By Devasish Roy-Wangza for AlalOdulal
About thirty-five of us – including six women and about ten local men porters – took a seven-day trek from Farua village within Farua Union (“For-ua” in Tanchangya), Bileisori sub-district of Rangamati hill district to Bethuni Para, Ruma sub-district, Bandarban hill district, all within the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in southeastern Bangladesh, from 22 to 28 December, 2011.The team included former Farua Union Parishad (UP) member, Jacob Tripura,
incumbent Farua UP member Athoi Mong (for part of the way), officials of the UNDP-CHTDF project led by Biplab Chakma (all CHT residents), staff of the local NGO, Taungya, governmental Health Department staff, staff of the Chakma Raj Office, and a few other development and environment workers and activists. UNDP-CHTDF and Taungya administer a number of development projects in the area.
Although some of us are used to trekking in the rough terrain of the Hill Tracts, others had little or no experience in this regard. The presence of experienced local guides made the job easier. Two governmental Health Department workers – a middle-aged man and a young woman – accompanied us, but no physicians. Both were hill people. The area has no hospitals or Health Centres, no roads or navigable waterways, nor mains electricity (only a few solar-powered panels were seen). Cellphone connectivity is absent in the greater part of the area. The UNDP’s satellite-linked walkie-talkie sets, carried by the accompanying UNDP-CHTDF staff (all of whom are hillpersons from the CHT), helped out. We needed a constant supply of boiled water, although several of the local guides and some of the trekkers drank stream water, when supplies ran scarce, but survived without any disorders (suggesting that it was uncontaminated and safe, at least at that time of the year; it is surely different during the rainy season). Negotiating parts of the difficult terrain was a challenge for even the most experienced trekkers. Going up and down the sharper slopes and narrow ridge-tops and ledges had its dangers, and thrills. Climbing was a strain for the spine, and back, thigh and calf muscles. Going downhill for long spells inevitably strained the knee joints, even of the younger people. A fall at places could catapult one hundreds of metres below; to sure death. Several of us, including women, wore shorts, which helped a lot, both for comfort and ease of movement.
Much of the route took us across streams, hundreds of times. At other times, we went along a stream or river, upstream or downstream. One had to negotiate between and among rocks, stones, pebbles and boulders, strewn along the streams, often mossy and slippery, occasionally exacerbated by the dung of domesticated bison (gobo, goyal; bos gauras), which used the same route. We had to choose between slush, mud, stone, pebble and water, sometimes indistinguishable, especially at nighttime (large parts of our treks were after nightfall). One had to carefully and quickly decide, where to place one’s right and the left foot, and our trekking sticks (mostly home-made, with bamboo or wood branches, although I had a “modern” one from Nepal). Such manouvres occasionally led us to swerve almost 180 degrees, without realizing it, and hence had to change direction again, usually not long after being temporarily disoriented and lost. This easily depleted our energy levels. Slipping in the gushing water had the risk of being swept downstream by the current. Slipping on the hard surface of rocks could also provide serious injury. Hardly any of us could avoid slipping and getting ourselves wet. Thankfully, no major injuries were sustained, not counting the numerous cuts, bruises, burns and sprains that we collectively accumulated.
POLITICAL & ADMINISTRATIVE BOUNDARIES
Most of the area we passed through and stayed in – except for the seventh and last day (28 Dec), when we were within Ruma sub-district of Bandarban – is located within the Reingkhyong Reserved Forest within Rangamati district. The area is bounded on the east by Mizoram State, India (including the Chakma Autonomous District Council area), and partly by Chin State, Myanmar (former Burma). It is within the Chakma Circle, headed by me in my capacity as the Chakma Chief. In its southwestern flank is Ruma, Bandarban under the Bohmong Circle, then headed by Bohmonggri Aung Shwe Prue Chowdhury (the incumbent, after the passing away of the former, and his successor, Kya Shwe Prue Chowdhury, is Engineer U Chaw Prue Chowdhury). The Reingkhyong Reserved Forest is supervised by the Department of Forests. This is the largest reserved forest in Bangladesh after the Sunderbans.
We passed though some of the most inaccessible parts of the CHT, and Bangladesh. Unless you have access to a helicopter or a seaplane (which can only land in Reingkhyong Lake), you have to go on foot. Several fold mountain and smaller hill ranges pass through the area. One of the few Bangladeshi rivers whose source is within the country – the Reingkhyong (known as Reingkhyongkine by the Marma, “kine” meaning lake; courtesy: Kong Chai Prue Marma) – passes through the area. They are generally too shallow or too rocky to allow navigable craft. Our highest point was around or near 2,000 feet (about 600 metres) at the junction of Keokradong and Saikotpara (the highest village in Bangladesh) within Ruma. We were above 1,000 feet (300 metres) several times, including when at Reingkhyong Lake, the largest and deepest natural lake in Bangladesh. This lake is often confused with the much smaller, and now easily motor-accessible, Bhoga Lake, within Bandarban district. Our route made us either wade across rivers and streams – the Farua, Reingkhyong, Ruma and several others – or climb up or go down ridges, or traverse hill ranges or trek along or across the lower slopes, often very steep. There are no plains here. We also passed through, or near, several hamlets or villages. We spent our seven nights in seven different villages.
FLORA & FAUNA
The natural vegetation includes large trees, although few in number – Samini Kattol (Chapalish), Civit, Garjan, Jarul, Simei Tula (Shimul), Koroi (Albizzia procera), etc – only in small parts (I am indebted to Philip Gain’s Stolen Forests, SEHD, Dhaka, 2006, for some of the botanical and zoological names used here). Bamboo is abundant, of different species. Rattan, cane and creeper too are plentiful. Once rich in wildlife and rich vegetation, the area’s biodiversity has dwindled. Several species of wildlife – including Bengal tiger, Indian Bison (Bos Frontalis), wild elephant and other large mammals once roamed the area. However, wild boar and deer of several species still abound, as do reptiles and several species of birds. We saw birds belonging to the heron family, parakeets (todek), and heard the dhuduhaang, and heard of, the hornbill (rhongrang in Chakma; the smaller species is ketketya). We only encountered the smaller denizens, including a few leeches and insects that had attached themselves to some of our bodies (an adali stayed on my neck for two days; I thought it was a growth!).
The indigenous peoples who live within this area include the Bawm, Chakma, Khyang, Marma, Mro, Pangkhua, Tanchangya and Tripura (only the Chak, Khumi and Lushai are not represented here). The people around the Reingkhyong Lake are mostly Tripura, from the Usui clan, and they are perhaps the most numerous, with the Chakma being the smallest group (although Chakmas are the most numerous hill people in the CHT). Several Mro communities have migrated from the Chakma Circle to the Bohmong Circle over the last four decades, and the few Mro settlements of the Chakma Circle are concentrated in this area, unknown to most outsiders. A Mro karbari (village chief) had walked for a whole day or more from near the tri-border area – India, Bangladesh and Myanmar (former Burma) – to pay tribute to the visiting Chakma Raja with a whole boiled chicken and traditional rice beer!
Almost all of the communities are dependent upon the forest for their livelihood. The streams and the lakes provide fish, shrimp and snail, among others, and medicinal plants. The vast majority engages in jum cultivation (swidden or shifting cultivation), growing rice, vegetables, fruits, spices and cotton. Most of the blankets are hand-woven from upland jum cotton, as are some of their dresses. Many also rear bison or gayal, known as ‘gobo’ in Chakma (Bos frontalis; known as Mithun in Northeast; its wild cousin is the Indian bison or ‘Gaur’; Bos gaurus). Sometimes the gobo are cross-bred with the common cow, whence they are called “tong goru” (hill cow, in Chakma). Cows, goats, swine and fowl are also kept. The only items that can be exported and marketed are animals that can walk long distances and cotton, spices and chilly peppers, which are relatively light and durable.
SOCIETY & CULTURE
Most of the peoples and their communities conserve their ancient traditions and maintain their age-old rituals, ceremonies and practices. Besides the elected union council member, their other leaders include karbaries (village elders) recognized by the Chakma Chief, and village headmen, appointed by the Forest Department (not to be confused with the mauza headmen, nominated by the Chiefs and appointed by the Deputy Commissioners). Although most follow one or other of the major faiths like Buddhism and Christianity, there are denominational varieties. For example, in one village, the Bawm and Tripura had their separate churches. Most of the peoples also often follow indigenous spiritual traditions, on their own, or in conjunction with one or other of the major faiths. There were substantive and subtle variations in the practices of the different clans and other sub-groups of each people.
The collective spirit is seen in almost all aspects of society. Disputes are resolved in accordance with customary law. Most of the social leaders were seen to be men. However, the role of the women seemed strong, if inadequately acknowledged. As in several other parts of the region, women were politically and socially marginalized.
ECOLOGICAL SITES: REINGKHYONG LAKE, PRONGANG WATERFALL, STONY STREAMS & RIDGES
The area is home to several rivers and streams, including the Farua, Reingkhyong and Ruma. The source of the Reingkhyong River is within Bangladesh, unlike most major rivers in the country. The headwaters of the Reingkhyong include several rapids and waterfalls. We were able to visit one, called the Prongjang; from the Marma words, “prong” and “jang”, meaning the ‘basin of the Mrigal (“Mahl”) fish’. After every few hundred metres or so on the prongjang (the Reingkhyong river, in fact) is a waterfall, varying in width from one 50-100 metres and varying in steepness. We only went downstream on the Prongjang for about half a kilometre and encountered several falls, the last one losing itself – temporarily of course – into a blue-green near-circular-shaped pool, about 50 metres in diameter.
We had to traverse, or trek along, several ridges, some of which are well over 1,000 feet or 300 metres above mean sea level. Google Earth shows Reingkhyong Lake at 1,167 feet above sea level. Perhaps the highest point we crossed was the junction of Ruma, Saikot Para and Keokradong, around 2,200 feet, within Ruma sub-district, on our 7th and last day (28 Dec). Saikot Para, the highest village in Bangladesh, inhabited by the Bawm, is situated on the summit of a ridge, as most Bawm, Pangkhua and Lushai villages traditionally are. It is said be located at 2,722 feet above sea level. I spent a night here in 2001, when I had visited Reingkhyong Lake and Bhoga Lake for the first time. Seeing the hardship of the women in collecting water from a stream hundreds of metres below the ridge, I said I would prefer not be reborn as a Bawm woman in my next incarnation! Keokradong, nearby, the highest peak in the country, has an altitude of 3,171 feet. I am grateful to Protul Dewan of CHTDF, Rangamati for the altitude statistics.
Colonial British officials were the first outsiders to visit the lake area in the early 20th century. It is said to be over a mile (in length and about 200-300 metres wide. There are various legends or myths about the lake. Several lakeside villages had to be relocated in the past as they were told in dreams to leave the village. There were stories of mysterious explosions beneath the surface of the lake. Apparently British officials were unable to determine the depth of the lake. Its water is not drunk by villagers, and not even by the Bangladesh Army personnel camped nearby. We couldn’t discover why. Villagers told us that the water of the lake is connected with the water of the nearby Reingkhyong ‘prongjang” falls; if the prongjang water is muddy, so is that of the lake. If the prongjang water is clear, so is it in the lake. Locals said that the colour of parts of the lake water changes every year, with dark grey, reddish or creamish hues. This time the lake looked dark, but apparently it will turn reddish in a few months.
On our 6th day (27 Dec), after our picnic lunch on the prongjang, we crossed the lake to Pukur Para – the other village on the lower side of the lake – by five or six bamboo rafts (“bazho bhur”). The locals are not familiar with canoes or other similar boats. We were toying with the idea of having the local trained in boat-making. Whether that will be wise, I don’t know. The edge of the lake was draped in seemingly unending clumps of purple-violet water lilies, standing tall, contrasted with green floating leaves on the dark water, in the softening light of the sun, soon to set over the western mountain range (Water Lillies in Europe float on water, while in South Asia, they bloom out over the water-edge). An image of paradise for many!
FRONTIER GUARDIANS: THE FORGOTTEN CITIZENS
The inhabitants of these areas – excluding a few camps of the Bangladesh Army – are the only manifestation of the Bangladeshi state here. These communities are therefore the virtual guardians of the Bangladeshi frontier in this part of the country. Many of them often have to make regular and irregular payments to non-citizens under threat of violence and incarceration. Residents of the lake area and its surroundings were able to exercise their voting rights for the first time only in the early 2000s! They had promptly elected Jacob Tripura as the first member of the Farua Union from the lakeside area, although the ward includes other areas too, such as those near Farua Bazar. Despite their role in protecting the frontier and in conserving the ecology of the area, these communities are deprived of their basic human rights, including livelihood security, health security and access to education, among others. These are the truly forgotten citizens of Bangladesh.
DEVELOPMENT STATUS, CHALLENGES & OPPORTUNITIES
The development status of the communities is worrisome, to say the least. State-sponsored healthcare and medical facilities are totally absent. The rate of mother mortality and infant mortality is generally higher than elsewhere. At Saralyasori, a Tanchangya village (Day 2, 23 Dec), we found a malaria patient through the help of the accompanying government Health Department workers, who promptly did a test and gave out medicine. (Local physicians eager to join us on the trip had regretted at the last minute because of the time involved, although several of them had previously joined me on the Reingkhyong Lake trip of 2001 and in other trips to remote villages in the Hill Tracts). A widowed mother had died recently, leaving several children orphaned, at the mercy of their uncle. Several of the married women and mothers with young children seemed to be in their teens. Such early motherhood is undoubtedly contributing to increased risks of maternal and child mortality and morbidity rates in areas with zero health facilities.
Saralyasori village had no school and villagers used the stream water for drinking. Diarrhea and dysentery were common. Tube wells and ring wells could be dug in some of these places. Water purifying tablets is another possibility, combined with awareness raising on the use of boiled water.
30-35 of the domesticated bison in Saralyasori had died recently due to cattle disease (9 cows died in nearby Sadarisora/Ulusori; visited on the 3rd day, 24 Dec). The bison were bought as part of the UNDP-supported CHT Development project. In one village, a local refused to sell a bull for 90,000 takas! However, just as we learned of success stories of UNDP-led development, we were also told of villages that had remained outside the project. Five or more villages have remained excluded, including Bairagyasori (unvisited by us), Raimongsora (visited), Saralyasori (visited) and Tinbaan (unvisited). I have since written to the Resident Coordinator of UNDP regarding these villages but do not know if anything will be done about them.
Raimongsora has a Buddhist monastery but no latrines. However, after interventions by the local NGO, Taungya, and its awareness-raising work, more and more villagers are using sanitary latrines.
The last jum harvest was poor in all the neighbouring villages, including Raimongsora and Sadorisora/Ulusori. Wild boar feeding on the jums was a major cause. Signs of malnourished children were clear.
Raimongsora has a self-financed primary school that was threatened with closure, as the villagers can’t afford to pay the salaries of the local teachers. Land settlement is not allowed within a reserved forest. This means that the Primary Education department does not allow registration of schools to receive state subsidies, following government rules and policies. This is the bane of the people of Farua Union, Bileisori sub-district, and that of Sajek Union, within Baghaisori sub-district in the northeastern frontier. (The government has reportedly decided to de-reserve some areas to take up primary schools administered by the Rangamati Hill District Council. We are planning to meet the Primary and Mass Education Minister to plead the case of the reserved forest schools run by NGOs and local communities. We are still waiting!). The local NGO, Taungya, administers one school at Bortholi Para and monitors the UNDP-sponsored development activities in the area. The church-run school in the area is only partly functional. However, a rising number of students from this area are studying at primary, secondary and tertiary institutions in other parts of the CHT, and in Dhaka and elsewhere in the plains.
The hospitality of the villagers was incomparable. They guided us along the largely un-marked route, carried much of our luggage with a smiling face and admirable strength, agility, endurance and patience. They provided accommodation (with soft hand-woven upland cotton blankets), sumptuous food (mostly organic: you can’t get that in the best supermarkets in New York city!), drinks (including rice wine from upland rice), welcomed us with fanfare and so much else.
The picnic at Prongjang Waterfall on the Reingkhyong River near the lake was perhaps one of the major highlights of the trip. Most of us had never seen such a series of waterfalls, all cascading to a succession of pools, which would compete with many lagoons, for sheer beauty; romantic couples and nature-lovers would give anything for such treats.
Encouraged by the sight of the village boys and girls slope-sledging and otherwise sliding down the hillside into the Pronjang pool, Biplob, Regan, Ringku, Dripta (Bappi) and I followed suit (recorded on video), using plantain (wild banana) leaves as a sledge. However much I also wished to swim, the ice-cold water deterred me. So Regan and I took turns riding a raft instead, standing atop it and savouring the sight.
Many of the visitors had a ride on nearby wrist-sized vines, using them as a swing, right above the fast-flowing water. Many broke into song. Several had the bath of their lives with the cold unadulterated water. The meal was delicious, washed down with rice beer, for those who cared to indulge in it.
Rafting across Reingkhyong Lake
Crossing the Reingkhyong Lake (Prongjang Para side) to the other (Pukur Para) side by raft was another unforgettable experience. It took about 30-40 minutes. On an impulse, I dived into the deep dark waters and swam awhile. Soon afterwards, exhausted by the trek and swim, I indulged in a brief ‘power nap’ on the slowly gliding raft. Blissful! Meanwhile, a few young local boys had approached our rafts in their smaller, but faster, raft, carrying lilies as presents for the visitors. Some of the ladies wore them in their hair. Some enjoyed the “sounds of silence”. Later, some started singing, while others made music with guitars. The Bengali film songs were particularly liked by the local guides and punters, as these were perhaps the numbers they were most familiar with (from the national radio, Bangladesh Betar?). They wanted to make the trip longer, but were gently but firmly dissuaded, as the Pukur Para hosts were waiting.
Negotiating the Rock Face Cliff
One of the most daring feats was the climb up an almost 90 degree rock-face cliff on the second day (23 Dec, 2011). It was at least 50 metres high. Some of our heroes and heroines (myself excluded) braved it. The only heroine was Sangita. The heroes included Protul, Subrata, Tanak, Chhanda, Dhiman, Regan, Sujan (Guring) and our “Wagri” (meaning “elder”, in Marma): Shyamal. They had to tread on very small carved-out steps, one step at a time, holding on to the few tree roots and vines, where available. Joyoti did start to climb, but was dissuaded by her other half, Protul. A small regret! Joyoti wishes to return to do the feat. Some day, perhaps.
Song & Dance
In almost every village we visited, we were welcomed by local musicians, singers and dancers at the village boundaries. At Pukur Para, at the lower end of the lake, middle-aged ladies welcomed us by leading us to the village wits dances, facing us, all the way (dancing and moving backwards, and often partaking of sips of a liquid, which some surmised to be rice beer!). They held two staffs: one mounted with rice-paddy (“dhaan”) and another with upland cotton (“sudo”, karpash) (“bhaat-kabor” in Chakma). Two teenaged girls led me by my arms till we reached the village. In the other villages, locals sang and danced, including young children. At Marma villages, the local bands met us at the village boundaries, belting out their best sound. In Tanchangya villages too, song and dance performances were made, especially by children and youth.
If not as graceful as the locals, the visiting trekkers also indulged in some limb slinging, pain or no pain. Chhanda, the photographer (“Camera Bahadur”) clearly stole the show at Bortholi Para and at Boitahani Para. His highly animated movements were contagious, bringing even the shyer people on to the floor, without any prodding, amidst ceaseless clapping, and much, much, laughter from locals and visitors alike.
There were spontaneous exchanges of songs in the evenings. Whenever the scenery became exotic, the trekkers turned into singers, however short of breadth they were, or however off-key they were. Most meals – including three “picnic” luncheons on rocky streams – were further enlivened by singing, accompanied by the guitars of Sujan (Guring), Ringku and Dripta (Bappi). However, the prize for singing – if there were one – would perhaps have gone to Kalo of Taungya, for his improvised special number, a parody of sorts, with the listeners breaking into peals of laughter, every now and then.
The Garlands & Necklaces
Hundreds of flower garlands were given to us at almost every village, usually of marigold (“sodorok”) grown in jums and villages. I remarked that next time, we must be prepared with stronger neck muscles to take the weight of the layers that were heaped on us. Some carried them on their necks for as long as possible on the treks, some finally garlanding, in turn, the boulders en route, particularly Sangita (“Bijoy Rani”). We also received several necklaces made of beads, insect wings and other locally available material. At one village, not content only with giving me a flower garland, an old lady spontaneously took a beaded necklace off her neck and put it on mine. It carries her affection and blessings.
Our Fragile Bones & Muscles
At the end of the day, our muscles and bones ached. Mukti – who carries extra weight on her body, which couldn’t be passed on to a porter – suffered a lot. But she kept smiling and pledged to return, with a lighter and fitter body. Sangita had severe knee pains on the last day and had to be helped by Protul, Jacob and other men. Dhiman lost a toenail or two, but was uncomplaining. UNDP’s Jhuma and Protul had blisters (“phozas”) on their feet, as did I. Some of us wore waterproof plastic shoes, without socks – which we acquired at Farua Bazar (you can’t get them in Gulshan or New York) – to negotiate the seemingly endless crossings on streams and rivers. When these shoes got water-clogged, many chopped bits off at the toe end, making perfect shoes, water-resistant, ventilated and comfortable. A few had chopped off the legs of their jeans to make improvised shorts.
Paracetamol & Rice Wine
The aches and pains at the end of the day were treated almost daily by Paracetamol tablets, often accompanied by locally-brewed or distilled rice beer or liquor (wonder what physicians would say about this combination). The hospitality and music also made us forget the pain. And our collective slumber was so restful the non-snorers late sleepers were not disturbed by the snorers. We were like Kumbhkarna of the Hindu myths; no sound could awaken us from our deep slumber.
Boiling Water in Plastic Bags & Bamboo Hollows
Our safe drinking water supplies en route – water boiled in the villages – were often depleted, with the dehydration caused by the extra perspiration. At one point the locals boiled water in plastic bags; and we learnt that plastic bags filled with water did not get destroyed or damaged by fire. Eggs can be boiled too, and rice cooked, in this way. However, a more environmentally sound method was soon given way to, after the plastic non-burning demonstration, and we boiled stream water in bamboo hollows, then cooled it in running the stream water before having the drink of our lives.
The Couple Visitors
Protul and Joyoti had the singular honour of being the only outsider couple to visit the lake area together as a couple in several decades. They were specially introduced by our main host, Jacob Tripura, to much acclamation. The second “couple’s honour” went to UNDP’s Biplab and Songbortik (“Songbi”). Biplab was part of this trek, but his other half, Songbi – absent this time – had earlier visited the Lake area, when she was working for the Taungya-UNDP project, and had not tied the knot with Biplab. This too became public knowledge to the locals, courtesy of Jacob.
Marma Runway Couple in Saalsora Para
At the Marma village of Saalsora, within the Chakma Circle, our tea host, the karbari, seemed very pre-occupied. Finally, mustering up courage, he told the assembly of his problem; his son had eloped with a girl from their village, but their relationship was allegedly of the kind (prohibitive degree) that did not allow marriage according to Marma (Regretsa group) customary law. When consulted, the then Bohmong Raja, Bohmonggri Aung Shwe Prue Chowdhury, reportedly advised that the matter be brought to the Chakma Raja as the area was within the Chakma Circle. I advised them to separate the couple, and said I would consult the Bohmonggri and senior Marma leaders on the issue (later, I heard that a council of senior Buddhist monks were called in. They had apparently made the villagers perform some rites, to absolve, propitiate and rehabilitate, if not please, all concerned, both human and godly.
Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for their Children (Speech in Bortholipara)
At Bortholipara, a local father told us of how some elitist and discriminatory outsiders had reacted unsympathetically to the expression of his wish for his children to study in good schools outside their area. We reassured him about the legitimacy of his vision and dreams for his children’s future. I reminded him that several successful individuals the world over had hailed from impoverished backgrounds and urged him to continue to dream and seek the support of non-discriminatory friends. A few students from the area were studying at the prestigious Notre Dame College in Dhaka. More could follow in similar institutions, with determination and support from friends and well-wishers. Hopefully, more women too, at Holy Cross College, and the like.
Orphans at Tiger Para
A widowed mother at Tiger Para had died recently, leaving several children orphaned, at the mercy of their uncle. The guardian was facing difficulties in providing shelter, food and other support to his numerous orphaned nephews and nieces. Some of the visitors spontaneously said they would consider adopting one or more of the children, or of sponsoring their education at the Moanoghar Orphanage School in Rangapani, Rangamati or elsewhere (ultimately, the offers was not accepted; the guardians, and perhaps the children too, probably preferred to keep the family together, despite their poverty). Stories akin to those of the orphaned children, of the man who dreamed of a good education for his children, of struggles, love and sacrifices abound. If only someone had the time and patience to listen, document and share them with the outside world! And more importantly, to support their endeavors.
SUPPORTING THE REMOTE COMMUNITIES
I am confident that the trekkers will remain determined to support the development initiatives of the Reingkhyong Reserved Forest communities. This can be done by helping facilitating governmental, non-governmental and UNDP facilities on drinking water, healthcare, sanitary latrines, primary, secondary and tertiary education, and livelihood, food and nutritional security measures. Other steps may include financing drinking water facilities, setting up occasional Medicare and health and sanitation-related awareness camps, subsidizing the salaries of teachers in schools that are financed and managed by the communities, sponsoring scholarships and stipends, in facilitating state support for their schools and in various other ways. This would be a good way to say “thank you” for the communities’ hospitality and friendship, and for preserving the security and ecology of the area. I would urge all who read this to do likewise, but of course, with the free, prior and informed consent of the peoples and communities concerned. These communities should exercise their self-determined ways of pursuing their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Hopefully, they will be able to preserve their identity, integrity and high moral values and collective spirit, and remain an inspiration for all others, who take development opportunities for granted or indulge in “development aggression”. The spirits of the mountains, hills, forests, rivers and streams will remain as witnesses, for ages to come, and perhaps the spirits of the ancestors of the area will bless them too.
The author is the Chakma Raja and Chief of the Chakma Circle, an advocate (barrister) at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh (High Court Division) and a member (currently Vice-Chairperson) of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. As a Chief, he is also an ex-officio member of the Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts. He is grateful to the following people for helping him with the article. Jhuma Dewan helped with names of people and places and with other suggestions. Protul Dewan provided statistics on the altitude of places visited; and Kong Chai Prue Marma helped with the correct Marma language names of places.