Bangladesh Buddhists under attack

There is a heightening of violence against the minority Buddhist communities in Bangladesh, according to recent reports. This link gives the news, as well as a suggested list of actions.

I’ve known a few Bangladeshi bhikkhus, and know somewhat of their difficulties. There are a few minority ethnic groups in remoter parts of Bangladesh, who are traditional followers of Theravada Buddhism. Over many years there have been serious, but sporadic, incidents of violence and repression. Now this simmering conflict has boiled over, and the world just became a little less kind.

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29 thoughts on “Bangladesh Buddhists under attack

  1. Dear Ajahn Sujato,
    Sasana needs strong secular human rights frameworks and access to secular justice…thanks for bringing this – – another example of the sad plight of Bhikkhus in countries where rights and justice are weak- (China, Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, Bangladesh) to our attention…

  2. Some people face more difficulties than others. I hope that we all will learn about life and the nature of human beings from this sad incident…

  3. The Constitution of Bangladesh establishes Islam as the state religion. Just as in southern Thailand where Buddhists are being persecuted by Radical Islam, and just as in all those Islamic countries where Buddhism is illegal, the silence of the Buddhist world may have a lot to do with not wanting to appear to say anything against Islam.

    • @Marcus: Your concern for Buddhists around the world is admirable, but your comment here apparently speaks more out of your oft demonstrated Islamophobia than any compassion for oppressed Buddhists. Let me clarify two issues—one suggested and the other presupposed by your comment.

      First, Buddhism is not illegal in Bangladesh—it is legally protected under the Bangladeshi constitution. Second, the Buddhist world is not silent on the Bangladeshi issue. The apparent silence among the ranks of blithely monolingual white English-speaking Buddhists is surely due to a profusion of ignorance of this issue, rather than distaste for insulting Muslims. Please keep in mind that over the past decades, the Japanese government has appealed to the Bangladeshi government repeatedly regarding the mistreatment of Buddhist minorities. This leverage has in the past been enough to encourage the national government to effect local policy—even if the effects are regrettably temporary and at times merely cosmetic.

      The issue at hand in Bangladesh is a political one predicated on ethnic, rather than religious issues. While I have no doubt that you can provide me with a list of grave and violent injustices perpetrated in the name of Islam—I assert that you can find absolutely no proof that this Bangladeshi dilemma is one where religion plays a greater role than ethnicity and culture. This is the very reason why the Buddhist Chakma parliamentarian Raja Tridiv Roy chose to support Pakistan over Bangladesh during Liberation (Bangladeshi independence), a struggle that occurred due to cultural, not religious issues.

      I write at length is because it is important to understand the real issue here. Your concern that the situation is merely an extension of Islamic oppression is ill-informed and plain wrong—and any attempt to alleviate the situation based on your false assumptions will fail like a doctor attempting to cure a false diagnosis.

    • Thank you Arun,

      Though I take what you say on board, I suspect that what the Buddhist communities are suffering is pretty similar to what has been happening to the Christian minorities, where armed Muslim gangs have been terrorising Catholic areas in order to force land sales, while the police look on and do nothing.

      http://www.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=16252&size=A

      Unsurprisingly, the very same thing is also happening to Hindu minorities:

      http://www.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=16009&size=A

      Even a Hare Krishna temple has been attacked by a Muslim gang, demanding that the property be handed over:

      http://news.iskcon.com/node/2032

      And the background to all this is, of course, the fact that the radical elements in Islam are on the rise in Bangladesh, just as they are in all areas of the Islamic world, to the huge detriment of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and, of course, women.

      The worsening situation for Bangladeshi Muslim women (19 women recently arrested for not wearing headscarves, Muslim violence over a newspaper article on the veil, the recent public lashing of a 16 year old rape victim, etc) point quite clearly to an increase in the confidence of Bangladesh’s radical Islamicists – and it is that, above all else, which poses the greatest danger to the small Buddhist communities there.

      I do not know what the answer is. I applaude the intervention of the Japanese, and I’m also pleased to see the Bangladeshi authorities working closely with the British to try to stop the country become a safe haven for terrorism:

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/bangladesh-is-safe-haven-for-british-islamic-terrorists-1690127.html

      But I have to admit that I do fear for the future.

      Marcus

    • Just one last point,

      Arun, you say “Your concern that the situation is merely an extension of Islamic oppression is ill-informed and plain wrong”

      And yet listen to the words of army Captain Shohel, responsible for leading a group of soldiers as they ransaked a temple even while monks sat in meditation inside:

      “We will not tolerate any Buddha house here; we want only Allah’s house”

      This from an army captain. What a terrible situation. But how wonderful the monks inside, that sat in meditation and didn’t respond with any violence themselves, even while the main Buddha image was dragged away by the soldiers.

      May all be well.

      Marcus

    • @Marcus: It is immensely flattering to know that someone deems my words worthy of thanks and a response. Please do not consider my own response in this light. I respond for the mere reason that I fear a lack of response would suggest that I condone your misguided and ill-informed conclusions.

      In your response, you have given me a list of incidents that demonstrate that criminals who are Muslim have attacked minorities, that criminal justice system is ineffectual and that there is an increase in Islamic fundamentalism. These stories do not provide any proof that religion plays a greater role in the conflict than politics, ethnicity or culture—they merely reiterate what I already know. They show that criminals of the dominant Muslim Bengali culture are taking advantage of minorities (also assailed are the Muslim Rohingya minority), that criminal justice is corrupt (14th in the world) and that there are Islamists in the country.

      Your response has demonstrated little actual knowledge about Bangladesh. You neither speak, read nor write Bengali. Nor have you mentioned any discussion of this situation with Bangladeshi Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists. No knowledge of how the politics of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia differently affect the situation in CHT—I doubt you even know who they are. In spite of this overwhelming ignorance, you feel that you have enough information garnered from sitting behind a computer screen to come to a conclusion that the CHT stories posted on the Buddhist Channel are actually the result of religious cleansing by Muslims.

      Furthermore, your argument for “religious cleansing” is sloppily reasoned. You have failed to demonstrate that the religious element is disjoint from ethnic/cultural issues. For example, you fail to acknowledge that it is the Muslims of Southern Thailand who are feeling the brunt of the insurgency, with the majority of those killed being Muslim, at the very least this year. You can find this very fact in publications in Thailand—if you could actually read Thai. Buddhists who are killed are almost invariably ethnically Thai—and thus also symbols of the occupying power.

      Your argument has only attempted to imply guilt by association—a very crude tactic. You have not actually demonstrated how the evidence you dredged from the internet actually supports your Islamophobic stance. Nor have you provided any reason to deny that these conflicts are actually political or ethnic in nature.

      The issue in CHT is primarily one of occupation and oppression. Your mischaracterization of the situation stems from your ignorance of the context in which these events occur. Nationalist policy, institutional corruption and ignorance of minority rights are the driving forces behind the oppression in CHT—the fact that most Bangladeshi settlers are Muslim merely emphasizes the cultural chasm with the local Jumma people. It is not the driving force.

      Issues of politics, culture and ethnicity need political solutions that focus on bread and butter issues. Recognizing and protecting the rights of Jumma people to their land, language and self-determination is a solution independent of faith. Likewise is true regarding reform in the Bangladeshi government, police and armed forces. I have no doubt that the current government of Bangladesh has few good feelings towards Islamic militants—they were attacked at a campaign rally by Islamist militants not even five years ago. It also speaks volumes of the 145 million Muslims of Bangladesh that they voted overwhelmingly against the Islamist-friendly BNP in the most recent elections.

      But before you respond, if you care to do so, please spend less time behind your computer screen and actually talk with some Bangladeshi Muslims about what they think. There’s actually a small community in Bangkok. Maybe you’ll be surprised. (Trust me, they won’t kill you and burn your house down.)

    • Thank you again Arun,

      I fear I have taken up too much space here already, and so will limit myself to just one single point before thanking you, and our kind host, and leaving the discussion.

      My final, and single point, is to repeat something that you did not address in your last remarks, that the suggestion that this is religiously motivated comes not from conjecture – but from the self-declared motives of those involved.

      When the leader of the army unit that attacked a temple says “We will not tolerate any Buddha house here; we want only Allah’s house”, I think the reason for that attack is pretty clear.

      Sure, not all Muslims think like this by any stretch of the imagination. But I wonder if those words of his were ever challenged or retracted? I wonder if he still has his job?

      All the best Arun,

      Marcus

  4. It doesn’t do to ignore history and then shout discrimination.

    For example, Pattani province in the south is the Thai derivation of Patani from the Jawi تنا); its original name means ‘this beach’ in Patani Malay language. In standard Malay, it is “Pantai Ini”.

    Historically Pattani province was the center of the semi-independent Malay Sultanate of Patani Darul Makrif, but paying tribute to the Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. After Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese in 1767, the Sultanate of Patani gained full independence, but under King Rama I was again controlled and appropriated by Siam.

    In 1909, it was annexed by Siam as part of the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 negotiated with the British Empire. Both Yala (Jala) and Narathiwat (Menara) were originally part of Pattani, but were made provinces of their own. Satun (Sentul) and Songkhla (Singgora) were nearby semi-independent states.

    A separatist movement now exists, which after being dormant for many years erupted again in 2004. As Bangkok has sent Thai settlers and military, the movement has become increasingly violent.

    Pattani is one of the four provinces of Thailand where the majority of the population are Malay Muslim, making up 88% of the population. They speak the Patani Malay language. The Pattani Malays are very similar in ethnicity and culture to the Malays of Kelantan, Malaysia.

  5. Of course it is possible to match atrocity for atrocity — and, quite a useless exercise (who suffered more really, the Armenians or the Jews, the Khmer or the Chileans, the Muslim Rohingyas forced to seek refuge in Pakistan by the “Buddhist” generals of Burma or the (fill in the blank). Even keeping to a single historical period, it’s a stupid game that nobody wins.

    History certainly doesn’t excuse a million Iraqis dead, birth defects in Fallujah, or for those (1 civilian out of 3)being killed by drones (since nobody flies them, nobody is responsible for those deaths!) Do tell me who is afraid to kill children?

    • I think you making mistake here, the muslim Rohingyas are not Burmise, they are Bengali from Chittagong they are trained in chitagong by Saudiarabia to fight in Burma ant Thailand to destablize and establish Islam.

    • I find it funny that so many people are OK with the plight of the Rohingya being ethnically cleansed from Burma and mooting it as a Bangladeshi problem (implied if not stated outright). And the sole reason for being “OK” with this is because they are Muslims. Should the Bengalis of Bangladesh wipe out the Chakma tribe (majority Buddhist) as they are technically non-Bengali (the name of the land is BANGLADESH, after all). Ridiculous.

  6. “Of course it is possible to match atrocity for atrocity…”

    No,it is not. Not in the Southern states of Thailand at any rate. (Your comments on Iraq are surely irrelevant here).

    There have been some well documented cases of abuse of Mulslims by the Thai military, but the ongoing, almost daily, murder and religious cleansing in tha area is predominantly from the side of the radical Islamicists.

    Buddhists are not their only victims of course. Moderate Mulsims are also harrasssed and murdered if they are seen as getting in the way of the future Islamic state.

    It’s a very sad situation but, again, I’d suggest that there is no excuse for this violence and I applaud the Buddhist communities there who have shown huge restraint in not fighting back and, despite a sharp decrease in their numbers, attempt to carry on their way of life.

    Marcus

  7. @Marcus: You write, “My final, and single point, is to repeat something that you did not address in your last remarks, that the suggestion that this is religiously motivated comes not from conjecture – but from the self-declared motives of those involved. […] When the leader of the army unit that attacked a temple says ‘We will not tolerate any Buddha house here; we want only Allah’s house’, I think the reason for that attack is pretty clear.”

    It is not. You have demonstrated merely that the military leader is (1) Muslim and (2) is biased/bigoted against Buddhism. Your quote from an unaccredited news source does not demonstrate the reason for the attack.

    In order to understand individual instances, you must understand context. In everything that I have written above, I have carefully avoided denying that Islam plays any role in the situation. What I have instead asserted is that religion does not play the primary role. This is an important distinction. Let me step you through the logic. If Islam plays a primary role, then removing Islam from the equation would be the most significant way to change the situation on the ground. This might be accomplished by freezing the funds of Islamic militants, tearing down fundamentalist schools and arresting leaders of Islamist terrorist groups. (Actions which the government has already taken part in.) But this is not the case.

    The actual reason behind this violence is political, a point that you appear to refuse to accept. From before independence, the government led a deliberate program of cultural marginalization of ethnic minorities in Chittagong. This includes displacement by Bengali settlers, institution of a militarized zone and the refusal to recognize the human, civil and territorial rights of CHT peoples. These events set the backdrop for the incident which you linked to, one where a local military authority—a group the government is cautious about confronting after last year’s mutiny—demolishes an integral symbol of Chakma society and identity in order to advance its ethno-nationalist agenda through violent intimidation.

    In a location like CHT, where the lines of religion and culture coincide, it can be difficult to tease apart motives. But all the anecdotes that you have gathered merely demonstrate that the government-sponsored Bengali settlers and military occupiers are violent and intolerant of the indigenous people. The political and ethnic roots of these conflicts are all the more highlighted through the lens of recent history, of which you are complacently ignorant. Subtract Islam from the equation, and the ethnic and cultural lines would not be erased—temples would still burn. Your argument against Islam is self-serving and does very little to promote the legitimate cultural and material interests of Chittagonian Buddhists.

    As you have publicly declined further reply, I feel obliged to thank you giving me the last word in this exchange.

    • I deeply appreciate your taking the time to discuss the CHT situation at such length. While I have deep sympathy for the beseiged Jumma people, I recall my experience as a young teacher in the southern Philippines where the minority Maranao people, Muslims, were losing their land and their independence to Christian Filipinos from Luzon and the Visayas. There was talk of religion but at the bottom it was always the land.

  8. Religion is irrelevant in another case of horrific human rights abuses in Bangladesh. As fellow Muslims and even speaking a form of Bengali, the Rohingyas should be welcome in Bangladesh. But of course that is not happening. Am I naive to suppose that wherever one group’s rights are violated, all threatened? that we really ought to be concerned for all, not just our co-religionists?

    This from the BBC today:

    Bangladesh ‘ignoring plight’ of starving Burma refugees

    Rights groups say Rohingya Muslims have fled religious persecution

    An American medical charity has warned that thousands of Burmese refugees in Bangladesh are facing starvation.

    Physicians for Human Rights said government authorities are preventing the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, from receiving adequate care.

    It accuses Bangladesh of obstructing efforts to help the Rohingya, who have fled Burma to escape persecution.

    The government has dismissed the allegations as it did similar reports by MSF last month.

    Aid blocks

    The new report by the Physicians for Human Rights, “Stateless and Starving: Persecuted Rohingya Flee Burma and Starve in Bangladesh,” says children will starve if aid is not allowed to be delivered.

    It blamed the Bangladesh authorities for “arbitrary arrests, illegal expulsion and forced internment” of Burmese refugees, as neighbouring Burma prepares for elections later this year.

    The report described the makeshift camps for unregistered refugees – where an estimated 200,000 Rohingya are living – as “open-air prisons”.

    “The government of Bangladesh is absolutely ignoring it. They are sweeping it under the rug,” said Richard Sollom, director of research and investigation for the group.

    Many Rohingya fled Burma last year and were caught by the Thai army
    Denials

    “Basically, it’s the policy of the government that they simply want [the refugees] to disappear,” he said.

    Abdul Momen, Bangladesh’s representative in the United Nations, said this was “totally false”.

    “Government officials just have to make sure that any aid isn’t coming from terrorist groups,” he said.

    “We are the victims. The Burmese people have been kicked out of their country and we gave them shelter.

    “We are an impoverished country, and in spite of that, we tried to help them as best we can.”

    Apart from one or two “sporadic incidents” he denied that there was widespread abuse.

    Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said that claims of abuse were baseless and malicious and she asked the international media to stop reporting them.

    Desperate

    She also called for the UN to send the Rohingya back to Burma as soon as possible.

    The BBC’s Mark Dummett, in Bangladesh, reports that life must be dreadful in Burma for these people to choose to stay in Bangladesh – one of Asia’s poorest countries.

    Last month, another medical aid group, Medecins Sans Frontieres, also warned of a humanitarian crisis unfolding in a squatter camp where a growing number of Rohingya refugees now live.

    Another report, released by the Arakan Project, a Bangkok-based lobby group, made similar claims.

    UK-based aid group Islamic Relief Worldwide pulled out of Bangladesh last month because the government did not permit them to work with nearly 13,000 unregistered Rohingyas in the south.

    The Rohingyas are Muslims from north-west Burma who speak a dialect of Bengali.

    They are among the world’s least wanted and most persecuted people.

    Burma denies them citizenship and refuses to let them own land. It does not allow them to travel or marry without first seeking permission.

  9. We are Sri Lankanns. We must give up deplomatic relations with Bangladesh and help bangladeshi minorities. but GOSL (Government of sri Lanka ) has not a back bone.

    • @ Aruna: Should Bangladesh have returned the favour with the ethnic plight of Tamils? Remember the UN vote?

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