For those who weren’t tuned to the BBC World Service, 2nd April at 19:50 GMT, here’s a link to my latest From Our Own Correspondent piece – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01w7k0t I butt in around 4′ 30″.
If you’d rather read the copy, as delivered from a rather too-snug wardrobe at BBC Newcastle, I’ve pasted it in below the following brief intro paragraph…
Bangladesh – Chittagong Hill Tracts
Independent since 1971, Bangladesh’s 154m citizens share one of the world’s youngest states.
To most the country is universally Islamic, overpopulated and flood-prone. If it’s not a cyclone or a ferry capsize it’s an horrific factory fire or even a plague of rats. Bangladesh is simply a disaster waiting to happen…
A headache-inducing three-wheeler ride from Chittagong airport, and a further two hours’ drive to the town of Bandarban; beyond military checkpoints, Bangladesh gets complicated.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts are sparsely populated, home to the country’s few 1,000 metre peaks. Unlike the Bengali lowlands, indigenous tribal peoples account for the majority here. Most are Buddhist, many Christian. Shining temples and modest wooden churches are surprising sights in Bangladesh.
Beyond the colourful maelstrom of Bandarban, a tribal village of the Bawm people is a quiet place. Simple wooden and bamboo houses, a tea-shop and a Presbyterian church, sit by a leafy green track ascending the hillside. It’s the dry season but it’s raining. Water drips from tin roofs fast forming muddy puddles. Chickens peck speculatively. I take shelter in the tea-shop.
Climbing a few rickety steps, it’s a rudimentary affair, open sides, three rustic tables, a scattering of listless men. Faces are more oriental than south Asian. A colourfully dressed woman sitting on the floor is in charge, her orbit of children distributing steaming glasses of sweet, milky cha tea. I ask where I can find the karbari, the village leader. It turns out he’s ensconced at one of the tables. An unassuming older man, dressed in shorts and greying t-shirt, he invites me to join him.
‘We came here from the Burma border because of better amenities, schools and clinics,’ he says. ‘Everything is fine, only the religion is different. We’re not told what to do by the government.’
‘Why is the army here?’ I ask.
‘The army came to look after us when there was fighting.’ The karbari’s words are too carefully chosen and I ask my guide to offer reassurance by disclosing his own unmistakably Hindu minority name.
As he does, a younger man, Lal Ram Bawm, earnestly interrupts. ‘The army would say they’re here to protect the country, to defend the border,’ he says. ‘But we don’t need so many soldiers now.’
The deployment is a hangover from the twenty-year Shanti Bahini insurgency, a reaction to Dhaka’s newly independent government riding roughshod over indigenous land rights, even promoting land grabs.
An agreement ending the violence was signed in 1997, but much remains to be implemented. Tribal people complain they’re marginalised, at worst persecuted, and that the army is complicit. The army argues its continued presence is vital for security.
‘All land is occupied by the army,’ says Lal Ram. ‘We need permission from the army to move. 16km from here they pushed all indigenous people out, nearly 1,500 from the Mru tribe, and then built a training camp.’
‘Didn’t they know it was tribal land?’ I ask.
‘Oh, they knew. They just did it anyway,’ he replies, to the murmured agreement of others.
The rain intensifies. More young men group around to listen. I order cha for our table.
‘Everywhere there is a good place for tourism they put an army camp,’ says Lal Ram. ‘They make a good business. Restaurants run by Dhaka people. Not a penny for us.’
It’s estimated some 400 temporary military camps remain in the CHT despite government promises of their removal.
Another man pitches in, ‘At Keokara Dong, near the Burma border they built a tourist place on common land. No consultation with local people,’ he says. ‘This is my motherland but if I want to build a house I have to ask permission from Bengali people. Why?’
‘How about relations with civilians?’ I enquire.
‘We have some problems with local Bengali men and their attitude to Bawm women, and other indigenous women,’ say Lal Ram ‘Some harassment, rapes, even murders. You see our lifestyle is quite free for women and girls. Bengali youths don’t understand this.’
We reach a hiatus. The tea glasses are empty.
‘We feel something like animals in a zoo,’ says Lal Ram. ‘We are captured by the army and local people too.’
Asked about his hopes for the future Lal Ram looks at me squarely, his face relaxed. ‘Firstly, the army should leave. Next we want Bengali people to leave. Then we want to look after ourselves.’