Many indigenous families have left their houses in the remote hills of Bandarban amid a series of law-enforcement drives against the ‘Bawm Party’ and the new militant group Jamatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya, affecting jhum farming in the region.
Many families in the ethnic Bawm community have not prepared the hill ground for jhum cultivation this year even though the appropriate season has passed. They have also expressed concerns over a looming food shortage in the area.
The farmers usually begin to cut down overgrowth on the hill slopes for jhum cultivation in February each year. The ground of the hills and shrubs dry up in March. The farmers dig small holes in the ground and plant paddy and other seeds there in April.
Apart from paddy, crops like pumpkin, cotton, sesame, gourd, chilli and maize are planted on the hills. Rice harvesting season starts in September.
The residents of the remote hilly areas depend on the rice they receive from jhum farming. Proper weather during cultivation helps many farmers get food for the rest of the year.
Uhla Mong Marma, chairman of the Paindu Union Council in Ruma Upazila, said Bawm people from the remote Arthah, Muyalopi, Bastlong and Munnuyam Paras have not cut the overgrowth this year in preparation for jhum farming. They said they would not be involved with the cultivation this year due to the unstable situation in the area. But he was not sure if more people from his area would join the stream.
“Many families in the area survive on jhum farming. They are running out of stored rice. Food shortages have already started in some neighbourhoods. The damage to jhum farming will intensify the food crisis,” Uhla Mong said.
Ruma Upazila Executive Officer (UNO) Mamun Shibli said he was informed of the situation but was hopeful as many farmers began to cut down undergrowth recently.
“Steps will be taken accordingly if a food crisis hits the area,” he added.
The army and the elite force RAB launched a series of drives against the members of the new militant group Jamatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya and separatist group Kuki-Chin National Front or KNF, also known as the Bawm Party, in Ruma and Rowangchhari Upazila in October last year. Several shooting incidents also occurred between the groups and law enforcers.
The RAB revealed the name of the new militant group, Jamatul Ansar Fil Hindal Sharqiya, in October last year. The law enforcers also reported a rare nexus between the Islamic militants and separatist groups in the remote areas that prompted them to launch a series of operations in the Chattogram Hill Tracts. The elite force also reported the arrest of 35 suspected militants and 17 Bawm Party members.
Many panic-stricken families from local Marma and Bawm communities left their houses in the remote hills and moved to the city for safety in January. At least 51 Marma and 20 Bawm families recently returned home after staying at the Marma Welfare Association hall room and Bawm Community Centre for nearly a week.
As many as 400 people moved to India for shelter from Ruma Upazila and nearby neighbourhoods amid the tension over drives conducted by the law enforcers. Authorities said it affected the operation of at least six educational institutions as well.
Mro Cha Aung Marma, a resident of Muyalopi Para, said he and his family left home in January due to anxiety tied to the shooting incidents. He could not find a vehicle and walked for three hours to flee.
“The situation can get intense at any time. Nobody went for jhum farming due to fear. In addition to that, the farming areas are quite some distance from the villages. Fear and terror have become a critical part of farming.”
Kranu Pru Marma, another resident from Muyalopi Para, said he has started preparing land over the last five days. Various troubles and situations in the area caused a delay, he said.
“By this time in other years, I have finished cutting the jungle to plant five kilograms of rice. But this year I just prepared enough ground for two kilograms. My target is up to seven kilograms.”
“Jhum farming is not only about rice. We also grow other crops to save money,” Kranu Pru added.
The residents of the Bawm neighbourhood said they faced no direct obstructions from any groups, but working outside their area was restricted in January and February. People panicked due to the exchange of fire as well.
Zira Bawm, chairman of Remakri Prangsa Union Council, said people in the area are bracing for jhum farming in remote areas, but admitted there had been delays.
Nahidul Islam, agriculture extension officer at Ruma Upazila, said the authorities will publish a report on jhum farming in the region in April and take measures against any damages.