Last weekend I ditched the 'relax at home' or, as I like to call it, 'be a hermit until Sunday' philosophy by taking up my co-worker Tun Nyo's offer of heading to the hills (or more like the palm-lined villages) for a personal tour of temples, old friends and the land his family used to live on. Can you tell a story's brewing?!
11am found me in the familiar territory of a gaudily-decorated, definitely road-unworthy South Asian bus. Ah, home. A jolting half hour ride later I was still revelling in the dirt and music and 'real' air that was pummeling in the window - a nice break from the air-conditioned life I live in otherwise. We disembarked and found a cycle-rickshaw - a prettily painted chariot with room atop for exactly 1.5 people - a rule rarely observed. Tun Nyo and I made a pretty lame attempt at breaking the rule, given there were only two of us, but we were soon making our merry way down quiet brick-paved lanes through palm-forest.
Amongst the spindly trunks, a Buddhist temple loomed, its wooden floors getting smaller with height - vying with the trees for access to the sky.
As we disembarked, Tun Nyo muttered something about having a special connection to this forest-bound building. For those of your rolling your eyes, I soon discovered that this was not in any hippy spiritual way. It turns out he's on the management committee and that his Great Great Grandfather built it. Oh, right.
Tun Nyo is Rhakhine. According to him, the Rakhine people are the original inhabitants of Arakan, which was its own kingdom before the British ‘misheard’ it and re-pronounced it ‘A-bit-in-British India-,-a-bit-in-Burma’. There is still a sizable population of Rhakine people in Bangladesh, but the majority fled to the Burmese part during the Liberation war of 1971, when Bangladesh was borne from the burning loins of East Pakistan. At that time, Tun Nyo’s parents were among those who fled with their families across the physical border (mentally, it doesn’t exist - it’s all Arakan) to stay with relatives living in present-day Myanmar. Tun Nyo was a refugee feotus. He didn’t put it on his CV for his job with the UNHCR, but thinks that in some ways it helps him understand the Rohingyas! During the war, much Rhakine property in the area was seized by (West) Pakistani
troops as barracks. Once Bangladeshi sovereignty had been declared and the Pakistani troops had left, the Rhakine properties they surrendered were commandeered by the new government as ‘enemy property’. Within a year they had been redistributed to Muslim Bangladeshi families. Over the next months and years as the Rahkine Buddhists crept slowly back to their homes, they found them unarguably occupied. It was in this way that Tun Nyo’s mother lost her beloved family home, which lies directly next to the temple. Nowadays, all that remains of the Rhakine’s in this specific area is the temple they still upkeep and visit. A Buddhist heart nestled in a Muslim community.
Ten minutes by cycle-rickshaw and we found our way into the area where the returned Rhakines set up homes in the shadows of their old ones. Here we stopped at a friend of Tun Nyo’s for a lunch of rice, meat and rice wine (a pretty heady combination for 2pm!). Tun Nyo’s friend was in a spot of bother with the authorities. His crime? - buying a motorbike and an air-conditioning system in the same month. Over lunch they explained; Since the collapse of elections In January (where the EU
monitors walked out on the shambolic affair), Bangladesh has been run by an interim (unelected) government, which is looked upon kindly by the people. The fall-down of democracy in the country was largely due to the huge amounts of corruption perpetuated by both political parties and anybody with any vested interest in the election outcome. Bangladesh is corruption capital of the world - a place where the rule of baksheesh (bribes) is often more powerful than the rule of law. The interim government plans to change that. In the past 6 months, hundreds of people once thought to be beyond the law have been put in jail. In a country where money does not grow on trees, or even from hard honest labour, but is more usually found through back-street enterprises, feckless banking procedures and countless counterfeit places, buying two luxury items in one month now brings the suspicious eye of the law onto your household.
The whole day, Tun Nyo’s phone hadn’t stopped ringing, as news spread and one by one the various Rhakine families in the village heard of his presence. I discovered that despite the proximity to Cox’s Bazar, and despite his obvious love and enthusiasm
about the place, this was Tun Nyo’s first visit to Ramu in over 10 years. After lunch we dropped in to see another of his friends, a lovely girl appropriately named ‘Beauty’, who seemed to be battling with the joy of seeing him again, and anger that it had been so long. When I asked him afterwards why he’d left such a long time between visits, he looked up surprised, opened his mouth to say something, then stopped. Telling me facts and figures of an in-depth Rhakine history is one thing, but divulging an in-depth personal history is quite another. All the way home I was quietly preoccupied, thinking of all the possible explanations, as we took the rickety bus back through the dusk to the town and the noise and the lights of ‘Coxshe's Bajar’
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