Bangladesh Buddhists Live in the Shadows of Rohingya Fear
By Kalinga Seneviratne
COX BAZAAR, Bangladesh – Most of Bangladesh’s 1 million Buddhists live in Chittagong (now officially known as Chattogram), Chittagong Hill Tracks and here in Cox Bazaar areas. The latter is home to the teeming Rohingya refugee camps sheltering those who fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state since the 2016 skirmishes with the Burmese military. Over an estimated 900,000 Rohingyas are sheltered here in what is believed to be the world’s largest refugee camp today.
The Buddhists of Cox Bazaar area make up about half the Buddhist population of Bangladesh, whose state religion is Islam. With attacks on 29 Buddhist temples in 2012 that house numerous Buddha artifacts and statues still fresh in their minds, the Buddhists are living very much under the shadows of a fear of Rhoyingya attacks.
Most of the temples attacked in 2012 are in the Ramu area here, that are today protected by armed police guards at the entrances. In the 2012 attacks, the mobs burned old wooden Burmese style pagodas, old Arakan Buddhist texts and stolen gold Buddha statues. Buddhists here widely believe that the attacks were instigated by Rohyinya Muslims who infiltrated across the border from Myanmar.
A Burmese Arakan style wooden temple – Lamar Para Monastery – in a village area of Cox Bazaar that escaped the burning of the temples..
“Because of Rohingya issue, there is pressure on the local Buddhist community,” Bangladeshi Buddhist leader Dr Bikiran Prasad Barua told Lotus News Features. “Sometimes Rohingyas come out of camps and try to create problems. But the government is alert and gives the Buddhist community protection,” he added.
Buddhism was at one time practiced widely in what is called Bangladesh today. Buddhists here believe that Gautama Buddha has visited the region during his lifetime. Professor Dipankar Srijnan Barua in his book ‘Buddhists and Buddhism in Bangladesh’, says that Buddhism flourished in Bangladesh until the 12th century and after that “Buddhism faced many calamities”, yet the Buddhists of the Chittagong area, especially the Barua community has kept it alive.
Dr Dipankar says that out of the 3500 monks in Bangladesh, Barua community account for over 1500 of them, and out of the 3000 monasteries in the country, 1200 of these are in the Chittagong and Cox Bazaar area.
Baruas are descendants of Buddhists (and Hindus) who originally came from Magdhada (now known as Bihar state in India) and settled in the Chittagong area and married into Arakan Buddhist families from Burma (Myanmar). Today Baruas are a well-to-do Buddhist community in Bangladesh with many of them professionals such as doctors, engineers, teachers, etc.
“Chittagong used to be a kingdom of the Arakans. This is how Buddhism developed here,” explains Dr Bikiran, who is a retired Physics professor. “(But) those links (with Myanmar) are not very strong now,” he adds.
The Arakan Burmese influence is very apparent in the temple architecture and rituals of the Buddhists here. This could also be a conduit for attacks on temples by Muslims who may resent the treatment of Rohingyas in Myanmar as reported by the media.
In a commentary written for Daily Star in 2017 at the height of such reporting, Buddhist barrister Jyotirmoy Barua argued that prominent international media such as BBC, Al Jazeera and Time have focused on a “reductive version of events simply focusing on religion” and that such reporting has a negative impact on the Buddhist community in Bangladesh.
He challenged the allegations by such media of Rhoyingyas being targeted simply because of their religion, by pointing out that there are larger communities of Muslims living in Myanmar, who do not get similar treatment by the rulers of Myanmar. He alleges that it is such reporting which instigated Muslims to attack temples in Ramu in 2012.
Recalling that faithful day in 2012, a senior monk at Ramu Simar Vihar told Lotus News Features: “They came at eleven at night. They set fire to wooden building. They took all the money in the donation box. They took 2 Buddha statues which were made in gold”. He also added that “five hundred year old scriptures were destroyed and burned. It documented Arakan Buddhist heritage of the region”.
Another senior monk, Bhante Piyaratana, added that when the attackers came they tried to pour kerosene and set fire to the bronze sleeping Buddha statue and damaged the marble statue by using hammers.
Damaged Marble Buddha Statue Photo Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne
The senior monk also told Lotus News Features that before the attacks the local Muslims used to come to his temple to get blessings. “(So) we were very hurt from the attacks,” he added expressing sadness.
After the attacks, Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina had visited this temple and others in the area and ordered the government to help rebuild the monasteries. Now they have new buildings, some reflecting Thai Buddhist architecture, but Buddhists here resent that the old wooden architecture of the Arakans could not be replicated in the new monastery structures. Some of it, due to the difficulty of getting timber for such constructions.
“Ramu was a tragedy for us. Also it was a boon,” argues Dr Bikiran. “Because Prime Minister Hasina came out in sympathy for us. Now whenever monks go to see her she gives dana (food) to them”.
“Prior to Rohingya issue, most of the Muslim Community treated us with respect” notes Lokapriya Barua, President of the Bangladesh Buddhist Welfare and Peace Society. “After Myanmar (army’s) brutal clash in Rakhine the scenario are totally changed”.
“We don't try to preach or even talk about Buddhism to (non-Buddhist) locals in the community now” says Bhante Piyaratana, noting that there are no legal restrictions. “(But), we are afraid that this could be a reason to attack us again”.
“Bangladesh was born on Bengali language and cultural nationalism, not Islamic nationalism,” points out Dr Bikiran, adding that he gets a small allowance from government every month as a freedom fighter because he went to India, came back and fought for Bengali independence from the then East Pakistan in the 1970s.
In a commentary published by Daily Star in August, Bangladeshi author Habibullah Karim tends to endorse this view. He argues that ethnic similarities of Bangladeshis of all religions are “hidden in plain sight by insurmountable walls of religious intolerance and bigotry”, which has given way to “siloed identities”.
Young Buddhists from Cox Bazaar told Lotus News Features, “we join together in festivals. They (Muslims) come to our festivals like Vesak and Bengali New Year. We go to their’s like Ramadan”.
But another chipped in noting that Bangladesh’s Buddhists have no parliamentary representation. “There are some Buddhists in local councils but not representing Buddhist politics. Buddhists don't go into politics. They are afraid,” she said.
While another, who is also a blogger expressed the fears of his community: “At the moment we have no problems with Rohingyas but in future we might have. If they permanently live here .. . may be in 10 years we may have a problem with young Muslims”. He was actually referring to the problem of gradual radicalization.
In a recent newspaper interview here, Dr Shamsul Bari, a former Director of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC) also raised the same fears. “The statistics from the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh indicate that 52 percent of the refugee population are below the age of adulthood. Imagine the situation a few years hence when they grow older and find there is no hope for their future,” he noted, warning that it will be an “extremely explosive situation”.
Lokapriya notes that all what would take to light the fuse would be some fake news and video disseminated through the Facebook that claims further atrocities against Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar.
He is worried that as a result “if the Rohingya refugees or plain Muslims can get any opportunity to take revenge they will do it. They may snatch property, land, household animals, even the life of Buddhist community of Cox’s Bazar area”.
Photo: The rebuilt Ramu Simar Vihar. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne