Bangladesh: Smoke in the hills. A story by Per Liljas, winner of MRG's Young Journalist Award
Forty years after Bangladesh' liberation war, indigenous communities are still stuck in the same struggle
Twelve-year old Dipu Chakma was woken up by the crashing sound when the front door of his family’s hut was kicked in. Five men entered, their faces covered in cloth. Hurriedly, Dipu got up from his bed and ushered his little brother Riku to the back of the hut. Sneaking out through a window, Dipu heard the men shouting and caught a glimpse of them lunging for his and Riku's father, whilst their mother tried to intervene.
"My heart was beating fast, I thought they were going to kill him," Dipu says. Hiding in the bushes outside, the two boys heard the struggle come to an end, and the men leaving down the hill. Shortly after, their mother came to find them, blood running down her forehead, tears running down her cheeks. The men had taken her husband with them. She led the boys uphill. While spending the night in the plantations, their hut and hundreds of other huts were torched and burned to the ground.
In south-east Bangladesh, where the flat delta gives way to forested hills, columns of smoke billowing up toward the sky has traditionally meant planting season. The eleven tribes residing here have sustained themselves for over a thousand years by slashing down vegetation along the slopes, setting it on fire, then putting down seeds among the nutritious ashes. They call this cultivation jhum and they call themselves jumma. Their region, the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), marks the border between South Asia and South East Asia. Unlike the Muslim Bengalis on the plains, the jumma are mainly Buddhists and of Tibeto-Burman descent. Yet, they have been governed from the plains for a century and a half. Under British rule, a relative amity prevailed. Under Pakistan, discontentment grew. Under Bangladesh, the columns of smoke more often than not have come from conflict. The first sign of violent change came in the early 1960’s, when the Kaptai hydroelectric power plant was built.
A windy night in 1961, when Rita Dewan was thirteen years old, she could hear water lap the lawn outside her window. A week later, as water reached her family’s porch, it was time to leave. ”When I came back the day after, water stood up to my knees,” Rita says. A few miles downstream, the gates were closing on Kaptai Dam. The lake it created came to submerge forty percent of CHT’s arable land and the town of Rangamati, capital of CHT's predominant Chakma tribe. 100,000 people were displaced. For Rita, it would not be the last time she lost her home.
63-year old Rita sits on her sofa, on the plot of land in the new Rangamati town that her father acquired after the dam was constructed. She is short, hazel-eyed and has pulled her hair into a silvery knot. When she starts talking about her marriage, and how she left for her husband’s rural land in the hamlet Erabuniya in 1965, there’s a hint of nostalgia in her eyes. ”It was so beautiful and peaceful,” she says. ”We started a pineapple farm and expanded the land to grow rice.” Then, in 1986, several huge barges landed across the river, carrying hundreds of Bengalis. ”We were stunned,” Rita says. ”First we just thought they were coming to pick some fruit and bamboo. Then we understood that they were here to stay.”
The new arrivals grossly outnumbered the jumma and were backed up by scores of soldiers. When arguments erupted and grew violent, many of the jumma left for their plantations uphill. Rita and her husband moved back to her family in the new Rangamati town. Not long after, the jumma guerilla, Shanti Bahini (”Peace Fighters”), engaged the army in battles in Erabuniya. In a week’s time, all guerilla fighters and jumma had fled the village. ”A couple of years later, I came back because of my job,” says Rita, who was then working as a field officer for a family planning project. ”The settlers had built a house, a school and a mosque on our land. A man invited me to taste a litchi. ’It’s so sweet,’ he said. When I told him that they were all mine, that my husband had sown that tree, the man just laughed.”
Until the construction of the Kaptai Dam, CHT had been a largely secluded area. The British, during their rule, had treated the region as semi-autonomous and introduced laws restricting foreign settlement. However, when the British left in 1947 and CHT became a part of Pakistan, thousands of Bengalis were moved in from the plains to construct and man the Kaptai Dam and other industrial projects. When the Bengalis rose up against Pakistan in 1971, they came to form a country based on ethnicity instead of Islam – Bangladesh, literally ”the country of Bengalis.” Not being Bengali, the jumma felt overlooked and sought India’s help. In 1975, when Bangladesh’ first Prime Minister was assassinated and replaced by the Islamist general-major Ziaur Rahman, they received it.
India started providing the newly formed jumma insurgents, Shanti Bahini, with training and arms and soon a guerilla war broke out. Major-General Rahman responded with a mass immigration of Bengali settlers from the plains. By the early 80’s, Bengalis made up half of CHT’s population, after being less than ten percent three decades earlier. Settlers burned down jumma villages, Shanti Bahini burned down the Bengali settlements. There were massacres and atrocities committed by both sides. When a secular government replaced Bangladesh’ military regimes in 1996, India stopped supporting Shanti Bahini, and a year later the insurgents had laid down their arms. The peace accord that was signed included demilitarization, increased powers to the jumma and rehabilitation of around 100,000 people who had fled to India. However, there was no mention of the Bengali settlers.
”We never put it on paper," says Shantu Larma, the former commander of Shanti Bahini. "It was a gentlemen’s agreement that the 500,000 settlers would return.” Only Larma’s short-cropped, grey hair and his straight posture hints at his background as the leader of an insurgency. He wears a light blue shirt that is a size too large and steel-rimmed glasses, as he sits in the office he holds as chairman of the Regional Council, CHT’s ruling political body.
It might look as if he’s important, however his political powers are weak. This lack of influence given to the Regional Council is one of the examples of the flawed implementation of the peace accord. As mandatory in all public offices, a large portrait of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina hangs behind Larma, constantly reminding him how she seems to have gotten the best of him when signing the accord. ”Hasina’s party is corrupt, they don’t care about the jumma’s hopes and aspirations,” he says. ”If they don’t implement the peace accord, there will be violence.” However, the violence never actually stopped. The peace accord split Shanti Bahini in two – Larma’s pro-accord JSS and the anti-accord UPDF. They both deny all reports of leading armed, underground cadres, which fight each other and the military. Where they both agree is that all infighting is benefiting the military.
If it wasn’t for the military presence, CHT would seem nothing like a conflict zone. The lush, undulating landscape – sliced by rivers and interspersed with bamboo-hut hamlets – carries the calmness of a lost paradise. The few, small towns, ripe with rickshaws and small businesses, could be any Bangladeshi town, except for the large minority of people with a South East Asian appearance. And except that anywhere you go, you see the army. Dark-green vehicles drive down the roads, clusters of soldiers stand on street corners, roadblocks and expansive camps are scattered around the countryside.
According to the peace accord, all but five army camps in CHT are to be withdrawn, but still several hundred remain. The Bengali settlers are mostly clustered near to the camps and when violence takes place, often after a settler has encroached on jumma land, the military offers the settlers protection.
However, many observers believe that the violence is often instigated by the military themselves. In May 2011, Lars-Anders Baer presented a report on the CHT to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. "In Bangladesh, the military is a state within the state, but in CHT they are in reality the state," Baer says. "It is deeply involved in the exploitation of natural resources, drug trafficking and other commercial interests in CHT. Despite the indigenous population's right to land, systematic landgrabbing is ongoing. Generally speaking, the conflict is escalating once again. There is no rule of law for the indigenous people."
Being the biggest contributor to UN's peace keeping forces, the Bangladeshi military also has a great interest in retaining CHT as a training ground. Furthermore, the current construction of a deep sea port in the nearby city Chittagong will make CHT into an invaluable transit area. Meghna Guhatakurta, PhD in international relations at Dhaka University and Director of the research institute RIB, emphasizes that many of the human rights violations are taking place in the areas where these new roads are being planned. ”Settlers are moved to where the roads will be built, because that is where they will have business opportunities in the future,” she says.
One of the roads has started to take shape in Bagaihat, the village where Dipu and Riku Chakma’s hut went up in flames in February 2010. On this day, the two boys stand next to a greenish-grey pond outside of Rangamati. Behind them, other boys are playing in the water, trying to climb the trunk of a floating tree. In fact, there are kids all around. By this time in the afternoon, most of them have peeled off their green-and-white school uniforms and are busy with leisure, homework or chores. Adults are scarce. The ones you see wear shaved heads and orange robes.
This is Monogar, a Buddhist school and orphanage in Rangamati, that takes care of jumma children who are victims of the ongoing conflict. Dipu and Riku came here almost a year after settlers attacked their village. ”That night, our mother cried into the morning,” Dipu says. He is tense; the collar of his shirt is trembling and his gaze is darting. ”The next day, my mother went to the village. Police were there. They had found Dad’s body by the roadside.”
Juanashri Mahathero is one of the senior monks at Monogar. ”Everyone here carries a personal story of violence,” he says. ”Four months ago we admitted a young girl who had been taken to Chittagong and raped and wanted to commit suicide when she returned. This morning a girl in sixth grade found out that her father had been kidnapped, and just cried and cried. We need a psychologist to take care of cases like these, but we don’t have the money.”
With whatever donations they can get, mainly from international donors, Monogar teaches around four hundred children, from ages five to fifteen. This is one of the few places in Bangladesh where children are being taught in a tongue other than Bengali. Jhimit Chakma, principal of Monogar, says, ”Our goal is to educate as many jumma children as we can in our own culture. That’s the only way we can survive.”
Raja Devasish Roy, king of the Chakma, grew up in a privileged situation, speaking Chakma, Bengali and English. He was reluctantly throned after Bangladesh’ liberation war in 1971, since his father took Pakistan’s side and was expelled. Since then, Roy has played the role of a mediator between the government and the insurgents, he has been a human rights advocate, and is currently a member of the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
This year, the fortieth anniversary of Bangladesh’ liberation, the irony of CHT’s situation is not lost on him. ”The Bengali experience of being forced to speak Urdu during Pakistan’s rule was what drove their struggle for emancipation,” he says. ”They were denied their own language and identity. But now, their government is using their powers in the same way. We jumma don’t eat, sleep and speak our indigenous identity – we’re also human beings and Bangladeshis. But we can’t become full human beings before our righteous place in a multicultural nation is recognized.”¨
All photos: Per Liljas
Per Liljas was awarded the Minority Voices Young Journalist Award in 2010. A freelance Swedish journalist, he has contributed to several prominent Swedish newspapers such as Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet and Aftonbladet. This piece is the result of his award, an MRG-funded trip to research and write on issues facing an indigenous or minority community in the global south, and is a translation from the original Swedish article, first published in the February 2012 edition of Amnesty Press.
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