Bangladesh: confessional tolerance in danger

- through Henry Oudin

Published on

Overview of a country once renowned for its religious openness and which has today become a veritable powder keg.

In October 2017, when more than 600 Rohingya Muslims had just fled their villages in Burma (Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country) to take refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi daily Daily Star asked a surprising question: "What What do Bangladeshi Buddhists have to do with the Rohingya crisis? This question echoed a succession of violent incidents perpetrated by Muslims against local Buddhists, accusing them of complicity in the massacres and the exodus of their Rohingya co-religionists.

Several Bangladeshi Buddhist leaders wanted to distance themselves from the attitude of the Burmese authorities. “We, Buddhists outside Myanmar, declare that what the Myanmar authorities are doing constitutes a violation of human rights (…) that the Buddhist religion does not sanction”, declared to the media Union of Catholic Asian News (CAN) Pragyananda Bhikkhu, the assistant director of the temple of Shima Bihar, in Ramu, a neighboring village of Cox's Bazar, a town in southern Bangladesh very close to the Rohingya refugee camps.

Pragyananda had serious reasons to worry. Five years earlier, in September 2012, hordes of Muslims (25, it was claimed), claiming a message desecrating the Koran and allegedly posted on Facebook by a Buddhist (this was denied), set fire to his two hundred year old temple as well than about twenty others and many houses occupied by Buddhists. Known as the "Ramu Violence", this event was the most serious assault on the minority Buddhist community since the country was established in 000.

Secularism enshrined in the constitution

This "Ramu Violence" was all the more astonishing as Bangladesh, of which 90% of the 169 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims, 9,5% Hindus and 0,6% Buddhists - that is to say nearly a million people -, was rather famous for its religious tolerance. This country born in pain is the product of two partitions, the first in 1947 when the British dismantled their Indian empire and divided the vast province of Bengal between an independent India and Pakistan (itself divided into two regions with a Muslim majority ), the second in 1971 when East Pakistan revolted against military rule and became the Republic of Bangladesh.

From the outset the founders of Bangladesh included secularism in the new constitution. This principle, after being abolished in 1977 under a military dictatorship, was reinstated in 2010 while retaining Islam as the state religion.

This denominational tolerance is however regularly undermined during explosions of violence against religious minorities provoked by Muslim extremists themselves often the playthings of base political maneuvers orchestrated by the parties representing the two dynasties which fight and succeed at the head of the country characterizes for nearly thirty years.

The Rohingya camps, where among the million refugees languish many unemployed young people, constitute an ideal fertile ground for Islamic fundamentalism.

If the Buddhists of the Bengali ethnic group had not been the subject of an outburst of such magnitude until 2012, it was not the same for the eleven indigenous communities answering to the common name of Jumma people and living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), a region of hills and forests on the borders of India and Burma. From their integration within Pakistan, the Jummas - and in particular the Chakmas and the Buddhist Marmas, the two most important groups -, suffered a ruthless tyranny from the successive powers. The objective was to drive them out of their territory to install Muslim settlements there. In this overpopulated country, plagued by chronic poverty and whose low-lying territory is partly threatened with disappearance by rising waters, settling on safer land has become a priority for many Bangladeshis.

Over the decades, several hundred thousand people were displaced, many forced to seek refuge with neighboring India. This policy of forced displacements was accompanied by the worst acts of violence, provoking at the end of the 1970s the launching of an armed insurrection which only reinforced the presence of the army and multiplied the exactions. A peace agreement was signed in 1997, but its main provisions on special governance were never implemented. Evictions and human rights abuses have continued to this day, although on a lesser scale.

The rise of radical Islamism

In recent years, another disturbing phenomenon has been added to climate threats and political intrigue: radical Islamism. Between 2013 and 2016, more than thirty attacks against secular activists, including the murders of at least five bloggers who had denounced religious fundamentalism, were committed and mostly claimed by the "Islamic State" and its local branch. “Over the past three years, the polarization in the country has grown between moderate and secular forces on the one hand and Islamists on the other, wrote in 2016 the editorialist of the Combating Terrorism Center, a center of study at the United States military academy West Point. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State increasingly see Bangladesh as a breeding ground where they can take advantage of local radical networks to expand their influence. In this respect, the Rohingya camps, where among the million refugees languish many unemployed young people, constitute an ideal fertile ground for Islamic fundamentalism.

Acts of violence against moderate Muslims and religious minorities have decreased significantly in recent times. A rumour, a political manoeuvre, a provocation by radical Islamists, a development in the Rohingya refugee crisis can revive them at any time.

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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