A cultural programme of Mro community at Cramadipara of Thanchi in Bandarban. Their culture and livelihood have increasingly come under threat with their farmland and ancestral homes being taken over. The photo was shot recently. Photo: Pinaki Roy
They were evicted from their ancestral homes. No steps were taken for their rehabilitation. Most of their farmlands were taken away and no alternative livelihood was provided.
They now live in shacks on the roadsides, eking out a miserable existence.
But despite all the hardship, some 750 Mro families of Bandarban's Thanchi are trying to protect their centuries-old culture.
“We have been forced to change ourselves in many ways. Yet, we simply cannot bear to forget our culture and traditions,” said Menleng Mro, a youth from Cramadipara by the Bandarban-Chimbuk road where the families settled after they were evicted from their old villages on the hill slopes in Kongkabati, Sualok and Kodukhola unions in 2006.
Their life has become harder than before. As most of their Jum land was taken away, they cannot grow enough food to meet their needs. As a result, many of them have become day labourers.
This change in livelihoods is forcing many to learn to speak Bangla alongside their native tongue, said Singpart Mro, a member of the community.
“Besides, these days it has become dangerous to live on the roadsides. Tourist vehicles have increased a lot on this road and every year a few people die in accidents,” said the undergraduate student of a college in Dhaka.
"Also, Rohingya people are illegally coming here from Myanmar and their increasing presence is affecting our lives," said Menleng Mro.
Menleng Mro, president Cramadipara musical group, said Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), an NGO, has been helping them hold on to their indigenous ways of life.
The MJF first reached the village in 2010 through a local NGO named Humanitarian Foundation to help found "Rice Bank" to save the Mro families from severe food crisis between April and June, time for sowing seeds.
A granary of rice has been set up in the village and whenever a family faces food crisis, they borrow food grain from there and return it after the harvest, Mro said.
The MJF is also helping them get their traditional dresses called Longki for women and Longki-Ben for men.
With its support, the Mro community are also making their traditional musical instruments like Tomma, Klin-cha, Lang-Meng-Sa and Plung, which is made of bamboo and dried skin of gourds, Menleng said.
Changes have occurred in other aspects of life of the second largest indigenous community, following the Marmas, as well. Currently, over 28,000 Mros are living in Bandarban alone, according to the district portal.
They no more pursue their traditional religion in which they would worship nature and celebrate cow-slaughtering festival. They now follow monotheist Crama religion, which was introduced by Menlay Mro, a Mro priest who disappeared in the forest in 1984, said Menleng.
These 750 Mro families were evicted from their ancestral villages to make way for a firing range in the areas for security forces.
“I was a student of Dhaka Notre Dame College back then. I came to my village on a vacation but found nobody in the village. Only some pigs were roaming around. I was totally lost. Later, in the evening I found my family members with other villagers hiding in the forest after being evicted,” Singpart said as he recalled the fateful day of 2006.
“Interestingly, the place where our village once stood is still empty. Nothing has been built there after our eviction,” he said.
Against this backdrop, the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples is being observed today. And indigenous Mro people of Bangladesh like Menleng and Singpart hope that they would get back their peaceful and harmonious way of life someday.