One of the benefits of VSO is that you can go and work in other areas of the country if a partner NGO has a particular need for some work that you’re able to do for them. It’s similar to a mini-secondment system. And so last month I left Sylhet for two weeks and went to work with some other indigenous community rights NGOs on their IT systems. This normally would be astonishingly boring, except these NGOs are based in the dangerous, treacherous, primitive and absolutely wonderful Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Of course, the Hill Tracts region, which stretches along the eastern border of Bangladesh with India isn’t primitive or treacherous at all, nor is it especially dangerous. But there is relatively little known about the area because for over twenty years until 1998, the Bangladeshi army was fighting against the indigenous communities who live there, as they had chosen guerrilla warfare as a means of trying to safeguard their land and their culture against the incoming Bengali mainstream communities. The main problem for the indigenous people of Bangladesh, they say to me, is that the Bangladeshi constitution affirms the rights of all people as Bangladeshi citizens, and doesn’t make any distinction for people who want to remain in Bangladesh – which is their home – but wouldn’t define themselves as Bengali.
The indigenous peoples have a different culture, different traditions and practices and feel that this is under threat. Crucially, they have a lot of problems with their land being taken away as they often don’t have documentation for property that their families have lived on for generations. In the Hill Tracts, which is a jungle region and very sparsely populated especially compared to the rest of the country, the government has long been trying to move settlers in from the crowded slums of normal Bangladesh and obviously this causes great friction.
I wasn’t able to get as much information as I would have liked, nor was I able to speak with any people from the security forces or Bangladeshi state authorities so I can’t give a fair comment on what the situation is really like. But the indigenous people I spoke with felt short-changed by the peace-deal in 1998, and said that the terms have not been followed up. They also still felt persecuted and harassed by the security forces, unduly so, and there were lots of stories of people being arrested without charge (as is happening everywhere in Bangladesh now) and assaulted. The people I spoke with felt that they were powerless against the military, and were not positive about their chances if and when a new government is ever elected.
A third of the substantial Bangladeshi army is stationed in the Hill Tracts, on the grounds that it’s such a volatile area they need to keep the peace. Of course, the indigenous people would argue that it’s because of the army’s presence there is no peace, and so a rather typical for most territorial disputes a catch 22 situation develops, with disastrous consequences for the local people, as in Palestine or Northern Ireland. Most notably, an indigenous community leader Cholesh Richil was arrested and horrifically tortured to death by the security forces earlier this year, and no-one has been held accountable, indeed the army tried to cover it up, except the extent of his abuse was so appalling they couldn’t ignore the outcry. On the other hand, last month two officials working for the Danish development agency were kidnapped by indigenous activists. They were later released though, and hadn’t been tortured.
People in Bangladesh seem to have an impression that the CHT is a very dangerous, primitive region, and in terms of needing to keep their military busy, it suits the (now military) government to cultivate that impression. Very little news comes out of the area, and the army vets and closely monitors outsiders coming in, there are several check-points on the access road and if you don’t have permission, you have to turn around. Once I arrived we immediately had a visit from the Special Branch who wanted to know exactly where I would be and what I was going to do for the next two weeks, ostensibly for my security, but apparently it’s because they don’t want anyone, especially foreigners getting involved in human rights issues. It’s also the only place in Bangladesh, and maybe the world in terms of populated areas with no mobile phone network because otherwise the ‘terrorists’ could use their phones to co-ordinate activity. I’m sure this will soon change, mostly due to pressure from the telecoms industry rather than the absurdity of it, but it’s just another tool to create a sense of leaving the sanctity and safety of ‘normal’ Bangladesh and going up in the hills, deep in to the jungle, to a different land.
So I went. And I loved it. I stayed in a town called Khagrachari, and it felt to me at last as if this was the way Bangladesh was meant to be. I’ve realised after nearly a year here and quite a lot of travelling around that I just don’t like urban Bangladesh. The towns and cities to me are so poorly planned and have grown so rapidly that all of the worst aspects of urban living come out. There’s no architectural style other than cheap and not-finished, everywhere is over-crowded, noisy, polluted and chaotic. The climate makes everything much worse, but so little care is taken over the environment that it’s just not the kind of place I like to be in. I find the raw energy in the streets here magnetic and mesmerising, but I also find it tiring and overwhelming. Europeans are so lucky that even places that look boring and ugly tend to have about five hundred years of history under the surface, and distinct features that complement and reflect the environment, apart of course from Milton Keynes.
But Bangladesh on the whole strikes me as a great example of what happens if you suddenly mass hundreds of thousands of people together all desperately trying to improve their situation without any of the institutions and structures capable of providing that improvement, whether it is an education system, effective town councils, transport infrastructure, health service and so on. The people’s resolve and determination in the face of all these disadvantages that so many are just born in to is inspiring and incredibly admirable, but I have a strange sense sometimes, which may be completely wrong, as if this isn’t the way that this country is meant to be, it’s all happened too quickly. It simply can’t accommodate this many people all aiming to get rich quick, which is partly why so many emigrate to work as cheap labour elsewhere.
In the Hill Tracts however, modern western ‘civilisation’ has emerged, but people struck me as far more relaxed, and content with their environment. Of course there is great poverty and all the problems that affect the rest of Bangladesh, as well as the relationship with the security forces, but there were also virtually no private cars and no CNG baby-taxis, so it was so much quieter. There was far less rubbish everywhere, so the air smelt clean, and because it there were lots of hills, excess water drained away rather than stagnating like in Sylhet. Khagrachari is surrounded by hills that were covered in mist most of the time I was there to add to sense of being cut of from the rest of the country, which is otherwise flat as a pancake and just stretches on and on. In my hotel room in Sylhet at the moment, I’m on the sixth floor and must be able to see for fifty miles.
In Sylhet the indigenous communities are scattered all around the region in very isolated communities, so in Sylhet city itself the indigenous population can’t comprise more than about 5%. In Khagrachari it’s 51%, and so for the first time for me in Bangladesh, I felt like I was in a multicultural area, which I feel much more at home in coming from London. At night, staying in Georgia’s (another VSO volunteer) extremely comfortable flat you would first here the Muslim call to prayer, and then Buddhist chanting, and sometimes Hindu singing. Because of this diversity, in the indigenous market you could buy pork, which would get me shot in Sylhet, and so again for the first time this year I had pig meat. And it was delicious.
The people I was working with were exceptionally friendly and welcoming, even as I messed around with their carefully cultivated chaos of a computer network, and I really felt valued and appreciated. I was very sorry to leave when my two weeks were up, and not just because I had a shocking hangover to wrestle on a hot bus winding down the hillsides for three hours. The indigenous people here also, being non-muslim, made large amounts of very strong rice-wine, and my last day was spent going on a ‘picnic’, which in practice meant riding off in a motorbike convoy armed with pork curry and alcohol to a remote mud-hut, and not leaving until everyone had sung plenty of songs and made complete fools of themselves, which we all did with aplomb.
Going down the Hills back in to ‘normal’ Bangladesh, I felt extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit a place that for the wrong reasons, is still so isolated from the rest of the World. And yet despite its relative remoteness, I also felt in some respects like I had more in common with the people there than I do with the people I’m normally living with in Sylhet. The good things and the bad things in CHT deserve to be made available for all to see, who wish to; in this day and age it’s simply unrealistic that an area can be shrouded in misinformation. The new Bangladeshi government, when it eventually takes shape must recognise that if people have a right to settle there, which they do, then those who already live their have a right to put their point across. I think the CHT is the best place I’ve been to in Bangladesh, and it should be willingly shared, not camouflaged by censorship and army uniforms.