Postcards from the Edge

of Bangladesh

Archive for February, 2010

Is the irony of the situation really lost on Bangladesh?

Today is International Mother Language Day. A day that is celebrated around the world, as recognition of martyrs of the Bangla Language Movement of Bangladesh in 1952. This language movement was the forerunner of the nationalist movement that culminated in the Liberation War in 1971 and won the nation’s independence from Pakistan.

Bangladesh gained its independence by fighting its oppressors. They fought to preserve their language, culture and heritage. Today, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina held up the Bangla Language Movement as an inspiration for others struggling to preserve their heritage around the world…

Given the historical (and current situation) in the CHT, surely the irony is not lost on the PM? Surely not. Please say not. The oppressed become the oppressors? Anyone? Anyone? The powerful majority continues to beat the shit out the powerless minority? No, just me then?

In other Bangladesh news:

– The ruling Awami League has declared that they changed the name of the Zia International Airport to ‘teach the BNP a lesson’ (and yes, that is an actual quote).

– 1 person was killed today when Awami League and BNP supporters clashed when placing wreaths to commemorate the martyrs of the Bangla Language movement. The clash started between the two groups over who would be the first to place wreaths at the Shaheed Minar. Nice way to commemorate peeps.

– the BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) are set to close their retail shops as the BDR boss decides disciplinary force should not be involved in commercial ventures. Ya think?

And these are some of the many reasons why I don’t read the news here. Reading the news either makes me angry, or it makes me depressed. I despair sometimes. I really do.

100,000 Global Voices for Peace in the CHT

Jesus, it’s time for peace in the CHT. I write this a mixture of anger and sadness. But mostly its anger.

The CHT Peace Accord was signed in 1997, but most of the key promises of the accord remain unfulfilled. For more than 30 years now the indigenous people of the CHT have been subjected to military rule and oppression, serious human rights violations and land grabbing by settlers. The Bengali settlers have been consistently backed by the military, who violently oppress any attempt to hold onto what rightfully belongs to the indigenous people of this area.

Living here in my little tribal, settler-free bubble in Rangapani, it’s sometimes easy to forget about all the tension, and the long standing issues between the indigenous population and Bengali settlers. Only when I travel into Rangamati proper do I feel the tension and animosity between the two groups. It’s like walking into another world. A world I don’t like.

This tension bubbled up into clashes in Baghaichari upazila in Rangamati last night. Reports differ, and the way the army controls the area it’s unlikely the true figures will ever be known.  The news is reporting that 4 indigenous people were killed in the clashes last night, and 50 tribal homes and shops have been torched (http://bdnews24.com/details.php?cid=2&id=154123&hb=top). Local reports from the area are that 12 people have been killed, and 350 homes torched. Both reports confirm that the army opened fire on the indigenous people.

I get so angry that this situation has been allowed to continue. That communities continue to be violently oppressed, their culture and traditions destroyed and their land stolen. The magic of this area is slowly being eroded and I wonder how long before it is totally destroyed. If I came back here in 5 years time, what would I find? Who is going to stop this rampant destruction of the diversity and rich cultural traditions of this area? Indigenous people need support, and it is time the international community stood behind them. Their struggle for survival should no longer be Bangladesh’s dirty little secret. It should be out in the open, where the sins of the oppressors can be clearly seen.

If you’d like to add your voice to the campaign, please add your name to the petition at http://www.cht-global-voices.com/. It will only take two minutes out of your day.

What’s with the chanting

… at 4:30am these days? Not just chanting, but chanting broadcast through tinny, distorted loudspeakers. It’s happening more and more frequently these days. I can’t figure out why, nor can I figure out a pattern. I could ask someone, but we all know how that conversation will end. In more confusion.

After the 4:30am chanting session, there is the 5:15am wake up gong for the students. And gong lives outside my house. Needless to say I’ve become quite the morning person here in Rangamati. So I do now actually get up at 5:15am, and potter around (read: spend time online drinking tea) until I either go to work or leave the house at 7am for photos (this 7am photo thing is for this week only). So 5:15am is fine. I’m used to it, and happy with it. But 4:30am? I’m not so much a fan. That said, I don’t hear the Muslim call to prayer from my house, so I’m at least saved from that. To be honest, I’ll take Buddhist chanting at 4:30am over the 5 times a day call to prayer any day. I like my little Buddhist bubble here.

In other news: The national airport and 49 other key establishments are being renamed (http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/latest_news.php?nid=22230). So Zia airport is to being renamed Hazrat Shahjalal (R) International Airport  No idea what the (R) stands for. And today there are protests by the opposition party about the airport’s name change. You see, they (the BNP) named it Zia, after their founder. And the Awami League are changing it following a High Court verdict, that any key establishments of the country will not remain after the name of a dictator (i.e. Zia). And then, when the BNP gets back into power, all the names will be changed back again. And then again in the following change of government. And so on, and so forth. It’s like kindergarten out there in the land of Bangladeshi politics. One might be led to believe that there aren’t more important things to be dealt with here…

The mosquitos are back

I spent most of my night catching and killing the 4 mosquitos I trapped in my mosquito net last night when I pulled the net down and went to sleep. Not really the point of a mozzie net, trapping them in…

I hate mosquitos. Surely the world’s most annoying creature. And most dangerous. All in all, horrible little things.

Mosquitos means that summer must be on it’s way. Balls.

The village madman?

I’ve taken today, and the next few days, off work so that I can leisurely wonder around and take photos of my life here. I was originally planning to take my last week here at the end of April as holiday to do this, but luckily I realised that if I tried it then I would either a) melt or b) spend all day inside my cool house and refuse to go out into the sauna.

So I’m doing it now. I was out the door at 7am, wondering around taking photos and drinking tea until about 12-ish. Went to local Buddhist temple, and just up and down along the areas I usually walk and travel. Now I’m taking a little rest over lunch time, and will head out at about 3-ish to do the same again (because the early morning and late afternoon light is the best). In fact, I’d like my future life to involve an early morning and a late afternoon of doing what I love, interjected with a restful middle of my day. It suits my body clock and my energy levels perfectly.

Anyway. So when I was in the little local village here, drinking a coke and showing some kids the photos I had taken of them, I had a very strange encounter with one of the locals. I’m still not sure if he was drunk, or is not all there, or has just been itching to share his thoughts with me. Right, so there I was, relaxing and laughing, when he walks up to me, waves his finger in my face and shouts at me ‘your sexual life is not good, not good’. Well he tried to say this numerous times, and in numerous ways, before I could understand him.

Ja, just like that. My sexual life is not good. Tell me something I don’t know buddy… I certainly don’t need reminding of that.

I don’t know what that was all about. And obviously nor did any of the locals around me at the time. Perhaps he is referring to the morality of foreigners? Surely not my personal morality since being here, my record has been impeccable (or disastrous, depending on which side you’re judging from).

It was all quite surreal, and then he stormed off. I’ll keep my eye out for him in future, and perhaps make an attempt to understand what exactly his beef with me is.

Things I must stop doing when I leave Bangladesh

1. Eating like someone is about to take my food away from me. I keep trying to get myself to slow down, and like, you know, chew my food. But I’ve definitely adopted the local style of eating as if in an eating contest. The faster the better.

2. Following on from No 1…I must stop eating like a pig. My table manners are now (almost) officially non-existent. I think it the (when out in public) eating with my hands thing. Hunched over while shovelling food, hand to mouth, does wear on the old colonial style table manners. I hadn’t really noticed how bad it had become until I was joined here in Moanoghar by another (non-VSO) foreign volunteer (Phil, from England, retired teacher working in the school). I actually get a bit embarrassed now and try to correct my table manners half way through a meal with him. This is not always successful. And no, eating with fellow VSO volunteers does nothing to highlight my bad table manners. After a certain amount of time here, all VSO vols end up eat like pigs. Having said that, I do now acutely realise how culturally biased the concept to table manners are. Surely there are more important things to teach our children in the west than ‘elbows off the table’?

3. Slurping my tea. Again, I blame the locals for this… It’s how tea is drunk here. It’s literally *sluuurp* and *gulp* followed by a little *aah* before the next sip. Sips come in rapid succession until all the tea has been slurped away. I’ve always been a secret tea-slurper (convinced it results in an all-round more pleasurable and tasty tea drinking experience) and Bangladesh has brought out the worst slurper in me.

4. Asking personal questions, to virtual strangers. The words ‘Are you Muslim or Hindu?’ often cross my lips. See, the religion dictates the greetings (As-Salamu Alaykum vs Nomaskar), and I want to use the right one. It’s easy with indigenous people as it’s Nomaskar all the way, but I struggle with the Bengalis. I now know the religion of every Bengali in Rangamati (ok, not quite, there are a LOT of Bengalis here. Separate issue). Another example of my personal-question-asking-problem: In Khagrachari district this weekend, there was a Bengali looking women, a friend of the (indigenous) people I was staying with, who had an indigenous looking child. My brain simply could not compute. I had to ask. Turns out her mother is Tripura (indigenous) and her father Bengali (a Barua, who are Bengali Buddhists). So she turned out Bengali looking, then married a Chakma, and now has a very indigenous looking child. In the British world, my questions would probably have been offensive (and potentially racist?), but here, no problem. Such information is well and truly open to public scrutiny.

This list should not be considered a definitive list of my acculturation* , and I’m sure it will grow (enormously) as I spend more time thinking about it, and about my reintegration back into polite society. But right now everything I do feels normal, it’s what everyone else is doing here.

* acculuration: cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture; also : a merging of cultures as a result of prolonged contact (thanks http://www.merriam-webster.com)

Amidst the dullness

… of matching names to photos, I discovered two interesting things today:

1) The child featured on Day 30 of my 365 project is called Hitler. Hitler Chakma (class 4).

2) Monks use Facebook. Fact. Watch my FB for new ultra cool monk friends.

(PS No, it’s unlikely I’ll make on-line friends with the monks. I’ll be forever worried about what photos they’ll find there. Not that I have any seriously scandalous photos on FB, but you know, they’re monks. They shock easy).