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.

Will the Real American Buddhists Please Stand Up?

One of the frustrations of being an Asian American Buddhist arises when people routinely exclude us from “American Buddhism.” We are American and we are Buddhist. No less, the vast majority of us practice Buddhism differently here than the way it’s practiced in Asia—in ways that are uniquely American. But when it comes to talking about “American Buddhists”—or just simply “Americans”—time and again, we are left out. This attitude was evident in a comment on yesterday’s post, which responded to a question by Barbara O’Brien on the number of Asians at the upcoming Buddhist Geeks conference:

How many Indian’s [sic] were at the monasteries in Tibet at the time of Atisha? Or in Japan at the time of the 3rd Patriarch? This US event is bound to be dominated by American faces…

This sort of slip is not confined to White Buddhists; you’ll frequently hear Asian Buddhists make these same sorts of assumptions too. I’ve even had a commenter use the words of Thay Thich Nhat Hanh to suggest that Asians recognize that “American” excludes the Asian, “Please show me your Buddha, your American Buddha. […] Show me an American bodhisattva. […] Show me an American monk, an American nun, or an American Buddhist Center.”

This exclusion of Asian Americans is often termed “perpetual foreigner syndrome.” Even when we act completely American, our basic “Asianness” casts us as foreign. It’s the sort of attitude that underlies statements by those such as Tricycle founder Helen Tworkov that Asian American Buddhists “have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism.”

Just for good measure, I’d like to remind you why we are American Buddhists.

Let me reframe the credentials of Asian American Buddhists. We are Buddhist because that’s what we call ourselves, because that’s how we practice, because that’s the religion we choose to follow and identify with. We are American because we were born here, we went to American schools, we salute Old Glory, we pay American taxes, we speak American English, we vote in American elections and because we fought, bled and died for American freedoms. We are as American as chop suey, fortune cookies, competitive team taiko and home-baked apple pie. And our Buddhism is American Buddhism because no matter how superficially similar our local practice may seem to the way that Buddhism is practiced in Asia, we have had to significantly adapt and alter our traditions to fit our American community and context here in North America.

The exclusion of Asians from “American” is an abhorrent trope in American society. When it comes to American Buddhism, this is one piece of American cultural baggage that’s better off checked at the door. Please don’t exclude us from our own community.

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 Politics Left & Right

There’s a good post up at The Big Old Oak Tree on the politics of “engaged Buddhists” involved in the discussion of abortion reform in Thailand. The whole post is very much worth reading, but I felt obliged to copy over the last paragraph:

The point I am trying to make is that there is no “Buddhist” politics. As long as there is more than one Buddhist in the world, there will be a multiplicity of political views within the Buddhist community. Let’s say there is an elderly Buddhist Chinese gentleman living down the street from me. There’s a good chance that he and I don’t really see eye to eye on certain political issues, and that my views might be more in line with the BPF than his views. Does this mean that he’s not quite Buddhist, or that my Buddhism is more vital than his? I don’t think so.

Many thanks for his link-back as well!

Saving the Wat

The San Francisco Film Society is sponsoring Saving the Wat, a film by Virada Chatikul and Siwaraya Rochanahusdin about a team of young community advocates who banded together to protect their community’s temple. Here’s a film synopsis:

Wat Mongkolratanaram, aka the Berkeley Thai Temple, comes under fire when a request to build a Buddhist shrine on their own property is submitted to the city. The Temple elders must now rely on a group of young and energetic second-generation Thai-Americans to advocate for their constitutional rights protecting religious freedoms. The team navigates through the city’s land use and permit process, represents the Temple in mediation with neighbors, launches an awareness campaign, and ultimately, brings together a community that would otherwise face potential closure of the Temple.

Please support this film project—not to mention Buddhist community organizers—by making a donation. You don’t have to bequeath your estate; if everyone in the community donates a little bit, we’ll be威而鋼 able to get this film off the ground! You may remember this campaign from posts last year by Rev. Danny Fisher and Dharma Folk, also reposted by several others. Now is a great chance to continue that support. (Hat tip to the Angry Asian Man; image credits to Where There Be Dragons and Asian Pacific Americans for Progress.)

Buddhist Politicians +1

Midterm elections have passed, and they sure have been painful for West Coast espresso-powered liberals like me. My greatest relief of the night was to see that Sharron Angle will not be representing Nevada in the Senate next year.

The Buddhist blogs indeed have been following the election—but with a special emphasis on white male candidates. Sift back through this season’s articles to see Tricycle reminisce about Jerry Brown, while Shambhala Sunswoons over Eric Schneiderman.

Four years ago, there was some excitement around Representatives Mazie Hirono and Hank Johnson, both of them Democrats who identify as Buddhists. Both held their seats last night. But if you’ve only been following Shambhala Sun and Tricycle, you’ll have missed out on Democrat Colleen Hanabusa, who took back Hawaii’s First congressional district from the Republicans, defeating Charles Djou. Oh, and she’s Buddhist too.

Just take that in for a moment. Next year’s Hawaiian congressional delegation to the House will be a team of Asian American Buddhist women!

Now, I realize that Jerry Brown and Eric Schneiderman were coverd by Shambhala Sun as “mindful politicians,” not necessarily as “Buddhists.” But it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth when the highest profile of the American Buddhist media swarm around white candidates who don’t identify as Buddhist, while ignoring the non-white candidates who do.

Welcome to the all-inclusive Western Buddhist community.

Update: After this post was published, the following blogs set aside the time to write about those elected Buddhist congressfolk: Barbara’s Buddhism BlogDangerous HarvestsShambhala Sun SpaceRev. Danny Fisher and Tricycle Blog.

Asian Buddhists Support Gay Rights

I’ve been AWOL from blogging for a bit, but I got this email in my inbox, which I couldn’t resist reposting. The United States’ oldest Buddhist mission affirms its support for gay rights.

The Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, consisting of 36 Buddhist temples statewide, unanimously passed a resolution in February supporting gay rights and are planning related public forums.

“We wanted to say, ‘Hey, we’re here, too.’ We had never taken a stance before,” said Blayne Higa, chairman of the Honpa’s Social Concerns Committee. The group wants to add an Asian and Buddhist perspective to GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons) issues through its forums, Higa said.

In a March news release, Honpa Hongwanji President Alton Miyamoto said, “We want to share our Buddhist values of universal compassion, equality and interdependence with the larger community. We believe this issue is a matter of civil rights. We affirm the human dignity and worth of all people and that everyone deserves equal treatment within our society.”

I am so proud to have such a large organization with such deep history—in America’s most Asian state—affirm its support for gay rights. This support isn’t just limited to Buddhists in Hawai‘i. If you dip into the online database of contributors both supporting and opposing Proposition 8, you’ll find that the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese Americans (well, at least of people with Vietnamese surnames like NguyenTran and Pham) donated to organizations that support gay rights. And this support spans generations. As the Honolulu Star-Advertiser goes on to note

“It’s funny, our older members were some of the biggest champions (of the resolution). The really older members remembered a time when Japanese-Americans were discriminated against or interned during the war. For them it really was a no-brainer, it was really just common sense,” Higa said.

To be fair—not every Asian Buddhist feels this way. There is discrimination and bigotry within the Asian American community, and I wouldn’t want this post to suggest that gay Asian Americans don’t face serious issues in the community. They do. But even so, there are also organizations like the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai‘i who are happy to open their doors and affirm their support for equality.

Update: See in the comments, the Buddhist Churches of America’s 2004 same-sex resolution, where they “affirm the worthiness of all persons independent of sexual orientation” and “oppose any governmental prohibition of same-sex marriage.”

Why Are Thai Monks Protesting?

According to Phra Cittasamvaro, it’s because Thai monks are, after all, mere mortals.

In fact monks are like any other Thai – they have opinions too. The reason Thailand keeps them away from politics is to stop popular teaching monks using their ‘moral credentials’ to sway voters for one party or another. It is probably a good idea.


Monks feel that even if they should not be involved in party politics, they are quite free to take a moral stance, which is why so many have joined the Red Shirt rally over the last few weeks. Naturally, where the line is drawn between politics and morality is very flexible…

I encourage you to read his thoughts in full. For the perspective of a couple academics on this issue, check out Danny Fisher’s interview on Shambhala SunSpace.