Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts, the southern end of the Himalayas, seem to stand out from the Bengali plains in every imaginable way. Unlike the Bangla speaking, majority Islamic flat-lands, the Hill Tracts shoot out from the plains of Chittagong, as if some geographic statement of difference. It’s people, the ‘Jhumma’ tribes of the Hill Tracts (CHT), named after hillside ‘slash and burn’ farming methods utilized in the hill tracts, but not at all specific, nor universal, to the tribes of the CHT, mirror such a difference.Most being Buddhist, Christian or animist based belief systems, Asiatic faces, bodies clad in a diverse array of traditional and contemporary dress, often puffing away at hand-rolled tobacco leaf. The towns and streets resemble some rustic, forgotten backwater. The mix of pan stained teeth, roaming chickens and dogs, Bangla banter, Chakma chatter and Baom-Chi Babble constantly remind one that Dhaka is a long, long way away, and we’ve entered some some pseudo Burmese township.
The situation in the Hill Tracts today; a militarized peace, regular vehicle checks, constant warnings to foreigners like myself of the risks venturing out at night, or outside the major metropolitan zones, available police escorts, is suggestive of a deeper problem than local criminal elements. Fifteen years after the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord (1997), the CHT remains a frontier of difference, tension and suffers regular breakdowns of civil society.
A History of the CHT Conflict
The reasons for the present insecurities in the Hill Tracts lay in the cultural and historical distance between the Tracts and greater Bengal. British administration, through the employment of the “Inner Line Regulations” prevented large scale movements into the Hill Tracts, in an attempt to protect the ‘cultural uniqueness” of the region. Following Independence and Partition, the regulations dissolved, and the tracts were open to such large and disastrous development, or exploitation, projects as the 1961 Kaptai Dam. Large scale migration of Bengalis into the tracts took place in the 1970s and 1980s, further encouraging competition and tension between the Jhumma tribes and Bangladeshi state and people over land, resources and fears of cultural destruction. By the late 1970s, a full fledged insurgent war between the Jhumma political group, PCJSS, its militant wing, the Shanti Bahini, and the Bangladeshi state was taking place. The Hill Tracts descended into two decades of intense violence, human rights abuses against both tribals and Bengalis, and increased militarization in the region, still clear throughout the Hill Tracts.
Despite the signing of a Peace Accord in 1997 between the Bangladeshi government and the Shanti Bahini, and ‘special quotas’ to include Jhumma members in politics and education programs, the cultural gap between Bangladesh and it’s tribal population remains, the Hill Tracts remain a tense and insecure frontier, and a clear development gap exists between plains dwellers, and those who call the Hill Tracts home.
Here are some photos I’ve taken at Banderban, Ruma town and Boga Lake in the Bandarban district, the most southerly, of the Hill Tracts. Sadly, my plans to visit the more northern districts of Rangamati and Khagrachari will have to wait due to security reasons.