Bangladesh’s Buddhists, who represent less than 1 per cent of the national population, are mostly concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and northern areas of the country. The Chittagong Hill Tracts are home to 11 culturally and ethno-linguistically diverse indigenous peoples, collectively referred to as the Jumma. Of those who make up the Jumma, the Chakma and Marma represent the majority of those who identify as Buddhists.
Historically, sectarian clashes between Buddhists and the country’s majority Muslim population have been rare. However, Buddhists have long been subjected to discrimination, violence and displacement due to ongoing tensions over land and political participation, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
However, violence against the country’s indigenous communities is also widespread elsewhere. In the north and north-eastern plains, for example, according to figures compiled by the National Adivasi Forum, more than 140 indigenous people have been killed, dozens of women raped and an estimated 10,000 forced to migrate to India.
Since 2012, targeted attacks against Buddhists in Bangladesh have increased, with the alleged perpetrators ranging from members of the armed forces to locals, both members of the ruling Awami League and Islamic parties. Jumma and the growing Bengali population have taken on increasingly charged religious dimensions, too. In this regard, the attacks that took place on 29 September 2012 in Ramu were notable not only for their intensity, but also for the strong religious dimensions to the violence. The attacks began after a rumour spread that the image of a burnt Qur’an had been posted by a local Buddhist youth – though a subsequent investigation found that the person in question had not been involved. In the ensuing violence, more than 20 Buddhist temples and 40 homes were reportedly torched and looted before authorities restored order.
The incident undermined intercommunal harmony in Ramu to such an extent that, even eight months on, Ramu residents were reportedly living in fear and trust between communities had yet to be restored. Media reports also suggested that the police had allegedly detained innocent people rather than arresting those actually responsible for the attacks, making tensions worse. Witnesses were apparently afraid to submit depositions to the courts and those who did attend the court claimed not to have seen anything. While the government quickly ordered damaged properties and places of worship to be rebuilt, investing around US$2.5 million in reconstruction efforts – an important signal of support to the victims – the perpetrators nevertheless largely managed to evade justice. While 19 criminal cases were filed in the wake of the violence, as well as 364 indicted by police on related cases and 193 arrests made, the central investigation failed to progress and the major culprits reportedly remained free. In September 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief reported that ‘none of the perpetrators of the Ramu violence have been brought to justice as of now’.
A further round of violence occurred between 29 July and 3 August 2013 in Taindong, when a number of attacks were launched by Bengali Muslims against various Buddhist villages, allegedly with the aim of grabbing indigenous lands. As with previous attacks, the violence appeared to be part of a premeditated plan to secure control of indigenous territory. Many of those who fled lost their land as a result. Nevertheless, two Buddhist temples were also actively targeted, reinforcing the communal nature of the violence. Indigenous community leaders blamed the widespread culture of impunity for enabling the violence, arguing that the lack of concrete measures against settlers who had carried out previous attacks had acted as a major catalyst for the violence. Indeed, Bangladesh Border Guard (BGB) personnel have often contributed to violence against the community. On 10 June 2014, for instance, at least 18 people, including a number of women, sustained injuries in Khagrachari in violence between local indigenous peoples and members of the BGB triggered by the BGB’s proposal to establish a headquarters in Dighinala Upazila, on what the indigenous community regarded as ancestral land.
In many areas of Bangladesh, land grabbing has devastated indigenous Buddhist communities as their ancestral territory has been seized by powerful local actors. In Kuakata, for example, land donated by the state to the indigenous Rakhine community was subsequently seized illegally and used to build a shopping complex. Residents in the area have struggled to maintain their spiritual traditions as cremation grounds, sacred waterways and temples have been damaged or looted. While there were no fewer than 19 Buddhist temples in the area as of 1906, today only one remains.
Human rights monitoring groups have highlighted how predominantly Buddhist indigenous communities continue to be vulnerable, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), to targeted attacks, sexual violence and land appropriation. For example, the Kapaeeng Foundation documented at least 13 extra-judicial killings of indigenous community members during 2015, the torture and physical mistreatment of at least 134 others and the looting, vandalization and burning of many indigenous homes in the CHT and the plains.
Updated July 2018
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