Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Up in the Hills

I have very recently returned from spending ten days working in the remote Chittagong Hill Tracts area of Bangladesh. This comprises three small districts squashed between India, Myanmar and the plains of the Ganges-Brahmaputra deltas, and is incredibly different to the rest of Bangladesh.

The hill tracts are so named because they contain the most unusual of geographical features in Bangladesh – hills. These are not very impressive hills, being a sort of afterthought to the formation of the Himalayas when India crashed into Asia millions of years ago. Compared to the unending flatness of Bangladesh (a flatness that is almost unbelievable), however, these are starkly different.

The other noticeable difference comes with the people. Some of Bangladesh’s 50 or so indigenous ethnic groups live in the hill tracts areas, a result of centuries of struggle across the Bengal plain. Mostly these people are Buddhist, though some are Christian and there is also animism in remoter areas. They are also not Bengali, and instead are of Tibeto-Burmese or Mongolian origin, looking much more like Burmese and Thai people than the smaller, darker Bengalis. This contrast is really very fascinating, especially as the indigenous people are rarely seen in Dhaka. The groups, mainly Tripura, Chakma and Marma, but including Monipuri (in Sylhet) and Karsi (in North Bengal) also speak languages related to south-east asian or Tibetan dialects, and have their own scripts (though some are romanised as there was no written tradition).

The obvious question would be, why are they here? Bengal has long been a place to fight over, and the successive waves of immigration and invasion of the subcontinent has seen many dynasties fall and rise and fall again. Before the Muslims arrived in the 13th and 14th centuries, this part of India was Buddhist and then Hindu. As each new group came in, took over and began converting, so the tribal peoples moved further east. Eventually, the last of the Chakma moved into the hills in around 1768 after losing a fight with Muslim-Bengali armies. They have remained there ever since, the remnants of a once powerful and dominating culture.

Under the British, the hill tracts had a special status and only the indigenous people were allowed to own land, but when Pakistan took over, all this changed and Bengalis began to move into Khagachuri, Rangamati and Bandaban to settle. The result has been a few decades of strife, freedom fighting/terrorism and general misery for the indigenous people, from not being taught in their own languages at school, to seeing hunting and farming land submerged by the new Kaptai artificial lake in the 1960s. The long standing dispute was finally ended in 1997 with an ‘internationally acclaimed accord’ but implementation of that has been very slow indeed.

The oppression still goes on. Last year, in a major land grab, thousands of poor Bengalis were allowed to come off the plains and take land in the hill tracts, with out compensation to the indigenous people. The wounds of the conflict are still very much open, and the army and police presence is omnipresent. For foreigners, there are huge restrictions as to where you can go, and the general feeling is of a place under occupation.

However, the tribal people that I spoke to certainly do not feel occupied. They are definitely, passionately even, Bangladeshi, and see themselves as Tripura or Marma within a wider cosmopolitan Bangladesh. They are certainly culturally very different. The women were wrap around tube skirts, and colourful scarfs, and the food is much more Thai like – very spicy, creamy, lots of bamboo. They drink (a lot): mainly rice wine, the local potcheen, but also rice beer. The women smoke openly on the streets, and in general people are more relaxed. They do not keep asking you where you are from, what is your country, why are you here, what is your name or any other of the millions of questions Bengalis all ask bedeshis. Up in the hills – a little cooler, and a little remote – a very different culture is going on, and one which is much more similar to something that bedeshis come from. It is no wonder that the VSO volunteers here do not like leaving.

I was working in Khagachuri (mainly Tripura and Chakma), the most remote of the three districts at Zabarang, Georgia’s NGO. I gave training on participatory research skills, report writing, proposal writing and monitoring and evaluating research. It in general seemed to go down very well, and made sure that my short intervention (as VSO likes to call these things) got a good balance of work and play.

Some things were different. I had frog curry (or ‘Mr Frog’, as the office staff called our dinner guest), which was a bit of a non-event, given that it was small and quite tasteless. Seeing them for sale in the market was something else though. We also had pork curries, a real change, and I managed to avoid the napi, a disgusting dried fish. There was also rice wine, and copious litchis.

Walking out into the villages at the weekends was really lovely, the setting so very different from what the rest of Bangladesh has to offer, and so relaxing. I was able to clear out 8 months of Dhaka pollution from my lungs (it has since returned) and see deep green fields, towering clouds, rising hills. And of course, lots of army.

At the second weekend, Georgia and I made a trip over to Rangamati, the largest of the three hill tracts towns, where we were able to enjoy a boat ride along the lake, an indigenous meal at the house of one of her colleagues, and a few walks through this lakeside town. The first day was a bit of a washout and was enough to make us both sick of Bangladesh however. It all started at the gate.

Before you can enter the hill tracts you need written permission from the district commissioner who will then send you a fax to present at the gate. You could feel the other passengers on our bus grown when we got on, knowing it would mean waiting at checkpoints as the police confirmed our access. Arriving at the Rangamati district checkpoint, Georgia and I got off the bus and traipsed over to a little hut in which a big man was sitting. This guy was incapable of doing anything without shouting, so we got the ‘WHERE ARE YOU FROM?’, ‘WHY YOU COME TO BANGLADESH?’, ‘WHAT IS YOUR COUNTRY?’ spiel much, much louder than normal. A farce quickly developed, as it turned out that the guy at Georgia’s office who had arranged our permission had given us not the fax, but a copy of the original letter he had sent to them and so we could not get in. The guard thought we were asking him, but had to keep running outside because it seemed he was also directing traffic, he could only get reception on his walkie-talkie if he crossed the road, and he was supervising the digging of a big ditch.

One sullen, boring French Canadian turned up and grunted his way through a conversation, but we discerned enough from him that he had the correct form and though we had permission, we would have to write another request form, which we did. The guard got very exasperated: ‘YOU HAVE PEN?’, no, we replied ‘HMMPF!’ was his shouted, sighing response as he threw a pen at us, and then had to keep taking it back as he had a ditch to manage and probably sudoko to do.

After half an hour we sheepishly got back on the bus to carry on, along with all our fellow passengers who had spent their waiting time staring at us, and were able to enter Rangamati some time later. We went straight to the place we were supposed to stay (a Buddhist monastery) by getting ripped off by a CNG, and after 2 hours, were concretely able to establish that they had no space and that we had to travel back along the road to the other branch of the monastery where we could get a room, a little isolated from the main town, but at least surrounded by tribal monks.

The saddest thing about the hill tracts was that I found myself very resentful of the Bengalis there who had taken land and business and were making the money whilst the tribal people remained impoverished. Of course, the Bengalis themselves are the poor who have come off the plains when offered the chance of land. The Bengali experience of the last 200 or so years has been one of exploitation, oppression and aggression, but it seems that rather than develop a compassionate humanity, they have simply learnt how to do the very things done to them. Like the world over, oppression seems only to teach the oppressed how to oppress those even less fortunate than them. This is the sad reality of the hill tracts in Bangladesh today, and it will be some time before a harmonious situation develops.

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