43. Journeys (8): The Chittagong Hill Tracts: another country

I spent five days and four nights over the Eid ul-Adha break (see post 37) in the Rangamati and Bandarban districts of the Chittagong division (see post 8 pt. 13). These two districts, together with a third (Khagrachhuri), comprise the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the south-east of Bangladesh, and share borders with India and Myanmar (Burma). In terms of culture and topography you could be in another country. As the name suggests, this is hilly terrain. It is heavily forested and home to eleven different ethnic groups, each with their own distinctive culture and lifestyle.

The political landscape has been dominated by instability, and the security and safety situation is constantly changing and difficult to accurately determine. However, it has proven to be dangerous for tourists in the past and for that reason it’s not possible to travel in the region unaccompanied. Permits are required and are checked at military checkpoints throughout the area. I chose a tour from a provider called ‘Green Bengal Tours’. It turned out to be just me, the proprietor/guide Tuhin and a local driver – Shajun from Bandarban – for part of the time. Despite the many anomalies with this ‘tour’, it provided an introduction to the region. Now that I better understand the reality of the situation on the ground, I hope to return one day and experience more meaningful engagement. (One of the stated objectives of my work assignment related to the mainstreaming of minority group concerns in all programmes of work in the Institute. I was very excited about this work but unfortunately, however, the opportunity to pursue this objective was stymied and never realised – see posts 25, 48.)

Chittagong to Rangamati: sunset at Kaptai Lake

I chose to fly to and from Chittagong in order to maximise the amount of time I could spend in the hill tracts. From Chittagong airport it was a long, slow, hot journey to Rangamati. Because it was the Eid holiday, traffic was extremely heavy. In every town and village on the route there were cattle fairs in progress. At the sides of the roads people were leading cows, and to a lesser extent goats, to and from market. Many of the animals were decked out with festive garlands of flowers, coloured ribbons, tinsel and even glitter, blissfully oblivious of their impending fate. (For more on the festival of Eid ul-Adha see post 37.)

At the border between the Chittagong and Rangamati districts, we passed through the first of two army checkpoints of the day. It was all quite straightforward and the army officers were affable: I had to fill in some details in registers. At the entrance to Rangamati town, there were large interesting-looking mosaics and I asked if I could stop to take a look. It turned out to be a war memorial, as well as a dedication to the many ethnic minorities in the area.

Although less than 50 miles from Chittagong, it had taken us the best part of the day to get to Rangamati. The town has a stunning location. It is spread out over a series of green islands, some connected by causeways, along the edge of picturesque Kaptai Lake (365 sq. miles). We reached the main launch ghat just as the sun was setting. The tranquil atmosphere today belies the troubled history of this ‘lake’. It was formed when the Karnaphuli River was dammed in the 1960s to facilitate the Kaptai hydroelectric scheme, a project that resulted in the flooding of much of the ancestral land of the Chakmas. Up to 10,000 people were displaced. Many fled on foot to nearby neighbouring India because of inadequate provision of land for resettlement. I got an eerie feeling standing at the edge of the lake and thinking about this story, wondering what lay beneath. (I remember that same feeling when I first stood looking into the waters of the Blessington Lakes at home.)

Because of our late arrival, our ‘programme’ had to be cut short. It was dark by the time I reached the Parjatan Motel, at the other end of town. It has a lovely, leafy, lakeside setting, though I didn’t see much that first night. (I gave up trying to have a look around because a man with a gun kept running after me!) My room, in the words of the Lonely Planet guidebook, was ‘run-down’ and ‘basic’. (I discovered later that I was in the cheapest, non-AC room on the ground floor. I upgraded the following morning to a much nicer room on the second floor. I had paid a lot for this tour, almost four times my monthly allowance.) Sadly, I was the only person in the dining room for dinner, apart from a little mouse that I saw running along the far wall. Through the window I saw a group climbing aboard UN vehicles, probably on their way to eat elsewhere. The food was good though: I had pomfret, a fish I had never tried before.

Rangamati: Chakma culture and Buddhism

I visited my first Buddhist monastery (vihara) outside of Dhaka on my second morning. The Bana Vihara is on the opposite side of town to my hotel and beautifully situated on the edge of the lake. There was a ceremony taking place in the main hall and an elderly, frail monk was being lifted onto an ornate throne. His arrival had been eagerly anticipated by the large crowd in attendance. I later discovered that I had been in the presence of the most venerated Buddhist monk in Bangladesh, the 90-year old abbot, the Venerable Sadhananda Mahathera, known simply as Bana Bhante (the forest monk). He is widely considered to have reached a high level of enlightenment through meditation. Bana Bhante was born Rathindra Chakma in 1920 in Rangamati. He has a reputation as an eloquent speaker, with an ability to simply explain the tenets of Buddhism. You can read about a week spent at this monastery by the present Chakma King here, where he makes reference to Bana Bhante.

Outside, I lit a candle in fond memory of my grandmother, Annie, who was born on this day (27th November) in 1888. Coincidentally, there were plaster moulds of the three wise monkeys at the vihara, albeit separated and somewhat graceless. I first saw these as a child in the form of a rather beautiful small brass casting in my grandmother’s house and later, almost 20 years ago now, I saw the original 17th century carving, over the door of the famous Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō in Japan. With all this good karma, I didn’t expect to be attacked (almost!) by the live monkeys on the grounds of the vihara.  I was the source of much amusement for a group of children, playing nearby around a small 6-storey tower, each level of which represented a stage in the afterlife.

From the village, we took a local launch to a small, peaceful island near the Bana Vihara where the Chakma Raja (King) has his beautiful, circular, wooden rajbari (raj=king; bari=house, so literally ‘king’s house or palace’), reached via an idyllic, tree-lined avenue. There were old photographs of past kings in the porch, which was as far as we could go. On the island there was a canon that had been captured from the Mughuls by the Chakmas in the early 1700s. A number of stone busts of influential past Chakma Kings were displayed in pavilions. From reading the inscriptions and from the photographs in the house, I got a real sense of the long and rich history of the Chakma people in this area. The vihara on the island was closed, unfortunately, but I managed to sneak a peek at the huge, bronze Buddha through a slit in the door. I met the abbot later who was very welcoming and friendly. Nearby, I saw some weaving, and two Chakma girls showed me how the traditional indigo-and-red striped sarongs are worn.

Back in Rangamati, we stopped for tea at an atmospheric little bamboo tea house/shop on the water. It was the kind of place I would frequent regularly if I lived here. Later, we crossed the picturesque suspension bridge by the Parjatan Motel and walked along a shady, wooded path to reach a Chakma village. This was my first visit to a Chakma village and it looked very similar in many respects –  mud and bamboo housing in shades of ochre and beige – to some of the villages that I had visited in the Sylhet division (see post 18). I met a lot of lovely, friendly children here and wandered around taking photographs.

We took a noisy 20-minute boat ride – obligatorily accompanied by an armed escort – to reach Peda Ting Ting resort on a small island on the lake. The place had a ‘holiday island’ atmosphere: it is popular with well-to-do Bangladeshi tourists. The restaurant, run by locals and promising ‘indigenous fare’, was open but ‘not serving’ at the time. After walking around, we bought some drinks and sat in the shade of a circular, bamboo gazebo to soak up the ambience, the lake vista as always magnetic.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get close to the banana plantations or tropical forests ringing the lake. Because we weren’t near the shoreline at any point we didn’t see Chakma village life from the water either. However, back on dry land, we visited a second Chakma village by road. The bamboo houses were clustered by the water, some on stilts. The sun was beginning to set and the lake looked spectacular. I stopped to watch a man smoking from a large cylindrical wooden pipe: it looked a little like a small didgeridoo with a pipe attached. Two women nearby invited me into their home and offered me snacks of moree (puffed rice), bananas and kola pitha (a cake cooked from banana and coconut). The pitha, which I understand is traditional, was mud-coloured and had a burnt taste. I struggled to eat it graciously. The room we sat in was very cosy. It had walls and floors of bamboo, a sofa, a coffee table, a bed with mosquito net and a dresser full of ware, on top of which stood a TV. Overhead, there were pictures of activists: the grandmother, who was visiting, told me that she is a relative of Santu Larma (see below). I suspect that this family were relatively affluent. I very much appreciated the hospitality and the opportunity to witness something of the Chakma lifestyle. The language barrier, unfortunately, meant that our conversation was limited.

Before returning to the hotel I had dinner with Tuhin at a ‘floating restaurant’. However, because dusk was now thickening to darkness, the potential of the setting was lost. Food was in short supply too! In any event, I didn’t want to delay because I was conscious that Shajun (our driver) was waiting in the car to take me back to the hotel.

I could see people in the Parjatan restaurant tonight and so, after a shower, I took my netbook and joined them. The atmosphere was convivial: at one long table there was an extended family celebrating some event (a few stood to make speeches towards the end of the night.) Two other tables were occupied: a couple at one and a family with two children at the other. I realised that I was still hungry: I hadn’t eaten much all day.

Chakma culture

Understanding the political situation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT)

There is no Internet at the hotel but I wanted to read something about the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in the absence of any information from my guide. I had downloaded some papers and reports to my netbook and I spent the rest of the night (and into the early morning) reading, trying to get a handle on the history and political situation of the region. (I had scanned much of this material months ago, but now that I was actually here, I wanted to deepen my understanding.)

Briefly, I read that until the British occupied and annexed the hill tracts in 1860, bringing them under the rule of Bengal, political power in the hills had been dispersed among many chiefs. Under the British, they were afforded special status that prevented encroachment and allowed them to retain a certain degree of self-administration. However, at partition in 1947, the hill tracts were bundled with the predominantly Muslim East-Bengal to become East Pakistan. During the Pakistani period, their special status was abolished and there was steady, state-sponsored in-migration of landless Bengalis. It was during the Pakistani period too that Kaptai Lake (the Karnaphuli reservoir) was formed, causing displacement and forced migration (see above).

Following Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the people of the CHT were hopeful of regaining the special autonomous status they had enjoyed under British rule. However, Sheikh Mujib (see post 14) was unsympathetic (the Chakma king had sided with the Pakistanis during the war) and considered the request to be secessionist. As a bulwark against the burgeoning Bengali nationalism that followed independence, Shanti Bahini (meaning ‘Peace Forever’) was formed in 1972. It was the armed wing of the People’s Solidarity Association (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti – i.e. PCJSS) and its mission was to defend the rights of the ethnic minorities in the CHT. Shanti Bahini initiated insurgency activities in 1973; the Bangladeshi government responded by sending in the military. Thus began the guerrilla warfare that would continue until 1997.

The Bangladeshi government carried on sponsoring Bengali migration to the CHT in an effort, some contend, to outnumber the ethnic groups and shift the balance of power. It is estimated that there were 400,000 settlers, almost as many as all the ethnic groups combined. In such circumstances, cultural clashes between existing residents and new settlers with different ideas and religions were inevitable. The long litany of discrimination and abuse suffered by the hill people forced yet another mass exodus of refugees across the border to Tripura in neighbouring India. The new settlers too suffered in the ongoing struggle, and the situation was further complicated by conflicts between different ethnic groups (mostly between pro- and anti- peace-accord factions). (A formal anti-treaty group – the United Peoples’ Democratic Front (UPDF) – was formed in 1998, in response to the treaty and continues to voice its aims.)

A peace deal was brokered in December 1997 and Sheikh Hasina’s government signed an internationally acclaimed peace accord with the ‘tribal’ leader Jyotirindriyo Bodhipriya (Shantu) Larma. To this day the accord has not been fully implemented and the struggle – particularly in relation to land disputes – continues. For example, during my time in Bangladesh, there was coverage (February 2010) of violent incidents in the remote Baghaihat area of the Rangamati district, where a clash occurred between ‘indigenous’ groups and ‘Bengali settlers’. It was alleged that the army intervened on the side of the ‘settlers’, when a dispute broke out over ongoing land rights issues. Two members of the indigenous community were shot dead by the army and up to 450 houses in indigenous villages were set alight. Many of the indigenous residents fled to the woods in fear. I saw pictures of burning houses and the shells of a burnt-out temple, church and school. Each side blamed the other for starting the violence and there were calls – both national and international – for an official enquiry.

With the recent return to democracy in Bangladesh (December 2008), there is renewed hope that the terms of the peace accord will finally be honoured, and that harmony might be restored to the hill tracts. As I write, the 12th anniversary of the signing of the accord (2nd December 1997) is fast approaching. (You can read the articles that appeared in the Daily Star newspaper on the actual anniversary -2nd December 2009 – here. Scroll down to heading ‘Peace lies in Roadmap’. There are five more related headings directly underneath. )

The foregoing is admittedly a rather simplistic explanation of events. To read more you could browse through the documents in the repository of the CHT Archive. While this is a partisan CHT initiative, there are also ‘official’ documents there from various agencies. You will find other interesting information there too in relation to the hill tracts. You could also read analyses on the websites of international organisations  such as the UN, EU, Amnesty International, etc. Listen to the current Chakma king – Raja Devasish Roy – speak briefly about the peace accord in the YouTube clip below. Raja Devasish Roy, Chief of the Chakma Administrative Circle is also a lawyer, author and member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. 

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) today

It’s difficult to get a real feeling for the CHT in a restricted ‘tour’ situation such as mine, particularly without an informed or local guide. For example, if I hadn’t read about the conflict, I wouldn’t have picked up on the ongoing problems for both the ‘indigenous’ people, and the ‘settlers’, who share this beautiful area today. While Bengalis now represent approximately 49% of the population, the area seems to have more in common, topographically and culturally, with parts of neighbouring India, and particularly with Myanmar, (Burma) than it does with low-lying Bangladesh (‘the plains’).

There are of course minority ethnic groups throughout Bangladesh. (For notes on my visits to some of these groups, see posts 18, 32 and 49.) Numbers are difficult to ascertain due to the paucity of reliable, ethnically-disaggregated data. (Some contend that there is deliberate under-enumeration.) The Government’s current PRSP (Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper) records that there are about 2 million people belonging to ethnic minority groups, 1.6 million living in ‘the plains’ and the remainder in the CHT. (The largest ethnic group in ‘the plains’ are the Santals.) As well as problems with national data collection, there is an acknowledged paucity of comprehensive research relating to social and cultural issues for ethnic minorities. Those studies that do exist attest to the acute poverty and disadvantage of minorities in Bangladesh. While the Chittagong division as a whole is not amongst the poorest divisions in Bangladesh, a poverty-level map at upazila level highlights a number of areas – coterminous with parts of the CHT –  that suffer extreme levels of poverty (see maps at end of post 30). Terminology too is a thorny issue and a contested one: ethnic minority groups are variously referred to as Adivasi, Adibasi, Indigenous and Tribal, amongst other terms. For example, the term ‘tribal’ is one that is disliked by many ethnic minorities because of its association with primitiveness. On the other hand, the term ‘indigenous’ is contested by many Bengalis. Jumma is a collective term for the ethnic groups in the hill tracts. (This is said to come from the form of shifting cultivation (‘jhum’ cultivation) that they practice – necessitated by the steep, hilly terrain.) There is disagreement too in relation to the number of distinct ethnic groups in Bangladesh. It is stated in the PRSP – referred to above – that there are a total of 45 groups: other studies that I have read mention figures ranging from 32 to 59.

It is now more or less agreed that there are 11 distinct ethnic groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. About 50% of the total CHT indigenous population are Chakmas, and the bulk of the remainder belong to the Marma (32%) and Tripura (16%) groups. Rangamati is predominantly Chakma, Bandarban is largely Marma and Khagrachhuri is half-and-half Chakma and Marma. Bandarban has the greatest ethnic diversity. The Chakma, some of whom I met today, are the largest ethnic minority in Bangladesh. With an estimated worldwide population of 800,000 (c. 253,000 in the CHT) they also live in the Indian states of Arunachal, Assam, Mizoram and Tripura and in Rakhine State in Myanmar (Burma). Of Tibeto-Burmese ethnicity, they are thought to have originally came to Bangladesh from Rakhine state (formerly Arakan) in Myanmar (Burma).They practice Buddhism – though a small minority are Christian –  and have their own culture, language, traditions, etc. I very much enjoyed the time I spent in their villages today, and my visits to both the vihara and the home of the royal family.

From Rangamati to Bandarban: a golden hilltop temple

After a late start on our third morning, we eventually left Rangamati and journeyed south towards Bandarban. It was a lovely journey through lush, green, hilly terrain and quiet, country roads. We crossed the Karnaphuli River by ferry at a rather neglected-looking town called Chandraghona, where there is a government-run paper mill. In Balaghata, about 4km from Bandarban, we visited a shiny, new, golden, hilltop Buddhist temple, the Buddha Dhatu Jadi which was completed in 2000. The founder and abbot of this monastery – the Venerable U Pannya Jota Thera – has associations with the Royal Bohmong (Marma) family in Bandarban (see below). He previously served as a Judge in the Government of Bangladesh. At the temple, I met a young, gentle monk called Warrisina who told me a little about the monastery (see link above). Though beautiful, quiet and peaceful, this temple (also known as ‘The Golden Temple’), like the main temple in Dhaka, lacked the atmosphere that I have come to associate with Buddhist temples through visits to other parts of Asia. Perhaps it was because there were so few people around. The views from the lofty location were breathtaking though.

On the banks of the Sangu River

Bandarban is situated on a bend of the Sangu River and consequently the river wraps round the town in a semi-circle (see image below). After checking into the Royal Hotel on the main street, and lunch in the nearby Resoung Soung ‘Chinese’ restaurant, we went for a walk along the banks of a stretch of the river. On one side, a cluster of raised bamboo houses descended, and extended from the river bank, towards the water. In fact, the partially dry river-bed was colonised by bamboo-log frames, in use as clothes-lines and displaying an array of brightly-coloured fabrics. Grey pigs shambled between logs foraging for food: many were covered in dried mud and could have done with a dip in the river! On the opposite bank, sandy hills, clad in foliage in varying shades of green, rose from the river. Children and women were washing clothes and silvery tin cookware at the water’s edge. Some were bathing in the river. Others were collecting water in medieval looking vessels. To get clean water, they dig a hole in the sand at the edge of the river and wait for the water to filter through. When the hole is full, they skim off the top and fill their containers. The entire scene was very peaceful and I enjoyed wandering about and talking to the women and  children.

Bustling Bandarban

The town of Bandarban was lively. We walked through narrow streets and bustling markets and I had a paper cone of warm, tasty, roasted peanuts. I watched a group of children playing football near a quiet Buddhist temple. Near Bandarban’s mosque, I saw men in Muslim prayer caps and recognised the Bangla language. A very striking, independent-looking, indigenous woman, passed by in a rickshaw smoking a cigar and defying the stares of onlookers: I would have given anything to have been able to talk to her.

Dinner was in the same Chinese restaurant where we ate lunch. (The choice of restaurant was, unfortunately, not open to negotiation, despite a number of other interesting local restaurants in town.) After Tuhin left to go back to the hotel, I joined an Australian student called Robby who was travelling for four months and we shared stories. It was nice to talk to someone who was ‘travelling’. He hadn’t experienced any difficulty in the hill tracts despite being unaccompanied, and I envied him. I regret not having tried to travel independently here. I think that the many warnings from VSO, of danger lurking around every corner, made me unreasonably nervous. (I had to sign a declaration before this trip acknowledging my understanding that I would not be covered by VSO insurance in the CHT.)

Dhallywood

The ‘Banasree Cinema’ is located beside the restaurant. (I am not sure what banasree means: I know that bana means forest.) In the absence of anything else to do late one night, I decided I’d check the times of the showings. I was told that I could go in immediately: shomosha nai (no problem). I have no idea what film I saw but it was one of the funniest, craziest experiences I’ve had. I understand less now than I did before about Bangladeshi film. I’m not sure how long the film had been running before I got in: there was a constant stream of people coming and going throughout the showing. The audience was very ‘participative’. They were shouting, talking and laughing – sometimes standing, sometimes sitting – as people on-screen engaged in frenzied action, occasionally bursting into song and dance. There were zoom shots of exaggerated facial expressions, coy looks between ‘lovers’, crazed, machine-gun wielding villains (or maybe heroes?), hectic chases and bizarre costumes. Any semblance of a plot was lost on me: I doubt if I would have followed the story even if I had fluent Bangla. It was a mind-blowing experience but I laughed a lot. Dhallywood rocks!

The hills and peoples around Bandarban

On our fourth day after breakfast (you’ve guessed it) at the Chinese restaurant, we finally drove into the hills along Chimbuk Road. This scenic road, which eventually leads to Ruma and Thanchi, is home to a number of local tourist spots: there’s the upmarket Hillside Resort, a number of indigenous villages by the roadside, Shailapropat ‘waterfall’ with nearby shopping, and Chimbuk Hill. It was the last of these – the farthest from Bandarban – that was our first stop today. (The Bohmong King’s residence is also on this road but I didn’t discover this till later that night.)

There are great views of the surrounding countryside from Chimbuk Hill, as indeed there are all along this road. On our way back towards Bandarban, I stopped to look at Ramary Para – a Mro village – in the distance. It is estimated that there are 23,000 Mro or Mru in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. There is also a Mro population in western Myanmar. Many of the Mro in Bangladesh live a relatively isolated life in the more remote areas of the hill tracts: you can read a little about their lifestyle here. There was a very inviting looking stepped, winding pathway leading to Ramary Para but, according to my guide, visiting the village was out of the question because of ‘danger’.

We were however able to visit two Bawm villages. I don’t know what the name of the first village was. The second was signposted as Faruk Para (a Bengali designation). Both these villages receive many local tourists because of their proximity to the road, the Shailapropat waterfall and the Hillside Resort. There are an estimated 13,500 Bawm people in the CHT – the fifth largest group after the Chakma, Marma, Tripura and Mro. They are of Tibeto-Burmese ethnicity and are considered to be part of the Mizo/Kuki/Chin ethnic grouping who live in Western Burma (Chin State) and neighbouring Indian states. Most converted to Christianity during the colonial period. You can see some photographs from the villages I visited today below. I got the feeling that the people in these villages were a little weary of tourists. This is understandable in the circumstances. As a result I felt a little uneasy walking along the village roads and taking photographs. In an ideal situation this is not how I would choose to ‘meet’ the Bawm people.

The nearby ‘waterfall’ at Shailopropat was miniscule. Compared to the waterfalls we have at home, I would call this a small cascade. There were tourist shops nearby selling local fabrics, handcrafts aimed at tourists and drinks/snacks, etc.  A few locals were selling fresh fruit by the side of the road. On our way past the Hillside Resort, I suggested a stop and I ended up having lunch there. This resort looks very nice: the location is great and the views are magnificent.

Our final stop for today was Nilachol Hill, an elevated site on the Chittagong Road, from where there are yet more great views of the surrounding countryside. I found a well-placed, deserted swing and enjoyed the views and the peace, while swinging back and forth. It wasn’t long though before people began arriving, precipitating conversation and photographs. Unfortunately, this was the end of our ‘tour’ around Bandarban. Since there was still quite a lot of the day left, I did some wandering in Bandarban around the New Bridge area (Ujani Nagar?), visiting communities with names that sounded like Qsinggata and Casingpara. Once again, all roads led to the Sangu River – the centre of local life in Bandarban.

Marma culture

Later, I had the good fortune of wandering into the Tohzah restaurant in Maddyam Para (Mid-town). This is an indigenous venture run by a family from the Marma community. Constructed of bamboo and wood, with an earthen floor and minimalist interior, it is very atmospheric. I was immediately offered a cup of tea by a Chakma family from Rangamati whose table was next to mine. The clientele was entirely indigenous: a man from another neighbouring table told me that the house speciality was ‘hog’. Unfortunately, I had arranged to meet Tuhin for dinner in the Chinese restaurant, so I wouldn’t be eating here. I was joined by a member of the family that owns the restaurant, the handsome Josai Marma, with whom I had a great conversation. I met his brother Kingsai too. It was wonderful to finally get a local, personal perspective. In the Tohzah restaurant, I sensed a little of the revolutionary spirit of the people of the hill tracts.

The Marma are, of course, the second largest indigenous group (circa 158,000) in the hill tracts, after the Chakma. Bandarban is predominantly Marma. Therefore it would have been tragic for me if I had to leave the area without meeting or interacting with the local Marma population. Like many of the indigenous groups in the hill tracts, the Marma have their roots in neighbouring Rakhine (or Arakan as it was) in Myanmar (Burma). They have similar languages and customs to the Rakhine or Rakhaing people, who also live in the hill tracts and in the Barisal division. The majority of the Marma practice Buddhism.

The Marma Administrative Circle, located in Bandarban, is called the Bohmong Circle. The 15th Bohmong Circle Chief is Aung Shwe Prue Chowdhury, and I passed his residence today on the Chimbuk Road. The Bohmong Circle is one of three circles in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.  I made reference to the Chakma Circle in Rangamati above. The third is the Mong Circle in Khagrachhuri. All circles do not operate in exactly the same way. You can download a document that gives a brief overview of the traditional administrative institutions in the CHT here. I also read about an interesting traditional tax collecting ceremony involving both the Bohmong and Mong circles.

I would love to have had more time to spend with Josai. He invited me back to Bandarban in April next for the annual water festival – celebrated by the Marma – on the first day of the three-day Biju New Year festival. The Biju festival is celebrated by all groups in the hill tracts. Each group has their own name for the festival and their own traditional way of celebrating. I would love to come back, especially if I could experience the event through the eyes of the locals. In the meantime, the video below will give you a glimpse of Marma life in Bangladesh.

The Hare Krishna community in Bandarban

After dinner in the Chinese restaurant on my last night, I went for a final walk around Bandarban. As I was heading back to the hotel, I met a very friendly young man called Liton Kanti Day and he invited me to visit the Hare Krishna temporary temple. There, I spent a couple of memorable hours in the company of four welcoming, friendly monks, who explained some of the tenets of Krishna consciousness to me. They even had copies of the Bhagavad-Gita in English. You can read more on the website of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. It was after midnight when I finally left the temple.

Bandarban to Chittagong

Unsurprisingly, on our final day there were yet more changes to our itinerary. After a traditional Bengali breakfast of dim and paratha (egg & bread), Tuhin told me that our vehicle had broken down and that we would therefore have to resort to public transport for the remainder of the day. I quite enjoy public bus journeys but again, this was not what I had paid for.

The bus journey took four hours and was interesting, in the way that bus journeys in Bangladesh can be, though at times a little scary too. We had a breakdown midway, but fortunately this did not delay us too long. The scenery at the beginning of the journey was lovely: we had been on this road the previous day when we visited Nilachol Hill.

Unfortunately, because of time constraints, our itinerary in Chittagong was cut short. (There was supposed to be a visit to the Ethnological Museum, the Shrine of Bayazid Bostami, Foy’s Lake and the WWII Memorial Cemetery.) Lunch too was cut from the itinerary. Instead we took a CNG to the airport to drop off my bag and then another to Patenga beach. The beach, beside an industrial area, was not very attractive: there were a lot of concrete blocks to impede erosion. However, it is a popular local destination and it was interesting to observe Bangladeshis at the seaside. Finally, we took a rather long rickshaw ride back to the airport.

Chittagong to Dhaka

During the flight out of Chittagong, I could clearly see the 10-mile stretch of coast, strewn with monstrous, beached hulls, that is Chittagong’s ship-breaking yard. Here, more than 30,000 men work in hazardous conditions, dismantling old ships from all over the world. In the absence of iron or ore mines in Bangladesh, these yards supply over 80% of the nation’s steel requirement. Up to 97% of the ships’ components are recycled. The remaining 3% is pure toxic waste. Between 30 and 50 men die each year in this industry and many more are injured. I saw a very interesting documentary, ‘Iron Crows’ (2009), the subject of which was these yards and some of the men who work there: it was heartbreakingly sad, though disturbingly beautiful too. You can watch the trailer below.

I also caught a fleeting glimpse of Chittagong port, which is the most important port in the country. (Chittagong is the second largest city in Bangladesh.) This port’s performance is notoriously beset by problems relating to governance and accountability, resulting in huge losses to the economy every year. Successive governments have failed to resolve the difficulties. If reformed, this port has the potential to be a world-class facility. As it operates, however, it is yet another example of Bangladesh’s governance impasse.

Final thoughts

Till now, the Bangladesh that I loved was the low-lying country that straddles the Ganges/Brahmaputra delta. This trip has given me an insight into the wonderfully rich and culturally diverse landscape that is the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The political situation saddens me: the military presence, the many displaced refugees as a result of the conflict, and the continuing repression and suffering of the people who live in this region. I agree completely with Raja Devasish Roy’s summation in the YouTube clip featured above: the context of the peace accord is not broadly understood in wider Bangladesh. For example, my guide on this trip showed very little knowledge of, or empathy with, the lives of the ethnic minorities. Neither did he show any understanding of their history in what is now Bangladesh. As Roy says, this knowledge must be incorporated into mainstream history curricula in schools and universities throughout the country. Only then can there be the requisite genuine and real understanding that might lead to positive change.

This trip has often been frustrating. I would love to have travelled independently, but security concerns dictated otherwise. It has been good in that it has forced me to try to understand the issues, albeit as an outsider. Spending some time in the company of Josai in the Marma restaurant in Bandarban was one of the highlights. However, in general, my experience has been a mediated one, and poorly-mediated at that. But perhaps, albeit in a painful way, that needed to be part of the learning experience too. Two of the volunteers that I arrived with are based in the Chittagong Hill Tracts: Ciony in Khagrachuri (which I didn’t visit) and Estelle in Rangamatti. Estelle, unfortunately, was away for the Eid break at the time of my visit.

I learnt very little about the day-to-day life and culture of the eleven individual indigenous groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. I ‘met’ people from the Chakma, Marma and Bawm groups, though meaningful interaction was minimal. I didn’t meet any Tripura people, who constitute the third largest group in the hill tracts. (I have since learnt that it is possible to reach a Tripura village – Hatibandha – from the Hillside Resort, via a 20-minute walk along a path through the hills. So close, and yet….) [Luckily, I had visited a Tripura village in the Sreemangal area earlier this year – see post 18.]

I hope to return one day to the hill tracts. I don’t know if I will realistically be able to do this in the months I have left in Bangladesh. Ideally, I would like to travel independently and hook up with local interpreters along the way. I have read travelogues where people hiked between villages in the hills: I would love to spend a couple of weeks or so doing this. But in the event that the security situation remains volatile, I have read great reviews about a local eco-tour company that operates in the area. Richard Hammond and Jeremy Smith highlight this company, Bangladesh Ecotours, in an interview about their new book ‘Clean Breaks’. The comments on the tour company’s website are laudatory too. I hope that when I do return one day, I will find the wonderfully rich cultural diversity of the area intact, and see peace and equality restored to this beautiful corner of Bangladesh.

Below are some photographs from my trip. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (179 photographs in all). Enjoy!

1 Chittagong - Rangamatti road

Below are two lovely paintings by Chakma artist, Kanak Chanpa Chakma. Hover over images to see captions.

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6 responses to “43. Journeys (8): The Chittagong Hill Tracts: another country

  1. Nice to meet with you at this site and learn so much from your blog site ‘A Year in Bangladesh’ and know about you. The documentary film produced by White Tara was organized by me and our Bangalhalia Agapara Buddhist Welfare Orphanage. You will see a monk speaking in video – he is Founder/President of Orphanage. I also translated the words. You will find me at BABWO organization website in the name of Mong Mong Thun Marma.

    Hmm…Ok, thanks for sharing this on your website. You are warmly welcome to visit Bangladesh again and to come visit to our Orphanage. Wishing you all the best.

    • Thank you for your comment Mong. Very nice to hear from someone in the Chittagong Hill Tracts!

      The web link you gave me for the orphanage didn’t work (I removed it from your message) but I found you on Facebook. Some lovely pictures there that brought back good memories. I will definitely visit if (when?) I return to Bangladesh. Thanks again for commenting. Ann

  2. You are so thorough and informative. I will be reading and rereading your blog until I leave.

    • Thanks for commenting again Dorie! I’m glad you’re finding the posts informative. I would be interested in hearing about your experiences in Bangladesh this summer. In the meantime if you have any questions about any of the content, don’t hesitate to ask!

      Ann

  3. Just to say how much I’m enjoying your thoughtful fascinating blog. We’re considering a trip to Bangladesh and I greatly appreciate the time and conscientious effort you’ve put into sharing everything here. We’re working with Bangladesh Eco Tours to put something together for the CHT and I happened to come across their name here.

    Many thanks,

    Angela

    • Thank you so much for dropping by Angela and leaving such a lovely comment. It’s much appreciated. I’ve had a quick look at your blog and it looks like one I’ll enjoy. I’ll be watching out for your posts from the CHT! Happy journeying, Ann

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