An Interview With Chairman of Bawm Literature Forum
26 October 2007 – London, UK [CG Note: Bawms are an ethnic group, believed to be of Chin origin, living along Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. As one of many tribes in the three districts of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bawm has been actively engaged in promoting and preserving their own language.
In this interview, Lal Dawnsang Amlai, chairman of Bawm Literature Forum, talked to Van Biak Thang of Chinland Guardian about the Bawm, their literature movements and more … Married and blessed with one lovely son Christ Amlai, Lal Dawnsang is currently living with his family in London, UK. For more information about the Bawm, please visit Bawm website.
Chinland Guardian: In spite of being familiar with the name Bawm, many Chin people, especially from Burma, might not realize that the Bawm are believed to be of Chin origin as the Bawm live in Bangladesh. Could you tell us more about it?
Lal Dawnsang Amlai: It is not possible to mention the exact time, as there is no written document, when the Bawm started to settle in the present tracts (Chittagong Hill Tracts or CHT). But as per the writers and historians, the Bawms settled first in CHT and others tribes followed them. Liankung Bawi (chief/leader) led a group of Laimi (to the historians and writers they are known as Bawmzo, Bawnjugi, Kuki) to Chittagong Hill Tracts. He is known as a king to the group and also known as a bravery fighter and very intelligent person who could speak different languages. It is said that Liankung looks very smart and good looking.
The name Bawm means united or a basket. In the Bawm, there are mainly from six groups, they are called Miria (Mru), Khaileng, Lushai, Pangkhua and of course Laimi. And it is also difficult to say the exact time when the name Bawm is used for the identity of this group. Whoever called themselves Bawm speak the same language called Bawm hawlh (the language of Bawm). And this people believe that their forefathers came from Chinland or Chin Ram many years back. Even though they don’t called themselves as Laimi, at present, but they believe that they are from the same route as other Laimi people in Chinland and also they bear the same history and culture.
The Bawm language is very similar to Laimi hawlh that is spoken in Thlantlang, Halkha and Falam. But due to lacking of direct communication and many other barriers like international border between Burma and Pakistan and then Bangladesh for years, there are some differences in accent and words that are used. Apart from this, almost all of the words are similar.
There are also differences in using alphabets i.e. the Bawm use Mizo State’s style Roman script (A, AW, B, CH) and Chinland used different style of Roman script (A, B, C).
Chinland Guardian: Again, we are interested in getting to know more about the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the peoples living in the districts.
Lal Dawnsang Amlai: Chittagong Hill Tracts is the place of Bawm, Pangkhua, Lushai, Khaileng (Khumi), Khiang, Mru (Miria), Chak, Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tonchongya. Bawm, Pangkhua and Lushai’s culture and history are alike. Only different amongst them are the languages that they speak. They use a bit different dialect not like the Bawm language. But it is not very difficult to learn and understand them. Though many of Miria and Khaileng are amongst the Bawm, again many of them bear the Miria and Khaileng identity nationally. And they also carry different religion, culture and languages. They have their own religion but many of them follow Christianity. On the other hand, hundred percent of the Bawm, Lushai and Pangkhua believe in Christianity.
Chinland Guardian: What is the main language spoken among the Bawms? Do you think there is any similarity or a close relation with any Chin dialects spoken in Burma?
Lal Dawnsang Amlai: Yes, of course. Bawm is the main language spoken among the Bawm. I will say most of the dialects are very similar to the one spoken by the Laimi in Chinland. But the only difference is in action and placement of the word, like: Na dam ma (how are you) in Bawm is Na dam ko lo ma in Chin.
But it is also true that if you are the first listener you might find it a bit difficult to understand but if you concentrate to realise, you can understand it easily. The easy way to understand quickly is ask what and where you don’t understand then it will be alright (laugh).
Chinland Guardian: Could you tell us about Bawm Literature Forum (BLF: http://bawm.info/) and its activities in the literature movements as well as its plans in future?
Lal Dawnsang Amlai: Bawm Literature Forum was founded in 2004. Its aims and objectives are:
• To promote the Bawm language and literature, to preserve the myth, story, legends, ethnology, history, dance, drama, music, history;
• To save the Bawm language from all sorts of language aggression through its publication and other means like khawmpi (seminar), campaign, workshop, etc.
Chinland Guardian: We have learned that BLF publishes a magazine called Bawka Rili on a regular basis. We would love to hear more about it.
Lal Dawnsang Amlai: Yes, BLF tries to publish a magazine called Bawka Rili on a regular basis but it is not being continued as hoped. We will try to keep publishing on a regular basis in future. Writers should be mainly from Bawm/Chin people. The topics to be preferred should be related to the aims of BLF but it can be different. It may be any interesting write-up i.e. education, poetry, drama, general knowledge and any special features to attract the readers, but the editorial board will decide on it. Among other writers, we would mainly like to encourage young people to come up and contribute through their articles. As a result, the young people can find the interest and pleasure amongst their language and culture. Bawm, Chin and English languages can be used for Bawka Rili.
Chinland Guardian: What is the most difficult situation BLF has faced in terms of promoting and preserving the language as there will be some other languages such as Bengali which is, for instance, much more advanced and the official language of the country?
Lal Dawnsang Amlai: You are right. To keep the same pace with the official language of the country like Bangla is quite difficult. In the school everything is taught in Bangla language and English subject is kept to learn the English alphabet mainly. There is no chance of learning the Bawm language in the government running school but the Bawm (A, Aw, B, Ch) is taught in the Sunday school in the church by youth volunteers. In the church the sermon is given purely in Bawm language. And the music is also played in the Bawm language which gives the new generations to familiarise with the culture and language of the Bawm.
And very recently Ministry of Cultural Affairs of Bangladesh government and Tribal Cultural Institute of Bandarban jointly launched the book which is written in Bawm hawlh for primary school students (for Bawm Students only) in Chittagong Hill Tracts. As a result, the Bawm students will get the opportunity of learning their own language.
Chinland Guardian: Has BLF got any relationship with any Chin literature groups or organisations in Burma and abroad?
Lal Dawnsang Amlai: Officially, we do not have any relationship with any Chin literature groups or organisations elsewhere but we know them. We do hope and will be happy to keep strong relationship with above groups in future which is one of our main targets.
Chinland Guardian: In Burma, the military regime uses the so-called burmanisation to exert their dominance over the ethnic nationalities. It is believed that this is mainly the regime’s way of ethnic cleansing in terms of culture, religion and so on. One example of their implementations of this policy is to stop learning and studying our own language (dialect) at school. Do you have anything like that in Bangladesh?
Lal Dawnsang Amlai: There are more or less similarities in both government policies. Bangladesh is called as a ‘democratic’ country but in practice it is different. The government main policy is always based on islaminization and second is Islamic-Bengalinization and ultimately the application of rules and regulations is different for minority groups. The minority groups are un-officially known as a second class citizen in its own country. The law enforcement organisations always act on behalf of the majority Muslim groups. Any member of minority groups always feels some sort of insecurity and danger of life, though they don’t express their feelings in public.
The ethnic cleansing policy has always been active in Chittagong Hill Tracts, and also other parts of Bangladesh.
The huge military presence in Chittagong Hill Tracts is one of the live examples of government’s ethic cleansing policies. The armed forces are kept in CHT to protect the illegal Bengali Muslim settlers illegal rights, and also to capture all the indigenous/tribal people traditional land and to transform those into Military training camp, artillery centre, air force training centre, cantonment and gucchagram (a big village for an illegal Muslim settlers) etc.And this is the military on going programme.
They clearly said that they didn’t need CHT’s hills people but their land only. They need more land for Bengali Muslim people so military presence in CHT is their first priority to achieve their target.
Bangladesh armed forces and illegal Bengali Muslim settlers have been occupying CHT’s tribal land for many years. This process has been started since the beginning 80’s. They have illegally been occupying thousands acres of land from tribal people which will never be returned.
Please have a look how Bangladesh government and Bangladesh army acquired land for their interest: In March 2007, Ruma cantonment acquired about 7570 acres of ancestral land of indigenous peoples for extension of Ruma garrison and ordered more than 400 families of indigenous peoples families to leave the area. In Bandarban district alone, 40,077 acres of land have been given in lease to the illegal settlers while a total 94,066 acres of land were acquired for so-called afforestation projects and 75,686 acres were acquired for establishment of military bases in the district acres of land from Ruma Upazilla in Bandarba (Ruma is Bawms populous area).
It has been protested by the ethnic minority groups since the beginning of this policy but they never try to listen to it but to requisite the land whatever way they can. And they did it. Their next target is to make the ethnic minority groups live harder in the area by implementing harsh military role. And CHT has always been ruled by the military since the inception of Bangladesh. And the influx of Bengali Muslim illegal settlers into CHT started from the beginning of 80’s. Jointly armed forces and illegal Bengali settlers have been doing unbearable things for CHT indigenous tribal peoples.
Chittagong Hill Tracts has its own Act (Chittagong Hill Tracts Act 1900) which is passed by British Government. And CHT had been ruled by this Act for many years in the past.
Chinland Guardian: We learned that you as chairman of BLF spoke at the UN’s 3rd session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2004. What was your message?
Lal Dawnsang Amlai: It was mainly about two issues: The Bawm peoples interest and rights in CHT of Bangladesh, and the Bangladesh government’s bad policy in CHT. Please see http://bawm.info/ for more information.
Chinland Guardian: What kind of identity and symbols (emblems) have you got to represent Bawms as a whole?
Lal Dawnsang Amlai: Hornbill is the one that is used on the front cover page of the Bawm Social Council’s constitution (Danbu) book. I should say that is the identity and symbol of the Bawms. Menrihawi is the flower that we use as the symbol that represents our identity and culture.
Chinland Guardian: Thank you for your time and talking to us.
Lal Dawnsang Amlai: Thank you very much for giving the chance to share about the Bawm in Bangladesh.