It’s the 21st century, and we’d all like to believe that the human race has evolved past petty racism or ignorance or at the very least a hatred for our fellow men. We have a black president, for goodness sake.
But intolerance for those different from us is still alarmingly present in the world today. Yes, we live in a country without dictators and with the ability to order a pizza faster than an ambulance. However — as harsh as it sounds — we’re only here because our settler ancestors kicked the Native Americans out.
Well, that’s in the past, you say. We’re all sorry it happened, but what else is there to do? Actually, you can do a whole lot for a culture of people that is experiencing the same sort of fate, right now. In the 21st Century.
“My mother woke me up by pinching my elbow,” he said. “Every morning she woke me up with a gentle pat on the back. But not that day.”
His mother feared the rising violence of the Bangladeshi government against the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, where Nyeu’s family lived. She’d told him that if she ever awoke him with that pinch to the elbow, he should get up quietly and follow her. That day, he got up silently and followed his mother on a 31-day hike through jungles, through marshes across the Indian border, where they became refugees.
The Bangladeshi government doesn’t recognize the Chittagong Hill Tract people as a part of the Bangladesh population, along with twelve other indigenous peoples. The military burned their villages down in a systematic act of ethnic cleansing. When their lands were returned to them later, the CHT people found their home was no longer theirs. Their choice was to become either become indentured servants on their own land or become refugees.
In addition to the absolute relocation of a whole people, the Bangladeshi government’s education system only recognizes one official language in the schools, Bangla. The indigenous children often speak three or four languages, but Bangla isn’t among them. The dropout rate is over 50 percent, starting at first grade.
Nyeu is working with CCPI’s Tim Brookes and CCPI itself to create textbooks in these children’s languages. They are producing workbooks and storybooks, saving these very precious languages that are rapidly becoming extinct. At the same time, they’ll be educating these children in an environment they can understand.
Nyeu’s schools are constantly in danger of being shut down. The purpose of his speech at the Book Festival was to raise awareness on the struggles of the indigenous people in Bangladesh. The more people who know him and would notice him missing drastically decreases the chance of a silent arrest. CCPI is also taking an active role in promoting Nyeu through social media, email listings, and a website presence.
For more information on Maung Nyeu, visit his nonprofit organization Our Golden Hour. There, you can learn more about his goals for the indigenous people of Bangladesh and donate to the cause. For more information on Nyeu’s work with Tim Brookes and the Endangered Alphabets project, see this June 2013 National Geographic story. You can also follow Maung on his twitter for regular updates on the Chittagong Hill Tracts Project, public speaking events and to find out how you can help.