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Alumnus campaigning for the rights of indigenous peoples in Asia

Posted: 27 January 2021

Bangladesh, Alumni, COVID-19, Impact,

Australia Awards alumnus and long-term human rights campaigner Shohel Chandra Hajang promotes and protects the rights of indigenous peoples through advocacy, lobbying and campaigning at national, regional and international levels. He is working with indigenous communities so that they can participate in human rights mechanisms and processes to have their concerns heard.

Shohel belongs to the Hajong community of Bangladesh’s plain land. Since childhood, he has seen the challenges faced by marginalised communities such as the Hajong. For example, indigenous communities worldwide tend to be at higher risk from emerging infectious diseases compared to other populations. Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic poses a disproportionate threat to indigenous peoples across the globe. It has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities and amplify pre-existing barriers to health care, social services and key preventative measures. Such disparities—and other injustices against indigenous peoples—motivated Shohel to work in the human rights sector.

In 2015, Shohel was the first person from his community to receive an Australia Awards Scholarship, and he went on to complete a Master of Development Practice from James Cook University in 2016. He has participated in several global human rights conferences, including the 27th Annual Human Rights and People’s Diplomacy Training Program for Human Rights Defenders. Australia Awards – Bangladesh supported Shohel’s participation in this training program in Timor-Leste in 2017 through an Informal Learning Opportunity.

Shohel now works at the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), a regional organisation that promotes the rights and development of indigenous peoples in Asia. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Shohel has been an active member of AIPP’s Response and Communication Network on COVID-19. He contributes to AIPP’s information centre, ‘COVID-19 Response’, which provides vital updates on how the indigenous peoples of Asia are responding to the crisis. He surveys AIPP members and networks to understand the situation on the ground and shares regular reports to ensure that up-to-date information is available.

This information includes a series of ‘COVID-19 and Humanity’ updates that Shohel has prepared. These updates document some of the trends on human rights issues that AIPP’s research and sources have identified. For example, one survey revealed that indigenous peoples of Bangladesh are at a higher risk of experiencing deprivation, discrimination and human rights violations because of structural inequalities. In response, the third COVID-19 and Humanity update reported on cases of human rights violations in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.

Shohel emphasises that AIPP’s investigation and reporting on the status of indigenous peoples is designed to assist governments and development partners across Asia to respond to COVID-19 with a long-term view.

“The role I am playing during the pandemic is to promote and defend indigenous peoples’ rights by advocating the cause of indigenous peoples at all levels,” says Shohel.

“I am contributing to produce systematic documentation of the various issues—socio-economic and political aspects—affecting indigenous peoples of my country for policy advocacy, awareness-raising and information dissemination.”

In applying his Australian education, Shohel also draws on indigenous learning. “Through assessing case studies, I reflect on the important lessons learnt from their traditional knowledge and thus contribute to improving AIPP’s coping mechanisms,” he says.

Additionally, to support Hajong families affected by the pandemic, Shohel has established a Facebook group called ‘COVID-19 Mohamarite Hajong Poribarer Jonno Sohayota’ (which translates to ‘Aid for Hajong families during the COVID-19 pandemic’). Group members have provided immediate food relief to around 500 vulnerable Hajong families who were experiencing food insecurity. The group also works with the Hajong community to access the government’s humanitarian support and to follow public health orders.

Before the pandemic, Shohel was already working on initiatives to advance the human rights and welfare of indigenous communities, including through his work as an organising secretary of ‘Bangladesh Jatiya Hajong Sangathan’, a non-governmental and voluntary organisation of Hajong people. In this role, he leads online forums on the struggles of indigenous communities with youth leaders from civil society organisations, with the objective of identifying possible solutions to these challenges.

Alumnus Shohel Chandra Hajang photographed during the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Brisbane in 2019

Shohel was also part of an Australia Awards alumni group that fought for the right of indigenous people of the Bandarban Hill District of Bangladesh to access clean water. Using a grant from Australia Awards, the group implemented an activity called ‘Community empowerment and action against illegal stone extraction to preserve the natural environment in Bangladesh’. The group successfully lobbied the High Court in Bangladesh to issue an order to immediately stop the illegal extraction of stone from the Sangu and Matamuhri rivers in Bandarban, which was polluting local water sources. The group presented their project at the Australia Awards Regional Alumni Workshop in 2018, where the project was the overall winner of a Pitch Competition for alumni groups to communicate their environment and climate action initiatives and outcomes. As a result, the group received additional funding to expand their project.

Shohel acknowledges that indigenous peoples are the custodians of a wealth of knowledge and customary practises and that elders in indigenous communities can play a significant role through keeping and transmitting traditional knowledge to the younger generation and a wider group. Shohel’s deep understanding of indigenous rights was bolstered by his Australia Awards Scholarship.

“My Australian degree has helped me to develop my specific expertise relating to indigenous views and approaches to development,” he explains.

This background provides a solid platform for his work at AIPP in ensuring that indigenous voices are heard and in advocating for indigenous communities’ rights during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I, along with my team, combine all the innovative methods and customary practices established by the indigenous communities of Bangladesh and other parts of Asia in response to the pandemic,” he says.