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Threatened families find homes in Korea

Jumma people open library to preserve their culture here

A group of threatened peoples have found a home in a rural Korean town after escaping persecution in their homeland.

The Jumma ― who form the 11 tribes of the rugged Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh ― have been fleeing their homes after suffering government-condoned abuses.

Rights groups have reported decades of persecution, including land-grabbing following the creation of Bangladesh 40 years ago. Tribe protection NGO Survival International reported how the new country’s military burned villages to make room for Bengali settlers, raping, torturing and murdering people in the indigenous farming communities.

After their people were persecuted by settlers and pushed from their own land, 60 members of the minority group have settled in the Yangchon district of Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province. They are now forming a community to nurture their families and culture in Korea.

The group of refugees opened the country’s first Jum Library last week in a bid to give their children a firmer footing here through education. 
Ronel Chakma Nani, one of the first Jumma people to arrive in Korea, stands outside the new Jum library in Yangchon, Gyeonggi Province.
Ronel Chakma Nani, one of the first Jumma people to arrive in Korea, stands outside the new Jum library in Yangchon, Gyeonggi Province.

Ronel Chakma Nani, one of the first Jumma to arrive in Korea in 1994, helped set up the Jumma People’s Network Korea to support other refugees here.

“We the Jumma in Bangladesh are racially discriminated against,” he said.

“The Bengali ruling nationality is quite different from us in terms of language, culture and religion. We are very different in all aspects, we have been discriminated against very much. On the contrary, Korea is very similar to us in the case of religion as a historically Buddhist country and racially we are similar too. Even the food culture is similar. There are many similarities between Korea and the Jumma people.

“The most influential factor was that we got to know about Korea’s democratic and economic progress, we could tell that this would be a better place to live.”
Jumma mothers hold their children at the new Jum library in Yangchon, Gyeonggi Province. (Kirsty Taylor)
Jumma mothers hold their children at the new Jum library in Yangchon, Gyeonggi Province. (Kirsty Taylor)

The Jumma tribes indigenous to the CHT region of Bangladesh have been persecuted since the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent.

Although the 650,000 non-Muslim Jumma people made up 98.5 percent of the CHT population, in 1947 the British ceded the region to become part of Muslim East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh.

The Jumma have suffered since the country won its war for independence with Pakistan in 1971, becoming victims of Bangladeshi government-sanctioned persecution.

Ronel, who owned a pharmacy business in Bangladesh, fled the country after being “involved in activities against the government” that was persecuting his people.

“I have a long history,” he said. “In 1986 I was arrested by the army. I was in jail for three years. Even after the peace accord I was supposed to be arrested, but I failed to be prosecuted.”

He first came to Korea alone in 1994 but returned home after Jumma rebels and the Bangladeshi government forged a peace agreement in 1997. However, he returned here in 2000 because “the human rights violations did not cease, they just took a different form.”

He has been living in Yangchon since then, and was joined in 2003 by his wife and son, who is now 11 years old and attending Korean school.

Ronel, who worked as an English teacher after gaining refugee status here and is now assisting a Hangyang University professor, wants to raise awareness about and preserve the culture of the Jumma people for his son’s generation and beyond.

“When I started Jumma People’s Network Korea our members were very few,” he said.

“Our objective is to protect the Jumma people so that we can help each other, teaching our culture, language and tradition, and to protect our nation from extinction.

“Initially we made a center for ourselves but we hope we can increase the size of the library in a bigger building with many books that we can share with the people in this community. That way we can have cultural exchange with the people living around this area.”

The library has been assisted by Korean rights group Human Asia and stocked by BIR Publishing and Kinderland publishers, who both donated 1,000 books each, including Korean and English children’s texts. Stationary company Monami contributed pens and art supplies while Global Health NGO MediPeace has helped renovate the JPNK headquarters and five refugees’ households following rain damage this summer.

Though the small community is well settled now, 13 of the 60 Jumma in the Gimpo area are still waiting for the Korean government to grant them refugee status.

The wait, which lasted two years for Ronel, is a time when a displaced person is not permitted to work or claim any kind of financial support from the government.

“We just survived by ourselves on the grace of God,” said Ronel.

“I think that the Korean government still has to do a lot of things. The refugee policy of Korea should be equal to the international standards so that refugees in Korea can live like in EU countries.

“We have had a lot of problems until now. Even if you get refugee status, the government doesn’t give you any kind of support to resettle economically or socially ... my son can go to school but they should provide education not only to the children but to the families to help them fit into Korean society.

“As a result, we cannot change our lives economically or socially. We remain refugees.”

However, he noted that the people around him had grown welcoming to his group since he came as one of the first handful of Jumma people to enter Korea.

“At first, the people here were not rude or bad to us but we recognized a rural sentiment (in the Yangchon area).

“They liked to keep to themselves and they didn’t want to mix with foreigners, but now we have a lot of communication here and a lot of people support our cause. They understand our plight.”

While Ronel’s ultimate wish is to return to his homeland if the conflict there can be resolved, for now he and his people are happy to call Korea their home.

By Kirsty Taylor (