Bangladesh, Myanmar: Rising Violence Between Buddhists And Muslims
Eurasia Review 31 October 2012
By Angel Millar
Neighboring Asian states of Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma) are, independently, trying to calm fears of further intercommunal violence between Buddhists and Muslims after serious incidents in recent months.
At least 19 Buddhist temples were razed to the ground in Bangladesh at the end of September, with at least 120 Buddhist homes and some businesses also attacked by Muslim mobs. The violence broke out in the town of Ramu town, Cox’s Bazaar, near Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar, and spread to five towns and several dozen villages.
Hundreds of Buddhist artifacts were looted from the temples, some of them a thousand years old.
In the state of Rakhine, Myanmar, nearly 3,000 houses, as well as 14 religious buildings and eight rice mills were destroyed in rioting across nine townships between October 21 and 27. At least 88 people were killed, and 129 hospitalized. Police also fired on Buddhist demonstrators – killing one man and injuring another – who had gathered in Kyauknimaw, Ramree Island, Rakhine, to demand extra security and the removal of Muslims from Buddhist-majority areas. One demonstrator told The Irrawaddy that it was "no longer possible [for Buddhists and Muslims] to stay together in the same community.”
Tensions between devotees of the two faiths have been simmering, and periodically boiling over into acts of violence and rioting since June, when an Arkanese Buddhist woman was raped by two minority Muslim Rohingya men in Myanmar. They were later tried and convicted. However, Buddhist vigilantes had already taken to the streets, and, in one incident, attacked a bus and killed nine Rohingya who were suspected of the crime, but who had no connection to it. These events sparked a wave of unrest that saw tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, mostly to seek refuge in Bangladesh.
Renewed violence over the past week is believed to have displaced another 32,000. Most are Rohingya, although several thousand Arkanese Buddhists are also reportedly seeking refuge in monasteries and homes of relatives.
Nevertheless, this latest explosion of violence should be seen in the wider context of growing religious radicalism and its role in politics in Asia. Islamist extremists targeted Bangladesh’s Hindu minority in 2012: Hindu temples were reportedly attacked in Nandirhat and Hathazari by the extremist Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Chhatra Shibir in February. One was attacked in Dinajpur in August, and four temples at Parshuram in Feni, Bangladesh, were reportedly vandalized and robbed in April.
A photograph of a burning Koran was the alleged reason for the violence against Buddhists in late September. However, the government has suggested that the attacks may have been politically motivated, and aimed at forcing the state to accept more Rohingya refugees, to disrupt the ongoing war crimes trials, and to create instability ahead of elections. A number of high-profile Islamists connected to the Jamaat-e-Islami party have recently been tried for serious crimes, including organizing the rape of Hindu women during the 1971 War of Liberation when then East Pakistan split from West Pakistan to establish itself as the state of Bangladesh. Those indicted include Jamaat-e-Islami "guru” Ghulam Azam and party leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee.
In the wake of the attack on September attacks, Chakma tribal representatives (in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region) sent a memorandum to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, urging the government to ensure the safety of Hindus and Buddhists in the country. For its part, the government seems keen to reassure non-Muslim minorities. It has promised that the demolished Buddhist temples will be rebuilt, using army engineers, at an estimated cost of 120 million Taka (approximately $1.5 million US). And as many as three hundred suspects in the attack have also been arrested.
Nevertheless, the continuing tension, and the displacement of large numbers of people, poses a serious challenge to stability and democracy in Bangladesh and Myanmar, with Buddhist as well as Muslim communities in the region liable to further radicalization if a resolution is not found soon.
Angel Millar is an independent researcher, a former contributing editor for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the editor of People of Shambhala, a webzine of news and culture. His work has been published by the Journal of Indo-European Studies, Hudson New York, and the Calgary Herald, among others.