Rrecently, at a talk on political stalemates at the Shilpakala Academy organised by a private university, a university student from the audience questioned the validity of my critique of the military's involvement in developing tourism in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). He asked me why it was a problem for the military to be involved with developing tourism if they were doing a good job of it.
“Good for whom?” is of course a fundamental question here. I've visited the Nilgiri Resort in Bandarban. It is quite a popular place to visit for mostly Dhaka-based tourists. At a height of 2400 feet from sea-level, it's a beautiful spot where you can see the clouds gently flowing below you. But the CHT is not just a beautiful hilly area where season tourists can, for some time, escape the rat race of the city. It also happens to be home to thousands of Jumma people of 11 different ethnicities who continue to lose their lands in many different ways since the government deployed the army and brought in 400,000 settlers in the late 1970s.
In 2007, land rights activist and chairperson of Sualok Union Parishad, Ranglai Mro, was taken away from his home and allegedly tortured by the military. He was leading a campaign against illegal acquisition of Jumma people's land in Sualok mouza in Bandarban. The torture caused permanent damage to his heart and there is no visible campaign to protect the land of the Mro people in Bandarban anymore. Earlier, Kalpana Chakma, only 21 years old, wrote in her diary and in letters to her comrades of how she feared militarisation would suppress the campaign of the Jumma people's movement, and she disappeared in 1996. Her brother, an eye-witness to her abduction, claimed to have seen security forces take his sister away. Justice still awaits the family members of Kalpana Chakma.
Reng Young Mro Nangchen writes about what actually happens when land is taken over for tourism in his article "Unnoyon o amader nirob prosthan" (Development and Our Silent Departure). He talks about how development and tourism forces Mro communities out of their homes, their mouzas, and sometimes, even their country. Not only does mindless development and tourism leave people homeless, it also causes damage to the critical environmental balance, affecting all citizens of the country. But there is very little information and understanding of what price humanity is paying as a result. This inhumane situation of evicted Mro families begs the fundamental question – why is the tourism and development needs of the city people more important than the homes, lives and livelihoods of local Mros? Reng Young writes: “The city boys come for their outings in their coloured glasses and start jumping up and down in excitement when they see us as if they have seen some neanderthals.”
The horrors of Sajek are recent history. In April 2008, about 70 homes of Jummas in about seven villages were burnt down. Prior to the incident, Jummas in the area had been protesting the illegal settlement of outsider Bangalis who were brought in to build roads and be part of the national development project. This attack failed to subdue the movement, and so once again, a mass arson attack took place. In 2010, about 500 homes of mostly Jummas were razed to the ground. Both the attacks were covered widely by the media. However, the media's tunnel vision meant that it failed to follow up the news and look at the wider aspects of these attacks. Fast forward to 2015, and you can now reserve an air-conditioned room at the newly-formed Sajek Resort for Tk. 15,000 if you're an “Other Valued Citizen”. Sajek would be the Switzerland of Bangladesh, someone had once mentioned somewhere.
The stories of Ranglai Mro and Kalpana Chakma, the eviction of Jumma people from their homes to make life comfortable for urbanites, fails to strike a chord with us. Perhaps the reason why the university student's question mentioned at the beginning of this article received such wide applause from other students at the auditorium is because the military in the CHT is still 'our' [read: Bangali] military which thinks about tourism transaction and 'our' pleasure. The Jummas are just a blind spot in this transaction.
The writer is an author and a human rights activist.