A year after the long march of the Mros in Bandarban, has anything changed?


In February 2021, hundreds of Mro community members marched from Chimbuk Hill to Bandarban, protesting against the construction of a five-star hotel. This was a follow-up to the previous “cultural showdown” by hundreds of Mro villagers in November 2020 and numerous statements from concerned national and international human rights groups urging the government to halt the project. . The hotel’s construction plan was a collaboration between the Sikder Group, the five-star hotel chain Marriott and Bangladeshi security forces. On the other hand, the long march was the culmination of a collaboration between young students and activists from the Mro and many other politically aware activists across 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 inhabitants of the region, in addition to causing the eviction of hundreds of families. Mro of the villages directly affected by the constructions as well as the families living in the neighboring villages.

According to information from the Chittagong Hill Tracts Citizens Committee, security forces cordoned off around 500 acres of land to build the compound. Once completed, it is feared that the project will directly evict 150 indigenous Mro families, and that another 250 Mro families spread over 1,000 acres of nearby land will be indirectly affected. The local Mros no longer have access to the cordoned off area they had been using collectively for years.

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It has been a year since the long march and the uncomfortable silence around the protests is reminiscent of the silence around many developments in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Such silence after a sustained campaign against an injustice can be mistakenly seen as an indication of some form of resolution – that the grievances that led to the protests have been settled. Unfortunately, the political situation in the Hills in general and in Bandarban in particular is not so simple. Bandarban is a geopolitically important place. It shares international borders with India and Myanmar and adjoins Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar. Borders are unstable geographical spaces all over the world and a certain level of volatility comes with sharing borders with these two nations which have a very politically changing relationship with Bangladesh.

At the same time, despite the highest concentration of security forces in the country, there are many armed groups in this area. Surveillance of Jumma activists is very high. The long march of Mro villagers and the letters of concern about the construction of the complex from human rights organizations including the International Commission of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Amnesty International, the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs and the United Nations, have led to further strengthening of this oversight. After the February 2021 long march, a group of Mros were seen standing uncomfortably for a photo with signs saying they welcome tourism to Bandarban. Since then, there have been very few reports of what is actually happening on the ground regarding the construction of the station.

In many states, protest led by local citizens and the gathering of people for the same cause are considered dangerous. A popular movement is seen as a threat to the very existence of authority. These uprisings and movements must be “managed”. Jumma self-determination movements have always been a matter of “management” by the security forces. Tourism in itself is not 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 non-predatory. The land disputes resulting from the arrival of settlers in the 1970s and 1980s in these hills are still unresolved. Many Jumma communities were uprooted from their homeland, and the complicated modalities of subsequent land dispossession made the task of the Land Commission very time-consuming and difficult.

The slowness of the Land Commission process over the years also demonstrates the absence of any political will to resolve these disputes. Apart from that, Bangladesh is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world. Large constructions such as a modern five-star hotel and a resort must take into account the vulnerability of the region and its inhabitants. Destructive hill cutting for development and construction forces many Jummas to live in precarious geographic spaces, leaving them vulnerable to landslides. In 2017, such a landslide killed 126 people, mostly Jummas. The indiscriminate stone quarrying and monoculture in the area has also already caused irreversible damage to the area. The jummas who have lived in the hills for generations tell of how the jhiris have dried up and how they have to seek new places to find water. Added to all these misfortunes is the reckless behavior of Bengali tourists who care little for the land and the environment and end up leaving huge amounts of waste in tourist areas.

What began in November 2020 with the “cultural showdown” in Bandarban, which culminated in the long march in February 2021, was an expression of decades of discontent with land dispossession and evictions faced by indigenous Jumma , and a denial against a greedy capitalist state of land aggression that would lead to large-scale displacement. The silence on the issue today is not an indication of peace and quiet as usual. This silence is part of the broader silence of critical voices across the country that is the hallmark of authoritarian states. The silence in this region has the added layers of region-specific geopolitical significance that is dealt with using more powerful tools and facilitated by the blanket censorship that has prevailed in this region for decades. After half a century of our country’s independence, we must ask ourselves how long we will continue to ignore this silence, and we must revive the democratic forces and demand justice for all the inhabitants of this country.

Hana Shams Ahmed is a doctoral student in the Department of Social Anthropology at York University, Canada.


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