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.

Southasia - - Bangladesh - By Munir Ishrat Rah­mani

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.

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