This is the fifth article in our series “Buddhist Voices from the Land of Rivers.” Here, John Cannon explores an appropriate response to the damage caused by communal clashes in Bangladesh.
On 16 December, the Buddhist temple Koruna Bihar and about 50 houses in Naniarchar Upazila, Rangamati District, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, were vandalized and burnt by Bengalee settlers in a land dispute with the indigenous Buddhist Chakma community. Two days later, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission released a statement calling for clarification of the role that the local civil administration, law enforcement officers, and the army may have played in the disturbances. According to an article published in the Dhaka Tribune, on 21 December there was still a lack of food, shelter, and warm clothes for the victims. However, Rangamati deputy commissioner Mostafa Kamal said that 20 kg of rice had been given to each family and that 15 houses were already being rebuilt, with “the process to repair 16 more houses . . . also underway.” Apparently the injured parties had in fact received the rice, but had seen no evidence of reconstruction as yet.
This incident in Rangamati is the latest in communal, ethnic, and religious conflicts that are being played out throughout the world. Wherever these incidents arise, people are caught between the sticky web of hatred, violence, and vengeance and the human need for objective understanding, feelings of compassion, and the desire for justice in order to bring closure and peace to all parties. We must recognize and transcend what is stated in the Dhammapada—that “hatred begets hatred, violence begets violence”—or we will condemn ourselves to a senseless repetition of such acts.
I am reminded of a visit I paid last May to Ramu, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar in the Chittagong Plains and the scene of communal strife in 2012, and of what parties on both sides of the divide have done to accept responsibility and restore hope.
Ramu is just one among several areas in the Chittagong Plains that experienced severe communal violence at the end of September 2012, resulting in the destruction of many homes and Buddhist temples and monasteries. During the incident, 1,000 Buddhist families had to flee for safety. The attacks were condemned by the government, which promised to take action by rebuilding what had been destroyed.
The spark igniting the conflagration was the posting of a fake image of a burnt Qur’an on the Facebook wall of Uttam Kumar Barua, a local Ramu Buddhist. Muslim residents in Ramu took offence, leading to demonstrations and violence that lasted until 1 October. Before the attacks ended, the violence spread to other areas of Cox’s Bazar: Ukhia Upazila, Marichya, and Khairatipura, and then to Kolagaon, Patiya, and Lakhera in Chittagong District. Altogether, 24 religious buildings were attacked, including the two Hindu temples Nabaran Sangha Durga Mandir in Kolagaon and Mantri Mandir in Jelepara.
While it is natural for emotions to run high and it is easy to become entangled in a blame game, how much better to step back, letting go of unwholesome feelings of hatred and vengeance and focusing instead on compassion, justice, and healing for everyone involved.
To the government’s credit, it responded quickly to the crisis by setting up a committee of inquiry on 30 September to investigate the incident. On 6 October, the prime minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina condemned the violence against Buddhists: “Peace, friendship, and religious harmony are our pride, and the Ramu incident shames us all” (ucanews.com). Promising justice, she visited the distressed areas on 8 October, and instructed the Engineering Corps of 17 ECB Battalion Cox’s Bazar to rebuild the damaged temples at a cost of BDT120 million (US$15 million) as part of the project “Rebuilding and Renovation of Damaged Buddhist Temples.” More than 100 homes were also rebuilt.
Under the guidance of renowned Buddhist architects from the local community, the army rebuilt the damaged temples in 19 separate locations, incorporating traditional designs in the reconstructions. The president of Bangladesh, Abdul Hamid, visited several of the rebuilt temples in Ramu on 10 January last year.
The government’s quick response and rebuilding of damaged Buddhist temples and homes within a short period have gone a long way to regain the people’s trust and gratitude, but they are still waiting for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Out of 500 complaints lodged with the police in the aftermath of the incident, a year later only 364 had been addressed. The ucanews.com website reported a secretary to a 350-year-old temple in Ramu as saying, “The deep scar left by the violence can be healed if justice is done properly and the culprits punished.” Justice, not a blood-curdling cry for vengeance, must be implemented and seen to be done by the victims in order to bring closure and, hopefully, understanding.
On 31 May, nearly five months after the president’s visit to Ramu, I had come to see for myself. I visited three of the restored temples, one still undergoing some final renovation to the external decoration of one of the buildings adjacent to the main shrine hall.
Photographs had been placed both outside and inside the restored temples showing the extent of the destruction and the army’s restoration work. Plaques were prominently displayed at each temple indicating the government’s support for the reconstruction. I was impressed by the rapidity of the rebuilding of the temples and the neighboring homes, evidence of the government’s willingness and intention to promote communal harmony between the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. It was a very welcome sign of hope and “letting go.”
I was shown into the room of one temple in which all the damaged material that could be saved—broken heads of Buddha images and shattered masonry, some still showing evidence of charring—was kept as a reminder of what had happened. I stood there in contemplative silence, but went away fortified by the thought that although these impermanent objects had been damaged, the Buddha’s Dhamma of compassion is enduring and transcends the limitations of the physical realm.
Returning to the recent incident in Rangamati, one of the reasons for communal clashes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is the disputes over resources between the indigenous Buddhist population and the ever-increasing influx of poor Bengalee Muslim settlers from other parts of Bangladesh who have received special assistance from the government in land acquisition and military protection.
From what I heard while in the Chittagong Hill Tracts myself, there is a general feeling among the ethnic minorities that the government treats the indigenous Buddhists there differently from those in the Plains. The government needs to make a more determined effort to treat ethnic and religious minorities impartially and with justice, especially in responding to communal clashes in the Hill Tracts. Admittedly, the Hill Tracts is a very sensitive area for complex historical, ethnic, and religious reasons.
To give hope and reconciliation a real chance to take root and thrive, the government must provide a transparent level playing field for all religious and ethnic minorities in all parts of Bangladesh.
For further information see:
Rangamati victims yet to get compensation (Dhaka Tribune)
Bangladesh PM inaugurates 19 rebuilt temples (ucanews.com)