Having a flat nose and small eyes has always been a problem in Bangladesh, but now there is fresh cause for concern for the adivasi people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. As Myanmar broils with trouble, Buddhists in Bangladesh are being used as scapegoats.
Here are a few acts of violence that took place recently in the community. I have personally talked to all of the victims or their close ones and am narrating their experiences.
A female university student in Dhaka who belongs to the Marma community was recently chased by local (Bangali) boys who allegedly charged at her with these words: “Why are the Rohingyas here in Bangladesh?”
One Chakma female university student had to get down from a local bus in Dhaka in the middle of the road before she reached her destination because she was bullied for her “Burmese-looking” face. In a school in Chittagong, when a science teacher was giving detention to a Buddhist sixth grader, she allegedly told the child: “It is because of you Buddhists that the Rohingyas are here. Why don't you share their pain as well?” In this case, the sixth grader did not even fully understand what religious and communal conflict is but was facing harassment from a teacher.
In another incident, an adivasi female driver in Chittagong went to a private hospital in Chittagong to collect her medical reports and was harassed by two Bangalis. Her attackers stipulated that adivasi people like her should be sent back to Myanmar, because “they are not from Bangladesh”—or so the men inaccurately claimed. Similarly, a Chittagong University student was lambasted as “being from Myanmar” by high school kids on the road.
Why would having a different religion or culture get a citizen of a nation cast out from his or her own country?
The culture of bullying adivasi or indigenous people in Bangladesh is nothing new. We are accustomed to the fact that we will face it our entire life. In the cities of Chittagong or Dhaka the most common word used to tease an indigenous person is “Chakma”, even though they may belong to any of the ethnic group living in Bangladesh. Recently, however, that word has been replaced by terms such as “Burmaiya”, as a result of the violence brewing in Myanmar.
The incredulous idea behind such bullying is that indigenous people in Bangladesh are somehow responsible for the situation at Rakhine state and are thus worthy targets of verbal or physical abuse. What makes this situation even more bizarre is the fact that many indigenous groups practice Hindu or Christian faith.
But our “Otherness”, apparently, lies in our faces. Adivasis are targeted for their facial structure, which is different from that of Bangalis. Our faces are the most conspicuous thing about us—the thing we cannot change and the thing that makes us vulnerable in public places. As a result, we people from indigenous and Buddhist communities who are residing away from our homes are living in constant fear of being subjected to verbal abuse, intimidation or physical attacks.
There have been anecdotal reports that many indigenous people who were working in factories and garments have left their jobs and are headed back to their homes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts because they think the environment is not friendly or safe for them to move around freely. Some indigenous students who are studying in different areas of Dhaka and Chittagong have expressed fear over attending classes. Many are being advised to go out in groups for protection from any sort of possible violence. We are afraid of getting assaulted or bullied anytime and anywhere when we step out of our residences, simply because we look different.
Sure there have been no casualties in the recent spate of discrimination—but why does blood need to be shed for our fears to be justified? The fact that we indigenous people are going through psychological abuse in our daily lives is concerning. If we claim that Bangladesh is secular and non-communal, why are we afraid to move freely, to attend our workplaces and educational institutions?
The irony of the matter is that these harassers are fighting communal violence with more hatred, discriminating against people of their own land in an effort to show solidarity against discrimination elsewhere.
Ukhengching Marma is a senior-year student of public health at Asian University for Women.