Why Ramu Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists are the same

Afsan Chowdhury
Published : 6 Nov 2012, 03:00 PM
Updated : 6 Nov 2012, 03:00 PM

The attack on Ramu has shamed us and many have protested interrogating the nature of the state that we have produced. Bangladesh is, simply put, not a minority friendly country at any level. But then we have never claimed to be one and have revelled in our hatreds. A person once told me that he thought the only Bihari was a dead one. That he hated them like Hitler hated the Jews. He was very matter of fact about it and since he certainly represented the educated middle-class that we mostly claim to belong, I would take that as a significant representative opinion. It is not about the Biharis; it is about anyone who isn't US.

Yet many spoke out against the Ramu attack and I believe the desecration of any holy place actually offends something deep inside us, the sense of the scared, no matter what faith we follow. That is what makes us human beings.

But are we the only minority hating racists in the region? How does one explain the fate of the Rohingya Muslims who are now facing systematic repression and killing at the hands of the Rakhine Buddhists?

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International media has for the last few days been focusing on the situation of what they describe as 'genocidal' attacks on the Muslims of the Rakhine area in the Myanmar. Most of these people are the kin of the Rohingyas whom we so "patriotically" refused to let in after they faced the last attack. Now the scale of that violence has gone up and nearly 150 of them have been killed. Muslims, generally considered to be blood thirsty by non-Muslims, the Buddhists generally considered to be peaceful are not less than them at all. The fact is, intolerance has never been a monopoly of any faith and the events from everywhere show that no faith is free from mayhem, arson and looting. All of them when they act violently should be condemned whether in Myanmar or Bangladesh.

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Islam's foundational history is full of war narratives –Battle of Badr, Oudh, etc. — but Buddhism and Jainism, both of which are part of the rise of Magadhan India is also full of dynasty creating wars. Magadhan Kings like Ajatsatru and his many wars are linked to the simultaneous rise of both Jainism and Buddhism in India. Ashoka, who was the greatest Buddhist king, and spread it to all corners of India used Buddhism as a sustainer of his empire but only after he had conquered all kingdoms.

It would mean that in isolation all faiths preach peace but few religions have flourished in history without dynastic and political support and that has always meant wars.

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In Bengal, dynastic rule was established by the Pala rulers and they were chieftains of uncertain ethnicity who emerged out of a state of political anarchy in the region and established reasonable peace. They were followers of Mahayana Tantric Buddhism and supporters of the great seat of Buddhist learning, the Nalanda University which took Buddhism to other parts of the world such as Tibet and China. The Palas were warrior kings who fought with other kings for supremacy in North India. But they later fell to the Senas who were Hindus from Karnataka and their victory ended any Buddhist kingdom in the region. Buddhism in fact also reached Myanmar from Bengal which though of the pristine Hinayana form mixed with the Bon practices of the ancient people of Myanmar and formed a new edition.

Subsequently, Myanmar Buddhism re-entered Bengal and the influences can be seen in the artefacts and architecture of Buddhist temples in the Myanmar-Bangla border and the Buddhists of the region. So there is a great synergy between Myanmar and Bangladesh as it usually is between neighbours.

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The ethnic clashes in Mynamar needs to be seen as an extension of the majority Burman Buddhists there who have had longstanding conflicts with almost every other ethnic groups. In fact, it was in a state of civil war for a long time with the Karens, the Kachins, the Shans and others including the Rohingyas. The first three groups had armies of their own and a long civil war had continued as these minority ethnic groups fought central Burman rule. In so many ways, this led to the rise of the Golden Triangle, the drug haven of the region because so much of the jungles were out of bounds for the authorities. While the wars have petered out, unrest remains and certainly no peace has descended. Nor is Bangladesh the only country with which Myanmar has difficulties since a lot of support to the ethnic rebels came from Thailand. This is a country with a troubled history of ethnic conflicts.

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Majority-minority conflicts have many faces and they can be described as religious, ethnic, political, national and other terms but the essential majority-minority problem is always at the core. Immature states always experience these conflicts and what is happening in Mynamar is no different than what is happening here. The state can't protect its minorities or doesn't want to because it helps in keeping nation-state building forces fresh and enthusiastic. The following is a Majority-Minority Relationship status for South Asia and identifies them in relation to the state:




Bhutan–People of Nepali origin

Sri Lanka–Tamils


Bangladesh– Non-Bengalis/Hindus

The above framework shows amazing similarities on how South Asian states treat their minorities. All minorities are 'denied' national identity and assigned their enemy's coat. So Bangladeshi Hindus are Indians, Biharis are Pakistanis while in India Muslims are 'Pakistani'. In Nepal, plain-landers are considered Indians and Bhutan expelled many people accusing them of being of Nepali origin. Pakistan has become a Sunni Muslim state and so by default the Shias have become lesser or zero Pakistanis. It is by taking away their national identity can the minorities be repressed, denied or demonized at will. It is not an accident that the Rohingyas in Myanmar are "Bangladeshi settlers". It is always part of a national strategy of exclusion done by all. Ethnic violence is tolerated by the state and committed by the socially insecure.

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There is no end to this repressive system except modernity but that requires commitment to democracy which is generated by capitalism with a transparent face. Underdeveloped capitalism produces underdeveloped democracies. And such conflicts largely occur in the third/poor/underdeveloped world where democracy is a distant relative.

Stronger state organs which happen in democracies are the best guarantor of the minorities. Nobody has to become nice people but laws, rules and customs can provide the protection. Neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar has such a system in place which is why Buddhist Rakhines can kill Muslims Rohingyas and Muslim Bengalis attack Ramu Buddhists. Without proper democracy in place, everyone can become a monster. As the situation doesn't seem to be improving it would be foolish to think such incidents are not going to happen again.

We should protest what happened in Ramu and in the Rakhine province but most of all we should demand that full democracy be installed.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist, activist and writer.