In Memory of Bana Bhante, 1920-2012

I just learned from the Daily Star that the Venerable Sadhanananda Mahathera has died. He was the most revered Buddhist monk in Bangladesh, commonly considered to be an arahant. Like many others, I always referred to him as Bono Bhante, his nickname in the local Chittagonian dialect, a name which translates literally as “Forest Monk.”

If you remember Luangta Maha Bua, you can probably get a sense of how important Bana Bhante was to Bangladeshi Buddhists. He was of the Chakma people, an ethnic minority, and had a reputation for clear, incisive and straightforward speaking. Many of his years in the monkhood were spent practicing in the forest. He lived into his nineties, having witnessed his native Chittagong occupied under British colonialism, partitioned into Pakistan, and thrown into turmoil following Bangladesh’s liberation. He was ordained for 63 years, and he was a widely-respected living Buddhist institution in a majority Muslim nation.

When I was much younger, I had dreamed of traveling to the beautiful Chittagong Hill Tracts to pay my respects to Bana Bhante. It seems now the best donation I can give is to share his story with you. You can read his biography online. You can also download an English-language book of his sermons, thanks to a contributor on Dhamma Wheel.

If you’ve never heard of Buddhists in Bangladesh before, you can read more in other posts I have written on the topic. I especially encourage you to learn more about the struggle for self-determination of the Chakma people in Chittagong. As I wrote before

Bangladesh’s Chittagong division is home to a large number of Buddhists, including the meditation masters Dipa Ma and Anagarika Munindra. These teachers in particular had a profound impact on Buddhism both in the West and elsewhere in Asia far beyond their native Chittagong. The Buddhists of Bangladesh, however, have no Dalai Lama or Aung San Suu Kyi to direct the world’s attention to their plight. They pursue their quest for liberty and justice largely in the shadow of the world’s attention.

And now they have lost one of their most venerated Buddhist leaders.

What Happened to the Chit Peace Accord?

The Tenth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has been underway for the past week. One conference development relevant to the Buddhist world was a study on the status of the implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts are a part of Bangladesh’s Chittagong division. The CHT indigenous population—collectively referred to as Jumma, of whom a plurality are Buddhist—has been subject to forced displacement by government-sponsored Bengali settlers, military occupation, systematic rape, killings and torture. Buddhist temples have been desecrated, set on fire and destroyed. Furthermore, this ongoing intimidation occurs with complete judicial impunity; Bangladesh’s courts have failed to take the initiative in support of the CHT indigenous groups, while Jumma are routinely excluded from joining the police forces.

In the words of Elsa Stamatopoulou, Chief of the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the CHT situation is “one of the most underreported human rights and humanitarian crises in the world.”

peace accord was signed between indigenous representatives and the Bangladeshi Government 14 years ago, but many of its central provisions have failed to be implemented by the government.

As described in the press conference on the implementation of the CHT Peace Accord, the intimidation of indigenous peoples continues. Systematic rape of indigenous women and girls has worsened in the past five years, while the police and judiciary have continued to turn a blind eye to the burning of villages, killings and torture—all amid the presence of the Bangladeshi army, ironically so as the army is the top or second top contributor of forces to UN peace keeping missions.

In response to the report and press conference, the Bangladeshi mission to the UN has attempted to divert any criticism of its policies by denying the Jumma’s indigenous status. “Bangladesh does not have any ‘indigenous population’,” stated Iqbal Ahmed, the first secretary of the Bangladesh mission to the United Nations. “The Accord has nothing to do with ‘indigenous issues’ and therefore, the government of Bangladesh reiterates its position that the forum, which is mandated to deal with ‘indigenous issues’, does not have any locus standi in discussing the issues related to the CHT Peace Accord.”

Raja Debasish Roy, a UNPFII member representing the indigenous peoples of the Asia region and also the traditional Chief of the Chakma people of CHT, was quoted by the Indpendent about the government’s reaction within the larger framework of international conflict resolution, “It is important to bear in mind the asymmetry in the status of the two parties to an accord—the state party and the non-state party. If the state reneges on its promises, what can the non-state party do but approach the United Nations? The Permanent Forum is mandated to deal with issues of indigenous peoples, irrespective of what term the governments use to refer to their indigenous peoples—‘tribes’ or ‘ethnic minorities’ or otherwise.”

If you wish to stay informed on the status of the CHT situation, I encourage you to follow the CHT news update blog.

Don’t Blame Islam

One or two times in the past, I’ve seen anti-Islamic sentiments bubble up in the comments. Conflicts in Southern Thailand or Bangladesh’s Chittagong division are frequently portrayed as religious conflicts where Muslims are launching a jihad against Buddhists. In reality, the issues lie along much deeper socio-economic fault lines upon which religion has simply been overlaid. To this end, I was pleased to read an article in AsiaNews, a Christian news service, which emphasized that the land conflict in Chittagong is primarily not a religious issue.

The authorities make no attempt to stop the settler attacks, nor to resolve the situation. The tribals, says our source, are really “abandoned to themselves, often when they try to make a complaint, the police do not accept it. Because it’s convenient to see the tribal disappear, or at least take up less Bangladeshi land so that there is an outlet for the overpopulation. Moreover, since the people are in some way favoured by the army, the government does not want to go against the military. There are moments in which it operates, when it tries to do something, but in essence the problem is never resolved.”

The issue therefore, is not religious, even though the perpetrators are Muslim and tribal communities, however, mostly animist (the majority), Buddhist and Christian. “The question—in fact, specifies the source for AsiaNews—it’s only land. It becomes religious in consequence, because the tribal are not Muslims and are more vulnerable, considered inferior, but in any case these are not attacks of a religious or national background. Although the tribals say, ‘Muslims have done this,’ it is only because—he concludes—in everyday language, as they see say it, Bangladeshi is synonymous with Muslim.”

The bottom line is that religion is not the driving force behind the conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In other words, Bengali settlers are not moving into CHT because the locals are infidels. They are colonizing the area because they see economic opportunity, and they look down upon “less civilized” locals who speak other languages—or worse, languages that otherwise sound to the settlers like mangled Bangla. If we report on this situation as a religious conflict, we then do a disservice to CHT Buddhists (and Christians, Muslims and all others) by neglecting to address the conflict’s actual causes.

Dhaka Eyes Drilling in Chittagong

More news on the Chittagong Hill Tracts, via AFP.

Bangladesh has invited some of the world’s leading state-owned gas giants to help explore its insurgency-hit southeastern hill tracts region, an official said Tuesday. The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region makes up one-tenth of the South Asian country’s landmass but has been largely left unexplored due to a decades-long insurgency involving mainly Buddhist tribal groups. […] Despite the formal treaty and the withdrawal of most troops last year, low-intensity unrest has continued as tribal groups demand key clauses of the deal be implemented, including dismantling settlers’ villages and army camps.

Bangladesh’s Chittagong division is home to a large number of Buddhists, including the meditation masters Dipa Ma and Anagarika Munindra. These teachers in particular had a profound impact on Buddhism both in the West and elsewhere in Asia far beyond their native Chittagong. The Buddhists of Bangladesh, however, have no Dalai Lama or Aung San Suu Kyi to direct the world’s attention to their plight. They pursue their quest for liberty and justice largely in the shadow of the world’s attention.

I don’t do as much as I could to promote the rights and concerns of Buddhists in Bangladesh, but here are some related posts that I’ve written:

Rights on Hold for Bangladeshi Buddhists

In case you forgot about the Buddhists in Bangladesh, IANS reports on the current status of the dragged out Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord.

A prominent Buddhist tribal leader of Bangladesh escaped an attack on his motorcade Monday, a day after he discussed with the government a peace agreement signed in 1997, which is yet to be implemented. […] The accord that proposes autonomy for the Buddhist tribals has been delayed because of protests from the Muslims. They were settled in the Buddhist majority region since Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) became part of the erstwhile East Pakistan during the India-Pakistan partition in 1947.

I previously blogged about violence against Buddhists in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and Bangladesh’s uneven concern for its ancient Buddhist heritage. You can learn more at the Chittagong Hill Tracts Comission website.

Buddhist Massacre in Chittagong

I hope the title got your attention! I’m not using the term “massacre” glibly. You can get an idea of the situation from a few of the news headlines I was able to pull from Google News:

  • Chittagong Hill Tracts: Massive Communal Attack on Jumma Villages (UNPO)
  • 15 hurt as ethnic violence continues in Bangladesh (Thaindian News)
  • Fresh violence erupts in Bangladesh tribal region (Reuters India)
  • New clashes in Bangladesh tribal area (AFP)
  • Army deployed in tense Bangladesh tribal region (BBC News)
  • Bangladesh Deploys Troops to Stop Ethnic Clashes (VOANews)
  • Bangladesh Reimposes Night-Time Curfew In Southeast Town (RTTNews)
  • Ethnic violence continues in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill tracts (The Times of India)
  • Beyond the fires in the hills (The Daily Star)
  • Human Rights Abuse against Indigenous People in Bangladesh (The Buddhist Channel)

The single post that I could find from the Buddhist blogosphere was on Ajahn Sujato’s blog, Bangladesh Buddhists under attack

Recent events in the Chittagong Hill Tracts deal with Bangladeshi Buddhists who by and large are not ethnically Bengali—although there are many Bengali Buddhists in Bangladesh too. Collectively called Jumma, these tribes are culturally and linguistically different, the plurality (if not majority) of whom are Buddhist. You can learn more about this situation at the links below. 

More on this later.

Saving Bangladeshi Buddhism

Indopia reports that Bangladesh seeks to incorporate its Buddhist heritage sites as part of regional Buddhist tourism.

“The matter was taken up at a BIMSTEC meet and a proposal has been made for creating a heritage path to promote Buddhist circuit tourism involving Bangladesh, India and Nepal,” Bangladesh Tourism Corporation Joint Secretary Samena Begum said here.

She said the Somapura Viharaa UNESCO world heritage site, is a Buddhist monastery dating from the late eighth century located at the south of the Himalayas in north-west Bangladesh.

I’m delighted to see that Bangladesh is moving to highlight its Buddhist heritage, but the greater legacy of Buddhism in Bangladesh is the Bengali Buddhist community, who are routinely oppressed by local authorities. Even better than preserving eighth century monuments is to promote Bangladesh’s Buddhist minorities and their human rights.