Left to Burn?
The safety of religious minorities has remained a contentious issue in Bangladesh. The country now faces a precarious situation as Buddhist temples are burned by enraged Muslims over the picture of a burning Quran.
Whenever and wherever religious sentiments spark violence, reason takes a back seat. In Muslim countries in general and in South Asia in particular, its intensity becomes far greater. The recent agitation across the Islamic world against the controversial and blasphemous American movie “Innocence of Muslims” that mocks the Prophet (PBUH) is a prime example. A popular perception among other communities is that Muslims are more prone to losing balance when it comes to protesting and expressing their sentiments on issues involving Islam. They are far more sensitive and cannot demonstrate a degree of tolerance, which is normally associated with followers of other religions. The same sentiment was witnessed in Bangladesh where the traditionally peaceful Buddhist community faced the wrath of Muslims of the south-eastern border districts.
Tension is quite rare in Bangladesh between Muslims and Buddhists who number not even one percent of the 150 million population of the country. However, recent months have seen bitterness and Muslim sentiments aggravating against Buddhists following clashes in the neighboring state of Myanmar’s western district of Rakhine, between the majority population of Buddhists and the minority Rohingya Muslim community. The clashes left hundreds of Rohingyas dead followed by an exodus, forcing tens of thousands to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, despite the sympathy of the local population and support of the Muslim world, including the international Muslim body OIC, the Bangladeshi government of Awami League did not allow the Rohingyas to resettle in their areas, triggering mass reactions from the opposition. Against this backdrop, what happened in September then, was not entirely surprising.
The trouble started on September 29 when a Buddhist youth allegedly posted a picture showing a copy of a burning and damaged Holy Koran on his Facebook page. The insult to Islam’s holy book infuriated Muslims of the area of Cox’s Bazaar who headed in rage towards the Buddhist villages of Ramu, Teknaf, Ukhia, etc. The protest turned unruly when late in the day, agitators torched at least ten Buddhist temples and attacked their houses at night, vandalizing their property. The
situation became chaotic as the state machinery took considerable time to react and control the situation. By the time it came into action, irreparable damage had already been done. The Buddhist Monks fled the temples and houses to take refuge in the fields while the rampaging mob burned and caused damage to their properties.
As is usually the case in the region, the unfortunate incident was immediately politicized and rival political parties launched into the ‘blame-game.’ While the opposition leaders blamed the state machinery for stage-managing the show and allowing the agitation to gain momentum before making its entry to control the damage, the ruling party leaders blamed the opposition for instigating the attacks and inciting the protesters to destabilize the situation shortly before the next elections. Both sides sympathized with the Buddhists and condemned the sad incident. The BNP called for a judicial inquiry while Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina met a delegation of the Buddhist community to pacify and assure them of maximum punishment for the perpetrators of the “heinous” crime. However, she reiterated the government’s stand of not accepting an influx of refugees. Khalida Zia’s BNP had severely criticized the government for not accepting the Rohingyas despite the OIC’s appeal.
Historically, Bangladesh’s Hindu, Christian and Buddhist communities support the secular Awami League and the BNP suffered in the elections of 2001 due to this support. After strongly condemning the persecution of Rohingyas at the hands of Buddhist miscreants, the BNP lost further legitimacy in the eyes of the Bangladeshi Buddhist community. However, offered an “ideal” situation for exploiting and winning over the Buddhists’ support for the coming elections, the BNP became more vocal in condemning the attacks and calling for a judicial inquiry to grab maximum gain.
Buddhists were previously regarded as a peaceful community, ready to co-exist with other faiths. Most recently, however, a new trend of Buddhist racist nationalism and an element of aggression has emerged. In Myanmar, for example, following the attacks on Rohingyas by the hostile Rakhines (Arakanese), when US Ambassador in Myanmar, Derek Mitchel and his inquiry team toured the area, they were bluntly told that Rakhines were not prepared to accept Rohingyas on their soil or share the land as they had been doing for many years. Secondly, when the OIC tried to open an office in Myanmar, the local Buddhist population strongly opposed the move and took out rallies with banners reading “No OIC” to register their protest against the OIC that had supported the Rohingyas. President Thein Sein accepted the ‘demand’ of the people and disallowed the opening of an OIC office.
Strong protests were also staged by Buddhists in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar against the attacks on Buddhist temples and properties in Bangladesh. In Sri Lanka, angry protestors, organized by a popular Buddhist organization “Bodu Bala Sena,” marched to the Bangladesh Embassy and threw stones and hurled bottles at the staff. Present at the protest, a monk stated that, “We were tolerant but day by day we notice great injustice caused to Buddhists by Islamic extremists, we can no longer be patient.”
The local administration of the Awami League government failed to react promptly and nip the trouble in the bud that was readily exploited by the opposition. The sad incident was condemned by almost all sections of the population that regard Bangladesh as a model of a modern secular state. The particular incident tarnished Bangladesh’s global image, which prompted many within the civil society to demand an inquiry and punishment for the culprits, irrespective of party affiliation or religious divide. The government showed its readiness to hold an inquiry and compensate for the damage done to temples or properties to pacify the Buddhist community leaders who appeared to be ‘satisfied.’ However, not much is likely to happen as a result of the inquiry. Munir Ishrat Rahmani is a former Colonel of the Pakistan Army. He is a graduate of the Command and Staff College, Quetta and has fought during the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan Wars. He was stationed in East Pakistan during the 1971 conflict and is the author of a forthcoming book on Indo-Pak military history.