The Land of the Marma

WTP is pleased to present its promotional video "The Land of the Marma," which offers a rare glimpse into the world of the Marma people of Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The Punyah

A traditional ceremony of the Chakma Raj, taken from films about the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This is an installation ceremony. Indigenous people struggle to retain their culture and way of life.

Chakmas : Indigenous people of Bangladesh

Chakmas : Indigenous people of Bangladesh

ALTERNATE NAMES: Changma; Sawngma
LOCATION: Bangladesh; India; Myanmar (Burma)
LANGUAGE: Bengali dialect (Bangla)
RELIGION: Theravada (Southern) Buddhism

Chakma is the name of the largest tribe found in the hilly area of eastern Bangladesh known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Their name was first used by British census-takers to describe certain hill people.
When the British were driven from India in 1947, the land was divided into two countries, Pakistan and India. The people who lived in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region expected to become part of India. Instead, the region was given to Pakistan. This caused resentment because the people, mostly Chakma, are primarily Buddhist. They saw themselves more culturally similar to the Hindu peoples of India than the Muslims of Pakistan.
Pakistan's two regions were known as East Pakistan (where the Chakma lived) and West Pakistan. In 1971, East Pakistan fought successfully to win independence from West Pakistan. East Pakistan then became the nation of Bangladesh. The Chakma felt just as alienated from the Bangladesh government as they had from Pakistan. In 1973, the Shanti Bahini (Peace Force) began to stage violent attacks against the government to try to win independence for the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Guerrillas attacked government forces and the Bangladeshi Army responded with attacks on civilian tribal peoples. As of the late 1990s, this conflict continued.

The Chakma population is estimated to be around 550,000. It is spread over three different countries. The majority (approximately 300,000 people) are located in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. There are also about 80,000 Chakmas in Mizoram State in India, and 20,000 in Burma (Myanmar).
The Chakmas are a Mongoloid people related to people of southwestern Burma. The Chittagong Hills form part of the western fringe of the mountain regions of Burma and eastern India. The region has warm temperatures, monsoon rains, and high humidity.

The Chakmas speak a dialect of Bengali (Bangla) and use the standard Bengali alphabet. See the article on Bangladeshis in this chapter.

The myth that describes the origin of the Chakma traces the tribe to the ancient kingdom of Champaknagar. One of the king's sons marched east with a large army in the hope of conquering new lands. He crossed the "sea" of the Meghna River and captured the kingdom of Arakan in Burma, where he settled. His people intermarried with the Burmese and gradually adopted the Buddhist religion.
The last king of this dynasty was a ruler named Sher Daulat. He was credited with supernatural powers and was supposed to purify himself from sin by bringing out his intestines to wash in the river. His wife, out of curiosity, hid herself and watched him do this one day. Sher Daulat found her spying on him and, in a fit of rage, killed her and all his family. His eccentricities and tyranny grew so great that finally his people killed him. Fearing the consequences of this, the people left the Arakan kingdom, moving north into the area of the Chittagong Hills they occupy today.

The Chakmas are Buddhists. Chakmas officially follow the Southern, or Theravada, form of the Buddhism. But, their form of Buddhism has aspects of Hinduism and traditional religions as well.
Almost every Chakma village has a Buddhist temple (kaang). Buddhist priests or monks are called Bhikhus. They preside at religious festivals and ceremonies. The villagers support their monks with food, gifts, and offerings to Buddha.
The Chakmas also worship Hindu deities. Lakshmi, for example, is worshipped as the Goddess of the Harvest. Chakmas offer the sacrifice of goats, chickens, or ducks to calm the spirits that are believed to bring fevers and disease. Even though animal sacrifice is totally against Buddhist beliefs, the Chakma Buddhist priests ignore the practice.

Chakmas celebrate various Buddhist festivals. The most important is Buddha Purnima. This is the anniversary of three important events in Buddha's life—his birth, his attainment of enlightenment, and his death. It is observed on the full moon day of the month of Vaisakh (usually in May).
On this and other festival days, Chakmas put on their best clothes and visit the temple. There, they offer flowers to the image of Buddha, light candles, and listen to sermons from the priests. Alms (offerings) are given to the poor, and feasts are held for the priests.
The three-day festival known as Bishu , which coincides with the Bengali New Year's Day, is celebrated with much enthusiasm. Houses are decorated with flowers, young children pay special attention to the elderly to win their blessings, and festive dishes are prepared for guests.

After the birth of a child, the father places some earth near the birth bed and lights a fire on it. This is kept burning for five days. Afterward, the earth is thrown away and the mother and child are bathed. A woman is considered unclean for a month after childbirth and is not allowed to cook food during this period. Children are breastfed for several years by their mothers.
Chakmas cremate their dead. The body is bathed, dressed, and laid out on a bamboo platform. Relatives and villagers visit the body. A drum used only at this time is beaten at intervals. Cremation usually occurs in the afternoon. The ritual is presided over by a priest.
Buddists believe in reincarnation. This means that they believe that the dead person's spirit will return to earth in another living form. The morning after the cremation, relatives visit the cremation ground to search for footprints. They believe that the departed will have left some mark of his or her new incarnation (living form). Some remains of bones are collected, put in an earthen pot, and placed in a nearby river.
The mourning period for the family lasts for seven days. No fish or animal flesh is eaten during this time. On the seventh day, the final ritual (Satdinya) is held. At this time the family offers food to their ancestors, Buddhist monks deliver religious discourses, offerings are made to the monks, and the entire village participates in a communal feast.

Chakma hospitality is overflowing. Guests are given home-brewed liquor and the hukka (hooka) pipe. The hukka is a pipe used for smoking tobacco. It has a long flexible tube attached to a water bottle. The smoke is cooled by passing over the water before being inhaled by the smoker.
Chakmas greet each other with the traditional cry, Hoya! This exuberant shout is also used to express pleasure at victory in sports such as tug-of-war that accompany the numerous hill festivals held throughout the year. After living for so many years near Muslims, some Chakmas use the Muslim greeting, Salaam.

Chakmas build their houses on slopes near the banks of a river or a stream. A few related families may build on the same plot of land, creating a homestead (bari). Baris cluster together to form hamlets (para) and a number of hamlets make up a village (gram).
The traditional Chakma house is made of bamboo. It is constructed on a bamboo or wooden platform about two meters (six feet) above the ground. The house is built on the rear of the platform. Mat walls divide the house into separate compartments. A porch in the front of the house is divided in two by a mat partition. One area is used by men and boys and the other by women and girls. Small compartments may be built for storage of grain and other possessions. Household objects ranging from baskets to pipes for smoking tobacco are made out of bamboo.

Chakmas are divided into clans (gojas), which are further subdivided into subclans (guttis). Members of the same subclan are forbidden to marry each other. Parents arrange marriages, although the wishes of sons and daughters are taken into account. A bride price (goods given by groom's family to bride's family) is fixed when the two families negotiate the marriage.
The marriage ceremony is known as Chumulong and is performed by Buddhist priests. If young people elope, the marriage can be formalized on payment of fines. Polygyny (marriage to more than one wife) is acceptable but rare. Divorce is allowed, as is remarriage after the death of a spouse.

Chakma men have given up their traditional clothes for Western-style shirts and trousers. It is the women who maintain the traditional Chakma style of dress, which consists of two pieces of cloth. One is worn as a skirt, wrapped around the lower part of the body and extending from waist to ankle. Its traditional color is black or blue, with a red border at top and bottom.
The second piece of cloth is a breast-band, woven with colored designs, that is tightly wrapped around the upper body. This is worn with a variety of necklaces, bracelets, anklets, rings, and other ornaments. Chakma women are skilled weavers and make their own cloth.

The staple food of the Chakmas is rice, supplemented by millet, corn (maize), vegetables, and mustard. Vegetables include yams, pumpkins, melons, and cucumbers. Vegetables and fruit gathered from the forest may be added to the diet. Fish, poultry, and meat (even pork) are eaten, despite the Buddhist taboo on consuming animal flesh.
Traditional diets have slowly been abandoned, as the Chakmas have been forced to flee their homeland. Some typical Chakma dishes include fish, vegetables, and spices stuffed into a length of bamboo and cooked in a low fire; foods wrapped in banana leaves and placed beside a fire; and eggs that are aged until they are rotten.
Chakmas do not like milk. They drink alcoholic beverages freely, and every household makes its own rice liquor. Alcohol is consumed at all festivals and social occasions.

Chakmas live in isolated areas of Bangladesh. They are not part of the majority population and are quite poor by Western standards. They do not have access to Western-style education. Literacy (ability to read and write) among men of the hill tribes is about 15 percent. This figure drops to 7 percent for women.

Buddhists books, translated into Chakma and written on palm leaves, are known as Aghartara. The Tallik is a detailed account of medicinal plants, methods of their preparation, and their use in the treatment of disease.
Folk music is a major aspect of Chakma tribal culture. It includes romantic love songs known as Ubageet. The Genkhuli ballads relate incidents from the past. There are also epic poems like Radhamon and Dhanapati.
Traditional musical instruments include a bugle made from buffalo horn, a circular piece of iron with a string stretched across it that vibrates to produce sound, and a drum. The bamboo flute is played by almost all Chakma youth. Unlike other tribal groups of the eastern hills, dancing is not an important part of Chakma life.

The Chakmas are farmers. There is no ownership of land, but Chakma custom holds that no one should interfere with fields that look like someone else is farming there. Land is cleared of trees and bushes, and any remaining vegetation is burned during the dry season in April. Crops are planted after the first heavy rains. Harvesting usually takes place in October and November.
Some Chakmas have given up their farming lifestyle and have entered the labor market. Those fortunate enough to have the necessary education have gone on to clerical and other white collar jobs. Many, however, work as laborers in the factories and industrial projects that have grown up along the valley of the Karnafuli River.

Ha-do-do is a game played throughout the region. Two teams stand on either side of a central line. They take turns sending a player into opposing territory to touch as many people as he or she can during the space of one breath, while at the same time saying "Ha-do-do." If the player runs out of breath or is caught by his or her opponents, he or she is out.
On the other hand, if the player successfully returns to his or her own territory, the players he or she has tagged must leave the game. Other pastimes include Gila Khela, a game similar to marbles except that small wooden disks are used instead of marbles; Nadeng Khela, played with a spinning top; and various wrestling games. Girls do not have dolls or play at being "mother" as they do in Western cultures.

Traditional forms of recreation include popular folk songs and music, and jatra, the village opera. Wrestling and other sports held at fairs are popular. In the past, hunting and fishing were favorite pastimes.

The Chakma are skilled at making a variety of household goods from bamboo, often using nothing more than a simple knife. Women are expert weavers and dyers and make their own cloth called Alam. They are skilled in the art of making baskets from bamboo.

The Chakma people face difficult situations today. Their population is larger than that of over sixty independent nations. Yet the tribe is fragmented and scattered over three countries. In each country, Chakmas form a minority and many are refugees from their homeland, living in conditions of squalor.
The most serious problem faced by the Chakmas is in Bangladesh, where they are fighting for an independent homeland. Some Chakmas and other tribal peoples have resorted to armed warfare against the government. This, in turn, has led to reprisals by the police and Bangladeshi Army. Both Amnesty International (the human rights organization) and the United States have reported human rights violations against Chakma civilians.

Brace, Steve. Bangladesh. New York: Thomson Learning, 1995.
Brown, Susan. Pakistan and Bangladesh. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press, 1989.
Chakma, Sugata. "Chakma Culture." Folklore (The Journal of the Folklore Research Institute, Bangladesh) 7 (January): 58–75, 1982.
McClure, Vimala Schneider. Bangladesh: Rivers in a Crowded Land. Minneapolis, Minn.: Dillon Press, 1989.
Talukdar, S. P. Chakmas: An Embattled Tribe. New Delhi: Uppal Publishing House, 1994.

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Indigenous peoples: Need constitutional recognition

Indigenous peoples: Need constitutional recognition

Md. Raisul Islam Sourav
People who inhabited a land before it was conquered by colonial societies and who consider themselves distinct from the societies presently governing those territories are generally known as 'indigenous people'. The word 'people' creates a controversy. Part one, Article One of The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966 state that all people have the right of self-determination by virtue of which they “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”. Some state governments oppose use of the term “people” in regards to indigenous people because they fear its association with the right of succession and independent statehood. Those states prefer the terms “tribes” or “populations”. On the opposite side, indigenous people like to use the term “people” because of its association with inherent recognition of a distinct identity.
Indigenous people worldwide number between 300-500 million, embodies and nurtures 80% of the world's cultural and biological diversity, and occupies 20% of the world's land surface. The indigenous people of the world are very diverse. They live in nearly all the countries on all the continents of the world and form a spectrum of humanity, ranging from traditional hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers to legal scholars. In some countries, indigenous people form the majority of the population; others comprise small minorities. Almost all the indigenous people strive to preserve traditional ways of life, while others seek greater participation in the current state structures. Indigenous people recognise their common plight and work for their self-determination; based on their respect for the earth.
Despite such extensive diversity in indigenous communities throughout the world, all indigenous people have one thing in common - they all share a history of injustice. Indigenous people have been killed, tortured and enslaved. In many cases, they have been the victims of genocide. They have been denied the right to participate in governing processes of the current state systems. Conquest and colonisation have attempted to steal their dignity and identity as indigenous peoples, as well as the fundamental right of self-determination.
Bangladesh context
In Bangladesh, according to the government estimate, around 12 lakh indigenous people of 27 ethnic groups live in the country. Non-government organizations however put the number of ethnic groups between 40 and 50 with a total population of 20 lakh. These communities mainly live in the southeast (Chittagong Hill Tracts) region, north, north-central plains, northeast region and in the coastal belt.
Now it is established that 'Adivasi' communities played a significant role during the Liberation War in 1971. But the great matter of regret is that, they are still not recognised by the Government nor by the Constitution as Adivasi or indigenous people. The colonial term "tribal" or "Upojati" is still strongly enforced in all our official documents. Current government ordered government officials to call them “Upojati” (tribal). A superior officer of the Foreign Ministry recently stated, “In Bangladesh there are no Adivasis or indigenous people; they are merely “Upojati”” at a conference relating to indigenous peoples in UN.
The State refuses to recognise them as Adivasi. It prefers calling them “Upojati”. Government evasively denied their justice. There are most likely views of alarm as once they get the status of indigenous people, then an obligation would automatically arise upon them to implement their rights.
Dispute of land
The malignant boil, which was planted by a despotic ruler, is still working as a cause of distress for the microscopic nationality. Many indigenous families were evicted from their ancestral land and homesteads as outsider settlers (dominant group) grabbed their lands. Historically, microscopic communities have no document concerning their ownership over their land. It is traditional that they do not require any paper document of their land. This is also acknowledged by Art. 25 of the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It enumerates: “Indigenous peoples have the right to keep and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their land and waters”. Moreover, Art 26 added: “Indigenous peoples have the right to own and control the use of their land, waters and other resources. Indigenous laws and customs shall be recognised”.
Customarily they are enjoying the ownership and possession of their land on the basis of assemblage. Usually, they also live in co-operative society. Further, they have a set of their own rules and regulations for themselves.
Nevertheless, settlers and local dominant group grabbed their lands fraudulently from them. They are involved to take this chance of non-presence of document of land and registered Adivasi's land in their name as per national law. It makes a conflict between them. It is one of the major problems of Adivasis in Bangladesh. Sometimes State itself also instigate this land grabbing in the name of constructing park for the recreation of the large community.
Agony of suppression
The recently fervid sore of Bhaghaichari (19-20 Feb. 2010) is not detached from the heart of Adivasis, when we witnessed massive violation of human rights. Dominant group attacked them with the aid of law enforcing agencies. The “Peace Accord, 1997” is still not properly implemented. Each government avoids the lawful rights of those people by taking shelter of fraud, so that they expose reluctance to execute the accord fully. After withdrawing some military camp from a part of CHT area, during the period of 14 party alliance government groups of people are frantic to set up new camps of RAB there. However, CHT area is not beyond the area of Bangladesh as stated Art. 2 of the Constitution. Hence, that is why indigenous people are also entitled to enjoy same rights as of dominant group. Appointment of additional number of military or RAB forces reflected the mentality of suppression of the government. It shows that indigenous people are somewhat dissimilar from governing group.
Till now, those Adivasis dedicated their lives to protect their interest and ancestral land, State could be free from curse by arranging neutral trial of such. Indigenous peoples were buoyant when ruling government took power. Because in their election manifesto they promised to do a lot of things for the benefit of them.
Representation from the respective communities is mandatory to resolve the matter fruitfully. Because all initiatives have failed which were taken at various time for the lacking of representation of Adivasi, bona fide will of govt. or for the lack of proper power of the settling authority. A number of opportunist people have been grown into their community who are always engaged to protect their self-interest even by abandoning group interest. If government selects these persons to mitigate these issues then it will be boomerang for the Adivasis.
It is the lawful demand of the microscopic nationality to safeguard their identities, languages and cultures by inserting provisions into the supreme law of the land. Once Constitution takes the liability to protect them then no one can deprive them from getting these rights. Constitutional recognition will remove all the barriers that come in the way of ensuring the basic rights and improving the social status of Adivasis. Though the Constitution has some provisions for the benefit of indigenous people in the name of “backward section of citizens”, it is not sufficient. It is necessary to appoint representatives from the Adivasi communities in the recently formed committee for constitutional amendment to speak for their benefits.

The writer is Student (LL.M), Department of Law, Northern University Bangladesh (NUB).

Agonies of indigenous people

Agonies of indigenous people

INDIGENOUS communities, popularly known as adivasi or jumma, are the majority population in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs). There are about 49 different indigenous communities living in the plains and hill areas. Although they constituted about 98% of the total population in this region in 1941, however, the increase in non-ethnic jumma people in CHT had reduced their strength to 51% in 2003. The governments' policies played an important role in the decline. As a consequence, CHT suffers from continuous violence among different groups.
In order to end the violence and conflict and to establish peace in this region, the then AL government (1996-2001) singed a peace treaty, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord (CHT Peace Accord), in 1997 with the representatives of the indigenous people. Although the treaty was vehemently opposed by the main opposition (BNP), it was considered as a milestone in the history of Bangladesh. It promised to bring an end to the long-standing armed conflict, provide limited autonomy and facilitate socio-economic development. But the fact is that the indigenous communities are still subjected to misery, harassment and exploitation.
From the very beginning, the BNP-led government was more inclined to solve the CHT''s political problems by military means. Although the accord stated that all the temporary army camps, Ansars and the Village Defence Party (VDP) should be withdrawn, no time limit was fixed. Consequently, even a decade after signing of the accord, only 31 out of 500 security forces camps have been withdrawn. Human rights violations against the jumma people are still taking place. Even the movements of the jumma people have been controlled through reopening of check-posts in some places.
The policy to resettle Bangali Muslims from the plains to the CHT has made the jummas a minority in their ancestral land. The Bangali settlers have been occupying the lands of the jummas and committing ethnocide with the direct help of the government. Thus, once a predominantly non-Bangali Muslim area, the CHT region is fast becoming a Bangali Muslim area. Recent statistics show that the Bangali Muslim population, only around 2 percent of the total population of the CHT in 1947, had risen to as much as 49 percent in 2003.
It has been widely reported that indigenous leaders who advocate autonomy are often victims of oppression by the security agencies. Amnesty International has expressed deep concern regarding the harassment of the indigenous political leaders. Most often, such harassment is done in order to convey the message that no movement towards autonomy would be accepted by the government. Such harassment has continued even after the treaty was signed in 1997.
The government has caused discontent among returned refugees and internally dislodged jummas by providing free rations to illegal settlers under various food security schemes supported by UN agencies and international donors. Many of these settlers have been entitled to free rations for the last two decades. New settlers are also provided free rations, whereas the indigenous jummas who have been uprooted from their homes and suffer human rights violations and criminal acts are denied this entitlement. This is tantamount to racial discrimination on the part of the government of Bangladesh.
The CHT Peace Accord urges the government to "give preference to the eligible tribal candidates" when appointing the chairman of the CHT Development Board. The BNP government (200106), however, appointed Abdul Wadud Bhuiyan as chairman, under whose leadership the CHTDB undertook several development programs biased mainly towards settlers.
Moreover, power struggle between several groups within the indigenous communities is also responsible for their agonies. Violent conflict between two jumma groups, the Parbattya Chattagam Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) and United People's Democratic Front (UPDF), have not helped the situation either, resulting in the killing, maiming and kidnapping of hundreds of jummas. This intra-indigenous violence is perhaps hurting the indigenous people's demand for political rights and natural resources, and is weakening them.
The indigenous people and minorities of Bangladesh struggle for survival. Despite having an ancient history, the indigenous people do not have a "present" or a "future;" their daily lives pass in insecurity, uncertainty and distress. Although it was expected that the 1997 peace accord would protect them from exploitation and suffering, it has failed to do so, instead it is caught in a political crossfire between the Awami League, which has used it as a means of partisan capital, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has denounced it.
How can the agonies of the indigenous people be reduced? To resolve the existing conflict in CHT, we need strong political ambition and sincere will on the part of the government to implement the peace accord to ensure more political and social rights to the indigenous people. At the same time, it should be anchored in the mainstream politics so that the accord gets due recognition and respect from all successive governments.
It is encouraging to note that the newly elected AL government has formed an implementation committee of the 1997 Accord under the chairmanship of the Deputy Leader of the Parliament. Now, the government should think about withdrawal of military camps, which would ensure that the indigenous people do not face further exploitation and unnecessary harassment. The government should also consider an end to moving Bangali Muslims into the CHT, which would reduce the conflict between the two groups. In addition, harmonious relationship among different indigenous groups is essential. PCJSS and UPDF should work together in order to preserve the interests of the indigenous communities in the CHT.
Dr. Pranab Kumar Panday is Associate Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh.
Dr. Ishtiaq Jamil is Associate Professor, Department of Administration and Organization Theory, University of Bergen, Norway.