The NI Interview
Subodh Bikash Chakma
Nikki van der Gaag meets Subodh Bikash Chakma, a leading campaigner
for the rights of the Jumma, the indigenous peoples who
live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.
' I was in grade three when my home was submerged under the waters of the Kaptai Dam.’ Subodh Bikash Chakma speaks quickly and quietly; his hands move constantly, circling as if to capture the urgency of his words.
'That was the beginning of my anger,’ he recalls. ‘And, I suppose, of my activism.’ The Bangladesh Government began the Kaptai project in 1962. The dam flooded a third of the Jumma peoples’ territory, more than 150,000 acres. Since then, says Subodh, the Jumma have suffered a systematic destruction of their land, their livelihood and their lives.
‘Four years later, I attended a Buddhist fair where a police inspector molested the sister of a classmate. I lost my temper and I beat him up. I shouldn’t have.’ At this point Subodh’s round face breaks into a wicked grin. ‘He was not as strong as I was. In fact, he was quite weak. Anyway, after that I had to run away...’
Today Subodh is trying to call world attention to the rights of the Jumma, who live in the isolated and rugged Chittagong Hill Tracts in Northeast Bangladesh. Thirteen different indigenous tribes live in the area, each with their own language and culture. They are mostly Buddhist. The Bangladesh Government has long felt uneasy about the region and claims that the Jumma are secessionist.
Subodh, like many others, was forced into exile. He now lives in Canada, and only last year was joined by his wife and three sons. But he is no less passionate about his people’s cause.
‘In 1972, when Bangladesh became independent, many people from our area were killed. I travelled all around holding meetings and campaigning. In 1975 the student organisation I was working for was banned, as was the Jumma peoples’ political organization, the Jana Samhati Samiti (JSS).
‘Then my wife was beaten up when our second son was only three months old. Everywhere I met people who had been traumatized by rape, by beatings, by the horrors they had witnessed. All these things made me stronger and more motivated to campaign for the rights of my people.’
The Jumma are determined to preserve their culture and their religion. ‘We are fighting for regional autonomy within the framework of the constitution,’ Subodh stresses. He stares at me sternly over the black rims of his glasses. ‘We are not separatists.’
The Bangladesh Government is not convinced. It sees the Jumma as different and therefore suspect and wants to assert its control over the water, timber, oil and land of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. So it is using all means possible to supress local resistance, including trying to swamp the indigenous population with new settlers. More than 400,000 Bengalis have been moved into the area in recent years. Each family that comes is promised two-and-a-half acres of land, a bullock, money and food aid - though this is largely unfulfilled.
There is also a huge military presence in the region - nearly a third of the entire national army, according to Subodh. ‘There are hundreds of military checkpoints and thousands of soldiers,’ he says, moving his hands in a wide sweep to make his point. ‘They burned the District office which held all the property records of our people. Then they forced us off the fertile valley bottom to make room for the settlers and drove us into the inferior land in the hills. We could do nothing.’
Subodh speaks in a level voice, only his hands betray his feeling. ‘We have to get permission for everything; to hold a funeral or a marriage, to travel, even to buy food. They are afraid we are supplying the guerrillas so they make sure we have only just enough for ourselves. We are not even allowed to wear green because this is what Shanti Bahini (the military wing of the JSS) wear.’
In December 1990 Subodh and other activists formed the Chittagong Hill Tracts Hill People’s Council. The group is attempting to negotiate and lobby politically as well as get information out to the public, both within Bangladesh and internationally.
‘There is nothing in the national press,’ says Subodh. ‘So few Bengalis know what is going on in their own country.’
Bangladesh depends on foreign aid for 80 per cent of its development programmes. Subodh charges that much of this facilitates the presence of the troops who occupy the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
‘The question I have for Western donor nations is this,’ says Subodh. ‘How can you guarantee the money you give in good conscience is not being used to repress my people?’ At this point he bangs the table with his fist and his voice grows louder. ‘The suffering of my people has gone too far. We are thirsty for peace. We want to live as human beings, in dignity. Others live in dignity. Why can my people not have the same rights?’
Chittagong Hill Tracts Campaign, PO Box 86, Klong Chan PO, Bangkok, 10240 Thailand. Tel/Fax: 66 2 945 8233.
Or Survival International, 6 Charterhouse Buildings LONDON EC1M 7ET Tel: +44 (0)20 7687 8700. Fax: +44 (0)20 7687 8701
E-mail: [email protected] Web: http://www.survival-international.org
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996