 2 passports.
I could not establish who invented the stories, but I have a strong suspicion that they originated in the Bohmong Raja’s Office.
It had been made aware to me that the man (known locally as the “Richest Man in Bandarban”) who runs the office in the Raja’s garden sells the Permanent Residency Certificates for 1,000 taka. The former Raja would sign entire books of blank certificates. It was a condition of the 1997 Peace Accord that the 3 Rajas (Circle Chiefs) must have the power to determine who can own land in the CHT. (I became an expert on the land laws and the erosion of the 1900 “rules”.) Therefore, it could be argued that the Permanent Residency Certificate is the only part of the Peace Accord that was actually implemented. – And now they were selling them!
UNDP had provided a 6 room modern office with several computers, a photocopier and printer. The equipment was totally unused and, in some cases, unusable, as the mice had eaten parts. During my time a family of settlers moved into the new office and paid rent to the “Richest man” who was responsible for the office. I am entirely sure that UNDP are aware of this.
The “Richest man” was probably the only person who knew about the passport number error that resulted in the 2 passport myth and this is probably the source of the initial stories that started the police and press harassment. It is he that did not want me in the office where I was supposed to work.
As a naive English man it surprised me that local people in Bandarban were not more angry about activities that were so widely known. However the acceptance of corruption is always a surprise to Europeans working abroad.
The police asked the old Raja’s son why I was in Bandarban. His reply implied that UNDP imposed me upon them. This was completely untrue and was not helpful to the position of UNDP. He admitted that he had not read the papers on me before signing them. Of course, to the security police this promoted the suspicion that foreign organisations were placing people in the CHT in order to agitate.
The police harassment and press articles continued. I became the subject of national as well as local press. The Deputy Commissioner of Bandarban met me in mid August to express his concern at stories that were being circulated about my alleged “activities”. As I result I promised to stay in the “safe” end of Bandarban and not to talk to the press.
At that meeting he implied that there was interest in me in more powerful places, and he nodded across to the military cantonment. I learnt much from that small nod. Unfortunately after our last meeting the press coverage increased.
On Friday, 19th August 2011 I was given 2 hours notice to leave Bandarban, because the same untrue stories were being broadcast on national TV news (ATN). While I was packing, the local UNDP chief phoned me and blamed me for the TV coverage.
I went to Dhaka, but on Friday 26th August I was asked to leave Bangladesh. No reason was given, except the invented stories. No official person told me directly why I was expelled. No allegations that could be substantiated were put in front of me.
In a newspaper article the Deputy Commissioner of Bandarban said it was a result of continued press stories. I have asked many times since for a reason. Eventually I was informed that police authorities in Dhaka said it was because of “public interpretation of press stories”.
I have seen copies of many of the press stories written about me at that time. The papers that printed stories included Protidin, Jugantor, Amader Shomoy, BDNews24.com and Coxs Bazar News.
Translation of article: JerryAllen_BanglaNews24
According to them I was accused of the following:
1. Having 2 passports – Even after a letter from the British High Commission disproved this.
2. Being a Tamil Tiger during the 1990s. Nonsense!
3. Not having a visa. Though when I left Bangladesh, it was with a visa that was valid until the 30th September and a work permit, which the authorities had seen many times.
4. Meeting people with strong political views. I met almost everyone in the friendly, indigenous side of Bandarban, and it is likely that I did inadvertently meet someone who disagrees with the government. Though local people constantly worry about land and about their culture, I was never in any conversation where any separatist or violent ideas were discussed.
5. “Contradictory activities” and “Provoking unrest” were also mentioned in the papers. No one presented examples or evidence of these activities.
6. “Participating” in a rally in Bandarban on the 9th August 2011. I was in Dhaka that day. Coincidently, I had conversations with policemen in Dhaka at an Oxfam meeting the day before. I attended another NGO meeting in Dhaka on the 10th August. It would be impossible to travel back and forth in the intervening day.
A particular photo, which was used by the press to show me at the rally in Bandarban that day, appears to have been taken at an event in July. It shows me sitting smiling on the pavement on an obviously hot day, though on the 9th August 2011 there was torrential rain in Bandarban! After I left Bangladesh, this photo became the main evidence of wrongdoing.
The 9th August is World Indigenous day, and after 2011 the government gave orders that this day must not be celebrated in Bangladesh. So I was again the victim of other agendas and bad timing.
I do not consider sitting and smiling as “participating”! But looking back I realise that every time I walked down the friendly end of Bandarban for noodle soup or tea, I was watched by the security agencies and considered to be “participating” in political activity.
During my many interviews, the police would produce a file that steadily grew. Whenever they brought the file out I would worry that I may have actually done something wrong! But the file contained nothing of any substance. The most incriminating “evidence” showed photos of me doing things like clapping, which they said was evidence of encouraging local insurgency. I attended various events as part of documenting local culture and building confidence. In one long interview a senior policeman produced a photo of me clapping at what was clearly a cultural event and said: “Is this you clapping? You are provoking!”
My supposed attendance at any specific rally was not an issue in any of my police interviews. The photo of me on the pavement only became important after I left Bangladesh.
I remember the faces of the policemen during the long, traumatic interrogations and wonder whether they believed the nonsense they were investigating. It was clear that they could not understand altruism. They were insistent that someone was funding me and there must be an ulterior motive.
They also had no understanding of the indigenous people at the other end of town, whose culture is foreign and to be mistrusted by Bengalis according to the police authorities. I remember during a relaxed phase, advising them on community policing and the lessons the British learnt in Northern Ireland. Totally bizarre!
It is the local journalists that I have the most disappointment in. They probably propagated these stories for their personal gain, without realising the damage they can do to a person’s life. The recent horrendous incidents of destruction in Ramu also seem to been inflamed by local journalists.
I must reiterate that no official has ever produced evidence of any wrongdoing or told me I was being expelled because of any action. After I left, the press stories, with the same nonsense, increased for a while and some absurd extras were added.
To further complicate the situation, at that time when local people in the CHT heard of my story, I was seen as a minor hero. It did not help my situation at that time. It appeared that the indigenous people also started to believe the stories of me being a political agitator.
Soon after I left, leaflets were distributed and posted in the streets on Bandarban with more absurd stories about me. These included stories of me having affairs with local women and even homosexual relationships (the latter is illegal in Bangladesh, as a residue of colonial era laws). It is significant that the people I was alleged to have had relationships with were all NGO and human rights workers. It was apparent that people were trying to discredit a whole community, and I was a pawn in a larger game.
The fact that people made so much effort really puzzles me! Who had I offended? Whoever produced the leaflets had resources and appears to have been threatened by my presence on the streets on Bandarban.
Other foreigners have been expelled from Bangladesh since then due to working in CHT, and others have been harassed. For example, a Swedish journalist and an American NGO worker were expelled in the summer of 2012. There are now rules restricting the activities foreigners can do in CHT. The activities of the CHT Commission were severely restricted when they visited Bandarban in November 2011. According to the Daily Kaler Kantha, government sources said “this decision was taken after proof had been found of unethical and anti-state activities by some foreigners who had come to the CHT in the name of human rights and religion.” No proof or examples are ever presented.
I was often mentioned in the subsequent news stories. The reason for my expulsion is now given as “participating at a rally”, because the one photo remains as the only supposed evidence. Hopefully, you understand that there was far more to it, particularly the several months of surveillance and harassment by press and police before that photo.
Journalists and security personnel throughout the world generate and exaggerate stories to keep their jobs. For a while I was a minor news story that paid somebody’s wages. But the leaflets distributed after I left show a more sinister involvement. There are definitely interested groups who seize the opportunity to show that the problems of the CHT are the fault of foreigners. There are also those who do not want the world to know what is happening in the CHT.
Before the 2012 Indigenous Day, there were accusations that foreigners were inciting indigenous people to celebrate indigenous culture.
Bangladeshis are welcoming and hospitable to foreigners. I had the privilege to be at the game in Chittagong when Bangladesh beat England in the Cricket World Cup in Chittagong. Leaving the ground the seven England fans had to walk through several hundred thousand Bangladesh fans on the way to the ground to celebrate. This was a huge spontaneous display of national pride, but without the xenophobia that often accompanies nationalism. The seven of us felt safe, welcomed and honoured and we really enjoyed the experience. These were not people who disliked foreigners.
In contrast, on 2nd October, Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury, the Leader of the Bangladesh Parliament and the Chairman of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord Implementation National Committee made an unsubstantiated statement on foreign NGOs at a meeting of the military sponsored organisation called the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS).
She said that foreigners “over sympathised” with indigenous people. “Foreigners are taking money to the CHT, which is not helping to solve the problems there.” “This type of arrangement is only to create instability in the hilly area.” She implied that foreign donations lead to separatism.
Why does one of Bangladesh’s political leaders want to stop foreigners helping its most marginalised people? No evidence or examples of foreign NGOs creating instability was presented at the meeting or has ever been presented. But the unfounded allegations continue and at a high level.
There is no evidence of a desire by foreign governments to interfere in the CHT. I would say the rest of the world cares little about the CHT, it is lost in the myriad of many micro-crises all over the world. Therefore, the stories of foreign interference are internally generated for some other agenda.
There have been accusations that people like me are part of a “Christianisation” conspiracy. Anyone who knows or has investigated me will realise I am an atheist with a mistrust of any religion that tries to convert. I feel that Bangladesh should be suspicious of foreign funding if the hidden motive is to convert people, whether these funds come from the USA or from Saudi Arabia.
Bangladesh is not the only country that mistrusts foreign NGOs. Burma recently jailed 3 UNHCR workers. Save The Children has been expelled from Pakistan.
I have since worked in wealthier central Asia in the former Soviet republics between Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran. Though the introduction of capitalism has been a disaster for most people, much of the NGO work seems to be focussed on promoting capitalism and western influence. There is a considerable amount of blatant Christian proselytising. This area is strategic for a number of reasons. It has made me realise that development aid is targeted for political reasons and that all development workers must know the real reason for their posting. If we naively think we are being sent to help poor people, we can find ourselves disappointed.
So I can understand the Bangladesh officials questioning why this English man was doing on the streets of Bandarban. But assuming anti-state activities was unfair and unfounded. I was clearly not involved in any such actions.
This traumatic experience changed me. I take great interest in Bangladesh, the role of NGOs in developing countries, human rights issues everywhere and I care about the Bangladeshi people. I worry particularly about the rights of women and about violence against women in the light of recent horrific cases.
Not only was this an extremely stressful experience for me, but was also infuriating because I am innocent. It is hard to believe the Bangladesh security see me as a threat. I feel that the constitution change meant I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I would sincerely like someone to tell me the real reason for my expulsion and tell me what is in that big DSB (security police) file. I received news recently that Bandarban DSB are still asking people questions about me a year later, which I find bizarre and frightening.
The most troubling thing is that I want to return to Bangladesh very much, though I am apparently on a “list”. I love the cultural diversity of Bangladesh and believe that Bangladeshis should be proud of it.