the promise and the threat

Na dam ma? from the Chittagong Hill Tracts,

The people of the sub-continent are a bit difficult to categorise, anthropologically. They seem to be an amalgam of the Aryans, the Mauryans, the Guptas, the Muslims and the Moghuls. They appear to have some negroid, some caucasoid and some mongoloid. One Bangladeshi girl in my Grade 9 class asked her parents about her ethnic origins only to learn that they couldn’t define the hybrid any more than she could.

from the top of Keokradong

The Chittagong Hill Tracts in the far south of Bangladesh are inhabited by peoples of very different ethnic origins. There are eleven tribes who were apparently promised the hill tracts by the British during the British Raj. They were deeply alienated during the Pakistan regime when a dam was built in the 1960s, necessitating the displacement of 23 villages.  The new regime of Bangladesh has never recognised their rights to the land, at least not as the sole occupants. Needless to say, these people were aggrieved by the decisions back then and remain aggrieved today.

The Chakma

 Jem Lian of the Bawm tribe says with conviction in his voice, “this is our land”. The Chakma people are the largest of the tribes and remain opposed to the re-location and reasonably militant to boot. They are alleged to cause conflict in certain areas of the mountains and, for this reason, the region is said to be too dangerous in certain parts for tourists, including Bangla speakers from the cities. In any case, permission is required to enter certain places. This allows the heavily-armed over-staffed Bangladeshi Army to find a reason to justify their rather tenuous raison d’etre by monitoring the delicate peace in the mountains.

Not only did we need to seek permission prior to coming here but we were stopped at numerous checkpoints throughout the mountains. Walking through the mountains, we periodically came across bamboo huts with earthen floors occupied by lone soldiers in camouflage fatigues, ready with pen poised to record our passage.

Bandarban hills

          The tourist trade – replete with all of the associated pitfalls – is a necessary evil for the mountain people. They want the cash but have to put up with the increased noise, the rubbish removal problem and worst of all, the knowledge that their culture is gradually being subsumed by the dominant one. In this case, the feeling is exacerbated by the political question which has dogged them since the British left another mess post-colonisation.  The world has a lot to thank the European colonising powers for (tongue firmly in cheek here). Their legacy of insoluble problems represents an irredeemable debt, in my humble opinion.

sunset in the Chittagong Hill Tracts


       The mountains around Bandarban have surprised both Linda and myself for their magnitude and coverage. They are swathed in thick verdure and are dotted with many villages of tribal people living a near-subsistence existence. We walked part of the journey to Boga Lake, stayed overnight in the village and then trekked on past cashew and ginger plantations to Keokradong next day. Keokradong is said to be one of the highest points in Bangladesh. The views are expansive in every direction, with the borders with both Myanmar and India off a long way in the distance.

 During the afternoon, a calf was tied up and a knife sharpened in readiness for beef on the menu. The restaurateur kept looking at the track to see if there were enough tourists on their way up the hill to justify the slaughter for the evening meal. It must have been a slow day as the calf was spared for another day at least; pity – I had the camera ready for the execution. You’ll have to suffice with the landscape shot.

Bandarban hills

      These people are in a real bind : they augment their subsistence existence with cash from the army (all year round) and the tourists (for four months) but they know that every day represents another inexorable incursion in the way of life they would prefer. They can’t stop the tourists and can’t beat the army, so they make the best of it. It’s not really a wonder that they are much more stony-faced than their garrulous countrymen. Nationhood is a meaningless concept for these people since they and the state mutually disregard one another.

the village adjacent to Boga Lake
importing timber

     They can justifiably claim to tread lightly upon the Earth but there’s no way it could be said the land is undisturbed. The bamboo has been cut so much that the villagers are importing timber to build their new homes. The rate at which the trees are felled for firewood is too fast for the re-growth and the monkey population has declined to the stage that they are hardly seen. (This is more than ironic since ‘bandar’ means ‘monkey’ and ‘ban’ means ‘forest’ in Bangla.) In contrast, the tribal people who live down on the river bank seem to be living a more sustainable existence.

     We finished the trek with a leisurely boat trip down the river. It was from the boat that we realised that we were seeing another side to Bangladesh. Linda described it as “one of the highlights”. You might think she’s just a little prone to hyperbole, but the scenery was stunning. The trip to Bandarban has been well worth the effort, not just to meet the ‘other’ Bangladeshis. Tomorrow, Cox’s Bazaar, where we’ll see the longest beach in the world.

Ka cawm e

from Bandarban


Other photos from hereabouts

view from the boat
Bandarban hills

Leave a Reply