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In Bangladesh, justice elusive for survivors of anti-Buddhist riots

Lack of justice for Buddhists a worrying sign for other religious minorities

In Bangladesh, justice elusive for survivors of anti-Buddhist riots

Buddhists pray inside a temple in Ramu, Cox's Bazar. In 2012, a Muslim mob attacked, ransacked and burned down Buddhist temples, statues and houses in Ramu. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)

The three-story Shima Bihar temple sparkles in the sunlight in a grandeur sign of centuries-old Buddhist tradition and heritage in Ramu, a tiny town in southeastern Cox's Bazar, a traditional Buddhist stronghold.

The dazzling view of the 200-year old temple depicts the generosity of the government of Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority South Asian nation of 160 million.

Shima Bihar is among 19 Buddhist temples and some 100 Buddhist-owned houses rebuilt by the government in 2013, a year after a Muslim mob destroyed the structures in the worst anti-Buddhist violence in the country's history.

On Sept. 29, 2012, a Muslim mob attacked, ransacked and burned down Buddhist temples, statues and houses. They were reportedly angered by a Facebook image of a burnt Quran posted by a local Buddhist youth. 

Ramu and Ukhiya town, two Buddhist strongholds in Cox's Bazar, just across from Buddhist-majority Myanmar, were hardest hit by the riots.

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Early on, rumors spread that the attack was a retaliation by Rohingya Muslims, who faced renewed sectarian violence that year at the hands of Buddhists in Myanmar's Rakhine state, just across the border.

However, media investigations found the attack was stage-managed by local Islamists from the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami party and was supported by local leaders of the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The Awami League government responded quickly to assist the riot-hit Buddhists. Within a year, it rebuilt all the temples and houses; Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reopened them on Sept. 3, 2013.

A Bangladeshi man stands amid the torched ruins of a Buddhist temple in Ramu in September 2012. (Photo by AFP)  


Justice delayed 

The Buddhist community lauds the government for the generosity, but decries a lack of effort in finding justice.

"Our temples look beautiful and we are thankful to the government for restoring them. Sadly, the new buildings can't bring back the centuries-old Buddhist heritage lost in the riots," says Venerable Karunasree Bhikkhu, a monk from Shima Bihar.

"A number of cases were filed after the attacks, but there is no progress. The government can't bring back what we have lost, but it can heal the wounds of the devotees by making better efforts in delivering justice," says the monk, founding director of Vimutti Vipassana Meditation Center in Ramu.

A total of 19 cases were filed after the violence and 18 of them are in progress. About 364 people were arrested in connection with the attack, but many of them were released on bail later. 

"The people who masterminded the violence have political connections. So, they have used their influence to get bail," says Shibu Barua, 30, a Buddhist father of two, whose house was burned down in the riots.

"If you see the people who destroyed our temples and houses roaming freely you start questioning if the government really wants to deliver justice," says Barua, a staff member at Shima Bihar.

A court official says the government is serious about justice.

Jamal Uddin, a court inspector, says about 18 cases are currently being heard in the courts, while one case was dismissed over false charges.

"The government is not negligent about the cases, but it might take longer to get justice delivered as the Bangladesh legal system is lengthy," Uddin says.

The lack of justice three years after the violence is "upsetting and regrettable," says David Gonsalves, a member of the Justice and Peace Commission in Chittagong Diocese, which covers Cox's Bazar.

"It is extremely disappointing that the government didn't treat anti-Buddhist violence as a top priority legal case. If one case could deliver justice in three years, this could be a symbolic sign of consolation for the Buddhist community," says Gonsalves.

"In most cases of attacks on minorities, politics and communal forces are involved and they wield considerable power. If Buddhists don't get justice, we fear this might repeat to some other place, or other minorities," he says.

A Muslim mob burned down Shima Bihar temple in Ramu, Cox’s Bazar in 2012. The Bangladesh government rebuilt the temple and reopened it the next year. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)


Allegations of threats and harassment

There are allegations that some perpetrators and attackers have threatened victims and witnesses to keep them from testifying in court.

"We know the people who torched our house, and they are the same people who destroyed temples, but we were afraid to go to the court fearing reprisals," says Babul Barua, 35.

"We are doubtful about justice because most of the people involved in the attacks are out of jail and they intimidate people not to give testimony," he says.

After the violence, police and political party supporters filed dozens of false cases against innocent people, in order to harass and extort money from them, says S.M. Jafar, a local journalist with ATN Bangla, a private TV channel.

"Thirteen days after the incident I was suddenly arrested by police and I spent five months in jail. I was released because I have many Buddhist friends and they gave testimony in favor of me," Jafar recalls.

"For months, this blind game continued and innocent people were harassed. Now it's over but some Buddhists still have suspicion about them," he says.

The attackers are united and out to halt justice at any cost, says Amir Hossain, founding president of the Ramu Press Club.

"The police were not able to nab all the attackers, because they have fled the area. Other cases are lingering while suspects are out. They have formed a coalition in order to threaten victims and witnesses, in order to stop the whole judicial process," says Hossain.

"Police were inactive during the violence, and they are inactive still today. Unless the prime minister looks into the matter, I don't think justice will be done to Buddhists," he adds.


Restoring harmony amid suspicion

Since the violence, suspicion about Muslims has gripped Buddhists in Ramu.

"We have always felt proud of living in Ramu because it has a long history of religious and communal harmony, but it was lost when Muslims attacked our houses and temples," says Kobori Barua, 35, a schoolteacher and mother of two.

"The people who carried out the attacks now deny everything, even threaten us. Muslims are powerful in number and influence, so they can do whatever they want," she says. 

Suspicion about Muslims still persists in Ramu, says Nur Alam, 38, a muezzin, or Muslim prayer leader, in a local mosque.

"People at Ramu had been proud of longstanding communal harmony. Individually and at the community level, Buddhists and Muslims never had any problems in the past," says Alam.

"A good Muslim will never attack followers of other faiths, so the people who attacked Buddhists are bad Muslims. They need to punished, so we can live in peace and this does not happen again." 

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