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Vanishing Paradise: Wee Cheng visits a little known Buddhist Kingdom in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh under armed protection
Bangladesh is today a predominantly Muslim country, although it was once a key centre of Buddhist civilization. More than 1000 years ago, Xuan Zhang and other Chinese explorer-monks travelled to the renowned monastery-universities of Mainimati and Paharpur in what is today Bangladesh, and brought back to China teachings and works which transformed the culture and religion of the Far East. This Buddhist civilization was long gone, but in the southeast corner of Bangladesh are Buddhist communities little known to the rest of the world, and whose ancient unique culture is now endangered.
To the east of Chittagong, Bangladesh's second largest city, lie three mountainous districts collectively known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). This was the ancestral land of 12 tribes with a total population of half a million about 300,000 of which belong to the Chakma tribe (the remaining include the Marmas, Mrus, Tripuras, etc). Most of these tribes are Sino-Tibetan (i.e., East Asian) in appearance and Buddhist by religion. The Chakma has always been ruled by their own god-kings or rajas.
During the days of the British Indian Empire, the CHT were considered a self-governing tribal region, and outsiders were not allowed to enter or even settle there without government approval. With independence as part of East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was then known, CHT's special status was eroded and eventually abolished in 1964, thus allowing landless Muslim farmers from the plains to enter and settle in the region. In 1960, the Kaptai Dam was constructed to generate hydroelectric power, which led to the flooding of the Chakma lands and the exodus of the Chakma people across the surrounding Indian Northeast region. Even the Chakma raja, who had lost all his power, had to abandon his palace (or rajburi) to the rising waters of the 400 sq mile Lake Kaptai. During the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Chakma raja sided with the Pakistanis, and was deposed with the defeat of Pakistan he left the country and became the Pakistani ambassador to Argentina. The era of the Chakma kingdom was over.
Since the independence of Bangladesh, landless Muslim farmers had settled in the CHT in huge numbers and today they accounted for more than half the population, and virtually most of the urban residents of Rangamati, capital of the CHT. Devasish Roy, who was installed as raja after the dethronement of his father following the latter's disastrous backing of the wrong side in the Liberation War, is today as good as chief of a cultural association. In 1973, the Chakmas took up arms against the Bangladeshi government, in an insurgency that lasted till 1997, when a peace treaty was signed with the government of Sheikh Hasina.
Some semblance of peace had returned but all is not well. Dissatisfaction over increased Muslim migration to the region is once again leading to tension in the region, and clashes with guerillas, whom the government called terrorists (as governments all over the world call insurgents), is occurring again. Just as I left Chittagong for the CHT, there were unverified reports of rising tension over a monastery besieged by illegal Muslim squatters who allegedly received support from the military, and that the monastery was given a deadline by the military to vacate the rich farmland they had resided for years.
We got onto a rickety bus, the sort which would long have gone to the scrap yard in the developed world, in Chittagong to travel 70km eastwards to Rangamati. It took almost three hours on this narrow two lane road, full of potholes and wildly suicidal drivers who had little regard for anyone's safety. When we reached the border of the CHT, a huge sign read
"Foreigners, get off your vehicles for examination". I, as the only foreigner on this bus, had to get off to register my entry into the region. Through M., my local contact, I had earlier applied for a special entry permit from the Chittagong Divisional Commissioner.
"Good morning. Where are you from, sir?" the mustached sentry military police asked. "Your passport and permit please."
"Singapore," I said as I handed over my documents to him, the first of my several encounters with army officers in the CHT. On every occasion, troublesome it might have been, the officers had been friendly and entirely professional.
"Please sign in your entry," as he asked me to write my name and address in a huge red record book. The entry before me was a South Korean who visited a week before. And thereupon I was allowed to return to the bus. I sent my last sms to a friend. The CHT is a mobile-banned zone, so as to deny "terrorist" access to communications. Time to get ready for mobile withdrawal syndrome!
The landscape changed as we entered the CHT. Hilly terrain and occasional rice terraces had now replaced the flat wet paddy plains so typical of Bengal. Classic ideal guerrilla ambush spots abound. On any of the narrow corners, anyone who controls the jungled hilltops could trap men and vehicles on the road below like sitting ducks. We passed occasional villages and settlements, most of which are typically Bangladeshi Muslim, but also occasionally people with Sino-Tibetan faces. If one had come forty years ago, one could have thought one was in Southeast Asia instead of South Asia. However, the demographic face of this land is changing and had changed irreversibly. The authorities had, over time, settled plain Muslims along the main road, to safeguard the approaches to Rangamati, and from here, settlers would fan out to the rest of CHT, and change the human picture forever.
Every few kilometers, there would be a sentry point with armed Bangladeshi soldiers behind barb wire and sandbags but we didn't have to stop. Then we came to a major tri-road junction and here the bus halted. I had to present my papers to the soldiers at a checkpoint hut, which had a hive activity compared to the earlier ones a few lorry drivers submitting their documents to two military personnel in army camouflage, who were assisted by two civilian clerical staff. Sergeant Ahmad, the more senior looking of the officers stretched forward to shake my hand, "Good morning, your papers please. Tourist?" he asked, and yet without waiting for my answer, "Yes, I presume."
I handed my passport and permit and Sgt Ahmad said, "I would need to call the divisional HQ to confirm your permit." He dialed his phone and then told me to wait while the HQ staff searched for the permit approval.
Minutes clicked quickly while the sergeant rang his HQ again and again to chase for the status of the permit search. The bus driver was getting impatient, grumbling away non-stop and eventually unloaded our luggage to carry on his journey. Sgt Ahmad apologized but I suppose he was just doing his job. After all, I had to accept all these as the price of visiting a semi-conflict zone. The friendly officer also asked where I had been in Bangladesh and whether I had enjoyed my journey so far. "You will like Rangamati even more," he said.
After 20 minutes' wait, Sgt Ahmad spoke to his HQ again, and said, "Congratulations, we got your permit. Welcome to Rangamati!"
We resumed our journey on another passing bus Sgt Ahmad stopped for us. We were by now 7km from the centre of Rangamati. There were sentry posts every half a kilometer or so, which seemed to indicate the severity of the current conflict. In fact, at yet another post where I was asked to get down the bus, the soldier guarding it asked if I was "the guy from Singapore", and then asked to sign on yet another large record book. Looked like the entire military command was now alerted to my presence in the CHT.
With the flooding of the central valley which had created the huge Lake Kaptai, the new Rangamati had become a town on islands which were previously hill ridges. The main road through town winded its way up and down along the ridges, often with water by the edge. Glimpses of the many picturesque wood-and-aluminum-roof houses by the waterside with reflection of the green mountains beyond. Water hyacinth and lotus everywhere, whilst fishermen scattering the net from tiny boats in the distance. Underlying such beauty, often, as with the case of Kashmir, were tragedy and despair. The very beautiful lake that defined Rangamati today was a major cause for the loss of ancestral land and dispersal of the Chakma people.
CHT, as with many similar regions elsewhere, was one where international organizations thrived. During a 15min taxi ride in Rangamati, I counted three vehicles with the large "UN" abbreviation on it.
We headed for Parjatan Motel, the best hotel in Rangamati, run by the state tourism corporation, a business model that was more suited in the old era of state organized tourism than today's free entrepreneurship. The hotel was clearly a product of a bygone era, with faded paint, creaking doors and furniture with chipped off corners. Power was cut when I stepped into my room and the room mirror looked dusty. But this was the best place to stay in town. The power cut also made me wonder what had happened to all the electricity generated by the dam that had created the lake in the first place. I was not too surprised given occasional reports about petrol shortage in major oil producers like Indonesia, Iran and Nigeria. Corruption of the elite explains it all. The power generated in the Chakma ancestral lands had probably gone to power the palatial mansions of the Dhaka elite.
We enquired about a boat trip on the lake to visit nearby Chakma villages. This was the low season and I was a foreigner. Hence I had to get a boat of my own and as a compulsory security measure for all foreigners, I had to pay for armed guards. All this amounted to about US$25 for a three hour boat excursion an outrageously expensive amount in Bangladesh but a bargain elsewhere.
We hired a baby taxi, as three wheeled auto rickshaws were known in Bangladesh, to Bana Vihara, a Buddhist monastery located on a scenic stretch of Lake Kaptai. At the main gate of the monastery was a Bangladeshi Army landrover. As I raised my camera to capture the handsome gateway with its graceful deer carvings, a Bangladeshi officer came out of the vehicle. Instead of confiscating my camera as I had half expected, he said, "Wait, you are not allowed to take pictures of the military. Let me drive the vehicle away." The Bangladeshi military must be the friendliest I have encountered anywhere in my travels.
Silver-coloured Burmese style pagodas rose above the ridges, where pilgrims prostrated to pay homage to the Buddha. Saffron-coloured monks mostly Chakmas who looked no different from those of you from Singapore walked around gracefully in the monastery grounds. This could have been a daily scene from the streets of Yangon or Chiang Mai.
At the Vihar, I met a Sri Lankan Buddhist who worked for an international organization who expressed surprise I could get into CHT today. "Sometimes the military let people in, and sometimes they do not," he shrugged.
The New Rajburi was located on a nearby island, some distance away from the old one which was now under the waters of Lake Kaptai. We got onto a small boat across twenty meters of clear, pollution-free water. Overlooking the jetty was the administrative office of the Chakma Raj, or the Kingdom of Chakma. The name of the offices was written in the Chakma script, known as Ojhopath, which was a corruption of the Burmese script.
Behind the offices was a field where Chakma kids were playing football, at the end of which were gates to the Rajburi itself. We walked to the open front court of the palace, where photos of rajas in full court regalia were hung on the wall. Sino-Tibetan faces in Indian maharaja regalia a strange reflection of the region's unique mix of cultures. (I had seen other photos at Chittagong's Ethnographic Museum of two other lesser tribal rajas in the CHT who wore Burmese style regalia.) And there was the dashing, handsome Raja Tridiv Roy, the ill-fated one who supported Pakistan and later left the country to become Pakistani Ambassador to Argentina he would not look out of place in a classy tango ball Buenos Aires. The current raja, Raja Devasish Roy, looked no less like a hunky Korean movie star that would charm many East Asian teenagers and housewives, is a barrister in Dhaka where he spends most of his time, and only return to Rangamati for important cultural and religious events.
We walked to Raj Vihar (King's Temple") at the other end of the football field. The temple was being rebuilt in a grander structure. When I told the young abbot that I was a Buddhist from Singapore, he, together with chairman of the laymen organization who was with him at that time, were most delighted. Also present was a young monk from the neighbouring state of Tripura, India. He was Chakma too, probably one of those who fled to India when the insurgency flared up in 1973. Tripura is today home to over 100,000 Chakmas, mostly those who fled Bangladesh and their descendants.
"We are all long lost cousins in Asia," the abbot said. They gave me their address and asked me to write. "Email me," I said, giving them my name card. We were speaking mid-way when we were interrupted by the Islamic call to prayer, from the loudspeakers a few hundred meters away in Rangamati town itself. Fifty years ago, the sight of saffron robed monks collecting alms door to door was probably a typical street scene in Rangamati; twenty years ago, this would have been replaced by Bengali ladies in flamboyant saris doing their rest-day shopping; now, with rising Islamism, ladies in dark burqa robes were as commonplace as those in saris. I wonder what would become of the CHT in twenty years time.
It was getting dark and M., my guide, hurried me, "let's back to the hotel. Not good if the military found us in a Chakma area after dark. It would get the villagers lots of questioning as to what a foreigner was doing in their village."
Back at the lobby of Parjatan Motel, a policeman with a huge rifle was waiting for me. "Mr Tan from Singapore? I have been asked to come to the hotel for your protection." So the Big Brother was either really concerned about my security, or most anxious about my movement in the CHT. The first time I had ever encountered something like this in my many years of travel. It was probably the same, or worse in North Korea which I visited in 2005, but everything in the Dear Leader's workers paradise was a lot more subtle.
The next day was boat trip day. Apart from my guide and the boatman, as a foreigner, I had to engage three armed police as safety escorts in the lake. It was compulsory. Of course, as my guide said, I could attempt to skirt the rules by getting boatmen in town who were willing to ignore the rules, but I would bump into army naval patrol on the lake and get into trouble; or bump into the "terrorists" and get into "even more trouble." I wonder if it was more dangerous having these escorts if one encountered the guerrillas on the lake. I didn't fancy getting injured or killed in crossfire between police and guerrillas. What a wonderful sightseeing excursion with three armed policemen with their rifles! The last time I had uniformed escorts for sightseeing was in Kosovo in 2002, when Italian peacekeepers escorted me to ancient Serbian monasteries besieged by Albanians.
If one ignored the fact that the lake was artificial and that its creation in 1964 had made many tribes homeless, the boat cruise was a most pleasant experience. Small islands of water hyacinth; herons, kingfishers and other birds; the idyllic fishermen; silhouette of faraway green islands. We visited two Tripura villages. The Tripura were Hindu tribesmen with kinsmen across the border in India's Tripura state. The varied features on Tripura faces betrayed the diverse ethnic mix in this frontier region. Some Tripura looked Indo-Dravidian (as with Bangladeshi Muslims) while others looked decidedly Sino-Tibetan. The villagers were poor farmers and fishermen, but unlike many places I visited before, these villagers did not beg for money. Instead they welcomed us into their houses and take as many photo as I wanted to.
We also dropped by a "Master's Island", so-called because the village-head, an elderly man in his sixties who founded this Chakma village was once a teacher. This gentleman, who spoke excellent English, showed us around the village and welcomed us to his hut. He was happy that I was from Singapore and Buddhist as well. "We are all Sino-Tibetans", he said. "People of the same roots. Welcome, welcome!"
He said he learned English at a Catholic mission school in Rangamati, directly from a Canadian. That was why he loved to meet visitors who spoke English. He smiled a lot while serving us tea. We spoke about a range of topics including the Chakma script and the Chakma hand weaving art.
When asked what the villagers do for a living, he said the young men had mostly gone to the towns and cities. It was too difficult to cultivate the hilly slopes of the islands. "Whatever they said about us as mountain people, we were actually a people of the plains and valleys. We used to cultivate crops in the valleys before the great dam. We didn't learn to climb the hills as they were full of jungles and wild animals. Now we had to cultivate on this poor soil. You know, we are Buddhists. We don't kill or fish, but now our people had to fish or starve," the old village head sighed, as though all that happened only yesterday.
"Hey, that happened a long time ago, in 1964, during the times of the Pakistanis," my guide interrupted.
"Yes," the village head sighed again. All that happened a long time ago, but his people continued to suffer from the consequences.
The sunset over Lake Kaptai was beautiful but it shrouded the tragedy of a displaced people and the once again rising tension over land and culture. For poor landless Bangladeshi Muslims from the plains, the lake and the land around it was a chance for a more prosperous life; for the Chakmas, it was their only homeland now at risk. The odds for the 300,000 Chakmas, relative to the 150 million Bangladeshi majority, were not good indeed. Like many minority cultures worldwide, such as the Tibetans and the Amazonian Indians, it does look like their survival as living cultures as opposed as theme park samples are slim. Thus is life in the 21st century.
With this, I would soon set off for Dhaka, and then Kathmandu, Nepal.