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Not jumping the gun

On Thursday, hundreds of monks demonstrated outside the High Commission of Bangladesh in Colombo in protest at the violent attacks on the Buddhist community in the area of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh.

The monks had gathered there to deliver a petition to the High Commissioner protesting at destruction of Buddhist temples by mobs in Southern Bangladesh. The protest was organised by the Bodu Bala Sena (‘Buddhist Power Force’).

Unfortunately, during the course of the generally peaceful demonstration, stones were thrown at the High Commission building, smashing windows. The Police reported that one man was arrested for criminal damage and that monks were not involved in the attack.

However, most foreign press reports of the demonstration headlined the stoning of the High Commission rather than the non-violent protest.

The riots in Bangladesh which engendered the protest took place on Sunday, starting from the Ramu sub-district of Cox’s Bazaar and spreading throughout the area. A number of Buddhist monasteries (reported variously between ten and twenty), including some which are several centuries-old, and about 50 houses were reported to have been torched. In addition, a Hindu temple had also been attacked.

Buddhist monasteries

The rioting occurred after a Buddhist youth was reported to have posted photographs offensive to Muslims on the Internet. Police in the area reported that the youth, Uttom Kumar Barua, had taken a photograph of the holy Quran being trampled and uploaded it to his Facebook page. Other sources said the pictures depicted pigs eating the holy book, women standing on it and it being burned.


Bangladeshi monks studying Buddhism in Thailand display signs and
pictures of destruction in their country as they hold a demonstration
calling for an end to attacks against Buddhist communities in Bangladesh,
in front of the United Nation’s regional office in Bangkok on October
3, 2012. AFP

They said that after the news spread, crowds, already agitated by the American-made anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims - attacked Buddhist monasteries and houses.

The circumstances under which the riots took place are mysterious, to say the least. Dhakha’s Daily Star quoted Uttom Kumar Barua as saying that the photo was mistakenly tagged on his Facebook profile and that his Facebook account was closed after the violence started. Uttom Kumar Barua is a name fairly common among the Buddhist Jumma tribals who live in the Chittagong area.

Furthermore, only two percent of Bangladesh’s population has access to the Internet - many in the area do not even have electricity. According to press reports, the news of the offensive Facebook photos only circulated after they were sent to residents via mobile phone.

According to local people, the rioting had been instigated by Rohingya agitators from neighbouring Arakan Myanmar (Burma). There are about 300,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, who have fled what they say is discrimination against them by the government. On the other hand, the Al Jazeera correspondent said it was unlikely, as most Rohingyas live in refugee camps. However, the Police stated that Rohingya insurgents who had infiltrated across the border were

responsible. Interior Minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir has blamed radicals for what he termed a ‘premeditated and deliberate’ attempt to promote discord. Whoever was responsible, there is more to the incident than meets the eye.

Religion-based aggression

The Chittagong area has been mainly peaceful since the 1997 signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord between Sheik Hasina’s government and the Parbatya Chhatagram Jana Shanghatti Samiti (United People’s Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts) a political organisation of the Buddhist tribals whose armed wing, the Shanti Bahini, had fought a long war against government forces.

The language used by the Muslims who rioted in Bangladesh and that of the Buddhists protesting in Colombo have been remarkably similar. A madrassa teacher in Ramu was reported by Al Jazeera as saying ‘Muslims in this community wanted justice and are fed up of being insulted.’

By way of comparison, the petition addressed to the Bangladesh High Commissioner said ‘Enough is enough. We cannot tolerate the situation any more’ (The Sinhala translation was even harsher: ‘We have been patient quite long enough’).

This similarity in impatience is a sure sign that things have been boiling far too long. It is necessary to step back and count to ten. It is necessary to exercise tolerance - religious feeling runs high in the sub-continent and religion-based aggression can lead to a spiral of violence.

Buddhists in Sri Lanka should note that, in Bangladesh many of their co-religionists fleeing the riots had taken shelter with their Muslim neighbours. The authorities stepped in as soon as possible, arresting over 160 rioters and ensuring the return of the displaced to their homes. An investigation has been launched into allegations that the officer-in-charge of Ramu police station had failed to ensure the safety of Buddhists.

We should not jump the gun, but should wait to see what further action the Bangladesh government takes. The stoning of the High commission can only blacken Sri Lanka’s name at a time when its enemies are faltering and in need of an issue to hang on to in the wake of the closure of the Menik Farm camp for the displaced. Predictably, Eelamist propaganda organs pounced on the stoning incident.

People of all faiths in Sri Lanka should note that the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama has issued a media communique condemning the Cox’s Bazaar attacks, calling on Bangladeshi Muslims to practice religious tolerance, similar to that in Sri Lanka.

Significantly, the release said that ‘we recently witnessed the release in the West of film which is a diabolical caricature of the Holy Prophet. Hence, we share the sense of hurt felt by our Buddhist brothers and sisters on account of this desecration and destruction of a temple in Bangladesh.’

We should all bear in mind the words that President Mahinda Rajapaksa spoke in Sanchi last month: ‘the great Emperor Asoka honoured and supported all religions in his empire. He declared that one should not honour only one’s own religion and condemn the religions of others, but one should honour the faiths of others, as well.’

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