By Ian Finlay
I first became aware of the Chakma people in about 1975 when Survival International published a booklet entitled ‘genocide in the Hill Tracts’. It detailed the atrocities being committed against the Chakma and other tribals in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. I then met several Chakmas at a conference in Bangkok but it was not until about 2000 that I went out to visit them in their homeland.. A Buddhist organisation had been contacted by Chakma refugees in India and I went on a sort of fact finding mission.
The tribal people of Bangladesh, of which there are 13 main groups, had not done too badly under the British and the Chakma particularly had a high standard of education. Their main problems really began in 1945 when India was partitioned. The Hill tracts should have become part of India, but because of dubious political deals their land was given to Pakistan, the eastern bit later becoming Bangladesh. The Chakma have always been Buddhist, the other hill tribes dividing between Buddhism, Hindu, Christian and animist.
Finding themselves part of Muslim Bangladesh was bad news for all of them as land hungry Bengalis moved onto the tribal land and violent ethnic and religious persecution followed. Most of their best land and their palace was flooded when the Kaptai Dam was built and their way of life became unsustainable. Some half a million fled into India, where they mainly live in remote communities in the North-East hill states. Here they desperately try to survive, preserving their unique culture (they are possibly the oldest Buddhists in the world, some believing their name Chakma is a corruption of Sakya, the clan of Buddha. Be that as it may, they have a unique culture and language with its own script.
I found the people tremendously welcoming and friendly, many men and a good few women speaking excellent English, just as well due to my own lack of skill in the linguistic department!
One of the Indian states where many of the Chakma people fled was Mizoram and I was recently contacted by Sudip Chakma who has started an organisation with the delightful title, ‘The ultimate truth teaching mission’. In fact this is a fairly humble and small scale attempt to try to help the Chakma people in the area retain their culture and gain some form of education. Thus there is a school where the children can learn basic skills and some English, a vihara or small temple for religious meetings and practice and workshops to encourage traditional crafts.
When I was in the North-East of India I remember seeing the Chakma women sitting outside their huts weaving beautiful material on their handlooms, and also listening to wonderful music, so I was pleased that these skills are being encouraged along with modern education. I am hoping to make a reasonable donation to Sudip’s project (The Aberystwyth Quakers are collecting this month) so if anyone is interested in this project they can contact me or Sudip for more information or donate through me or the Quakers. I am certain this is a very genuine and worthwhile cause.
Ian’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.