Starving Villagers Forced to Flee Bangladesh
DHAKA: The remote hill villages of Thanchi upazila, in southeast Bangladesh are only reachable by boat. Roads haven’t touched this region yet – a frontier between South and South East Asia. This hinterland is home to eleven indigenous peoples whose existence the government is keen to deny.
This is the untold story of how these communities are being forced to flee Bangladesh due to famine and starvation.
Villages here are facing a starvation crisis after last year’s poor weather and widespread vermin attacks left the harvest meagre.
The government has provided limited relief. More than 150 tonnes of rice have been distributed, but with several thousand people affected, this remains insufficient. The most remote areas have yet to receive any relief whatsoever.
“My family has been half-fed for days. Sometimes we eat jungle potatoes, sometimes we starve. The situation is like this for the last two months” Mro woman Rui Mon told the local media. These jungle potatoes are now also becoming scarce. She worries for her children, and grandchildren.
“Most of the people of my union will starve to death if not provided with food urgently,” said Mong Pru Aung, chairman of Tindu union.
While it is easy to blame climatic conditions for this poor harvest, the real cause is political, not natural. The truth is, famines like this happen almost yearly here. Local indigenous man Sumanta Khumi told The Citizen that “every year in summer, people face food crisis.” Yet nothing is done by the government to alleviate the situation, waiting instead until crisis strikes.
To understand the real cause of these famines, one has to understand that vulnerability is socially constructed. These people starve because they are marginalised, not because their crops failed.
Starting in the 1970’s, the Bangladesh government embarked on a programme of ethnic cleansing in the region, forcibly removing adivasi people from their lands and homes and replacing them with half a million Bengali settlers, accompanied by over 100,000 soldiers. The region remains one of the world’s most militarised places, and the adivasi communities here are some of the most underrepresented people on the planet.
For decades, indigenous communities have been driven further and further into the hills by land grabbing and conflict. As these communities have been pushed deeper into the jungle, they have become increasingly marginalised. The increased migration has destabilised the region’s ecology.
Thirty years ago families here could produce 70kg of rice per plot, now the same land yields less than 30kg, because pressure on land has reduced fallow periods by more than half. “These days land is not fertile. Previously we used to rotate every seven to eight years, now only three or four is possible,” explained Sumanta Khumi.
The land these communities live on is not only fast becoming infertile, it is also unrecognised by the government, who consider many communities to be living illegally on government land.
This marginal existence makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Many have to rely on moneylenders and tobacco cartels who trap these people in vicious cycles of debt and poverty.
The government is non-existent here. Many people report that they feel abandoned by the authorities, that is of course, when they are not being tyrannised by the military. The agricultural extension officer said he had regrettably been unable to visit the affected area this year.
The real cause of famine in Thanchi then, is not weather or rats. It is a state-sponsored system of marginalisation which for decades has driven these communities from their ancestral homelands and forced them to live in unsustainable ways. Land grabbing has alleviated Bangladesh’s adivasis of hundreds of thousands of acres of land, forcing them to live on ever-reduced plots. Driven to remote areas they live far beyond the pale of government support.
It is no wonder that last year nearly a thousand people left Thanchi for Myanmar. “The Myanmar Army gives them houses, cows and 2 acres of land to cultivate and food stocks every month” Hmui Swe Thue Marma, Chairman of Remakri Union told the Dhaka Tribune.
Sumanata Khumi and his family are also considering emigrating to Myanmar. He says that the government there is more hospitable than in Bangladesh. This marginalisation then, has not only caused communities in Thanchi to starve, but it is forcing them to leave their country and their homeland, forever. It is the latest development in the government’s historic drive to create a ‘Bangla’ desh, where anyone who dares to be different is excluded and cleansed.