One year after the Mros’ long march in Bandarban, has anything changed?
In February 2021, hundreds of members of the Mro community marched from Chimbuk Hill to Bandarban town, protesting the construction of a five-star hotel. This was a follow up from the earlier "cultural showdown" by hundreds of Mro villagers in November 2020 and many statements from concerned national and international human rights groups urging the government to discontinue the project. The plan for the construction of the hotel was a collaboration between Sikder Group, the Marriott five-star hotel chain and the Bangladesh security forces. On the other hand, the long march was the culmination of a collaboration between young Mro students and activists and many other politically conscious activists around the country. The message was simple. The construction of such a massive tourist resort with cable cars, swimming pools and other modern tourist attractions would be extremely harmful with consequences for the environment and the people of the area, in addition to causing the eviction of hundreds of Mro families from the villages directly affected by the constructions as well as families living in neighbouring villages.
According to Chittagong Hill Tracts Citizen's Committee's information, the security forces have cordoned off about 500 acres of land to build the resort. Once completed, it is feared that the project will directly evict 150 Indigenous Mro families, and 250 more Mro families spread over 1,000 acres of land in the vicinity will be affected indirectly. The local Mros no longer have access to the cordoned-off area they had been collectively using for years.
It's been a year since the long march and the uncomfortable silence around the protests is reminiscent of the silencing around many developments in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Such a silence after a sustained campaign against an injustice can wrongfully be perceived as an indication of some form of resolution—that the grievances that led to protests have been settled. Unfortunately, the political situation in the Hills in general and Bandarban in particular is not quite so simple. Bandarban is a geopolitically important location. It shares international borders with India and Myanmar and adjoins with Chattogram and Cox's Bazar. Borders are volatile geographical spaces all over the world and a certain level of volatility comes with sharing borders with these two nations that have a very politically changing relationship with Bangladesh.
At the same time, despite having the highest concentration of security forces in the country, there are many armed groups in this area. Surveillance over Jumma activists is very high. The long march by the Mro villagers and the subsequent letters of concern regarding the construction of the resort from human rights organisations, including the International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission, Amnesty International, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, and the United Nations led to the further beefing up of this surveillance. Following the long march in February 2021, a group of Mros were seen standing uncomfortably for a photo with signboards that said they welcomed tourism in Bandarban. Since then, there has been very little reporting of what is actually happening on the grounds regarding the construction of the resort.
In many states, protest carried out by local citizens and the rising together of people for a single cause are considered dangerous. A people's movement is seen as a threat to the very existence of the authority. These uprisings and movements need "managing". Movements for the self-determination of the Jumma have always been a matter of "management" by the security forces. Tourism by itself is not the evil. But there are many other things that need to be resolved in the Hills before there is an environment where business/tourism can be fair and not predatory. The land disputes resulting from the bringing in of settlers in the 1970s and 1980s in these Hills are yet to be resolved. Many Jumma communities have been uprooted from their homeland, and the complicated ways in which land dispossession has subsequently taken place makes the task of the Land Commission very difficult and lengthy.
The slow process of the Land Commission over the years also demonstrates the lack of any political will to resolve these disputes. Apart from that, Bangladesh is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world. Big constructions such as a modern five-star hotel and resort need to consider the vulnerability of the region and its people. The destructive hill-cutting for development and construction forces many Jummas to live in precarious geographical spaces, leaving them vulnerable to landslides. In 2017, one such landslide killed 126 people, mostly Jummas. The mindless extraction of stones and monoculture in the region has also already done irreversible damage to the region. Jummas who have lived in the hills for generations talk about how the jhiris have dried out and how they need to look for new places to find water. Added to all of these woes is the reckless behaviour of Bengali tourists who have little regard for the land and environment and end up leaving huge amounts of waste in tourist areas.
What started in November 2020 with the "cultural showdown" in Bandarban, culminating in the long march in February 2021, were expressions of decades of discontent over land dispossession and evictions faced by the Indigenous Jumma, and a refusal against a greedy capitalist state-led aggression of land that would lead to large-scale displacements. The silence that prevails over the issue now is not an indication of calm and quiet business as usual. This silence is part of the larger silencing of critical voices all over the country that is the hallmark of authoritarian states. The silence in this region has the added layers of the region-specific geopolitical importance that is dealt with using more powerful tools and facilitated by the general censorship that has prevailed in this region for decades. After half a century of independence of our country, we need to ask ourselves how long we will continue to ignore this silence, and we need to revive democratic forces and seek justice for all the people of this country.
Hana Shams Ahmed is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology at York University, Canada.