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Peoples Struggles in Bangladesh

A Conference Report

Farida Akhter
"Dewan emphasised the commonalty in the problem faced by indigenous people the world over from Bangladesh to the USA, from Canada to Brazil."
CERAS organised an International Conference in cooperation with Inter Pares on October 18-20, 1996 to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of Bangladesh. The theme of the Conference was "Peoples struggles in Bangladesh". Nearly 150 people attended the conference. It was one of the largest gathering of Bangladeshi community in a meeting of this nature. Delegates and invited guests came from Bangladesh, India, the USA and Canada.

The conference comprised of plenary lectures and workshops by invited guests. On the opening day on Friday, October 18, Farhad Mazhar, a social activist and poet from Bangladesh presented an overview of the Bangladesh situation juxtaposing what constituted attaining independence and liberation. The founding of Bangladesh in 1971 after a bitter struggle fell short of true liberation, emphasised Mazhar. Farhad MazharThe next main speaker was Ranabir Samaddar; who spoke on India-Bangladesh relations and emphasised close ties between the people of West Bengal in India and Bangladesh and argued that outstanding issues are common to both, such as the question of Farakka Dam, and should be resolved. Others who addressed the opening session included Yves Boulanger from CIDA, Micheline Lévesque from International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.

The Saturday morning session opened with a presentation by Raja Devasish Roy and Michael Soren on the question of indigenous people, their struggles and aspirations. The session was chaired by CERAS member Aditya Dewan, a representative of Bangladesh's Chakma community. Dewan emphasised the commonalty in the problem faced by indigenous people the world over from Bangladesh to the USA, from Canada to Brazil. The theme was forcefully carried by both Roy and Soren through numerous specific examples of how the indigenous people of Bangladesh have been denied their traditional rights and brutally persecuted.

Yves Boulanger
CIDA Assesses its Bangladesh Policy

Yves Boulanger, Director of the Bangladesh Desk at CIDA, traced the history of CIDA's contributions to the development of Bangladesh. "...most of the issues which will be discussed (in this conference) this week end were not even considered as foreign aid issues 25 years ago. Canada's partnership with Bangladesh has evolved." He noted that initially the principal feature of CIDA's assistance to Bangladesh consisted of supporting the development of infrastructure. "Today's priority will be tomorow's history probably. 25 years ago the cooperation program was mainly focussed on infrastructure, when we look at it today it is focussed on poverty reduction, on empowerment, on gender equity...our focus is on human beings". Over the years, Bangladesh has made progress in many areas but a lot need be done. CIDA, according to Boulanger, realises human resources constitute an important asset of Bangladesh as of any other country and CIDA considers developing human resources as a priority.

The morning plenary session was followed by three simultaneous workshops dealing with "Dislocation of people" (Refugee problem), "Political economy of Shrimp culture" and "cultural and political rights of indigenous people". Khushi Kabir presented convincing arguments that Bangladesh is being converted into a supplier of shrimps for the West.

The Saturday afternoon plenary session was addressed by two guests from Bangladesh and a trade union organiser from Quebec. Shamsul Huda, Manzurul Ahsan Khan a peasant organiser in Bangladesh, stated how the dream of the Bangladesh people who fought the liberation war has been betrayed by succeeding political leaders. Manzurul Ahsan Khan, a trade union activists traced the history of workers movement and their bitter struggles since the liberation in 1971. Bara MBengue, a leading member of CSN of Quebec emphasised the similarities in the struggles of workers through out the world.

The last day of the Conference was devoted to women's issues. Khushi Kabir and Farida Akhter from Bangladesh and Shelley Feldman from the USA spoke at the main session, which was followed by workshops on "Reproductive rights", "Political participation" and "Violence against women". The family planning program in Bangladesh came under severe criticism for its callous attitude towards women especially poor peasant women.

The conference ended on Sunday afternoon with a plenary session addressed by Rounaq Jahan from Columbia University and Sultana Kamal. Sultana Kamal is a lawyer in Bangladesh and has dedicated her life for the defense of human rights and secularism; she was visiting Montreal to receive the distinguished " John Humphrey Freedom" award from the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development in Canada for her human rights work in Bangladesh. She briefly but eloquently summarised the role of women in struggles in Bangladesh for freedom, democracy and secularism.

The delegates actively participated in all the sessions and often it was difficult to conclude a session because of many issues and experiences voiced by the audience. The conference was organised in an efficient manner. Morning sessions started with coffee and tea and on both Saturday and Sunday there was excellent lunch arrangement.

One of the highlights of the conference was the play "Bashan" in Bengali staged specially for the Conference by The Bangladesh Theatre of Canada. The play, which portrays the struggle of peasants against subjugation, was staged at Moyse Theatre in McGill University and attended by nearly 100 people.

Overall this conference was a great success and only encouraged CERAS to embark on the ambitious program of holding year-long program to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of India and Pakistan.

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