Bangladesh’s Buddhist minority this week cut back on colorful traditions that mark Probarona Purnima (Full Moon Night) – the community’s second-biggest religious festival – as a show of sympathy for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees sheltering in their country.
The celebrations usually feature revelers lighting and unleashing countless balloon-like fanush (sky lanterns) into the air and launching a token “ship of imagination,” but Thursday night’s Probarona festivities in majority-Muslim Bangladesh were more subdued.
Local Buddhists said they were mindful of the plight of one-half million Rohingya who fled to southeastern Bangladesh in the past five weeks while escaping from an explosion of violence in Rakhine, their home state in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which does not recognize them as citizens.
“Releasing sky lanterns on Probarona Purnima is a part of our religious rite. To protest the torture by Myanmar security forces on Rohingya Muslims, we have dropped all gorgeous festivities from this year’s celebration,” Asim Ranjan Barua, president of Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, told BenarNews, , an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“We have shortened this year’s celebration to express sympathy for the Rohingya,” he said.
In southeastern Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city, Buddhist youths released a few sky lanterns on Thursday night.
Buddhists from across the country would also donate money for the Rohingya refugees, Barua said.
“I, as a Buddhist, feel ashamed about the torture that the security forces and the vigilante Buddhists have been perpetrating on the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state,” he added. “Buddhism is the religion of non-violence. The inferno that has taken place there (Rakhine) can never be acceptable.”
He said Buddhists in Bangladesh maintained no ties with those in Myanmar.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have been persecuted in our neighboring land. How can we celebrate with festivities?” said Proggananda Bhikshu, an assistant director of Ramu Central Buddhist Monastery in Ramu, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, the area that has borne the brunt of Rohingya refugee arrivals from neighboring Rakhine over the years.
“We have finished this year’s Probarona Purnima with some simple religious rites. The local administration has assured us it would extend support to celebrate our festival, but we willingly refrained from celebrating,” he told BenarNews.
The Myanmar military has oppressed the Rohingya for years, but this year’s violence in Rakhine was unprecedented, in Bhikshu’s view.
The refugee crisis began when the Myanmar security launched a crackdown in Rakhine following attacks on police outposts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants on Aug. 25. Since the violence broke out, widespread reports have emerged of the Myanmar military and Buddhist militia allegedly targeting Rohingya civilians in killings, rapes and the burning of Rohingya villages.
Myanmar authorities have denied the allegations and blamed the violence on ARSA, saying the militants have also carried out atrocities against members of Rakhine’s Hindu minority.
“What has been happening in Rakhine is state-sponsored,” Bhikshu said.
Calls for arming the Rohingya
A Bangladeshi Islamic scholar welcomed the display of Buddhist compassion for the Rohingya.
“This sacrifice of the Buddhist community proves that Bangladesh is a country of religious harmony,” Mufti Enayetullah told BenarNews.
On Friday, however, thousands of members of a conservative Muslim group, Hefazat-e-Islam, held a protest rally in Chittagong. They denounced de facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and called on their government to put diplomatic pressure on Myanmar to end violence against Rohingya, as well as arm the Rohingya so they could defend themselves.
“Millions of people will stand with the government if they declare jihad against Myanmar, if the genocide continues,” Hefazat Secretary General Junaid Babunagari told rally goers.
“We have also asked the government to train and arm the Rohingya so that they can liberate their homeland,” Hefazat spokesman Azizul Hoque Islamabad told Agence France-Presse.
Human rights reactions
Meanwhile, human rights and refugee advocacy groups kept the pressure on Myanmar.
Washington-based Refugees International issued a report, “Bearing Witness to Crimes Against Humanity,” which recommended that the U.N. demand an end to abuses against the Rohingya and impose an arms embargo and sanctions on Myanmar.
“The current crisis that began just over a month ago is of an entirely new scale and level of inhumanity,” the group said in a statement accompanying its report.
“[M]any people from other ethnic groups, including Rakhine Buddhists and Hindus have been displaced and killed as well, reportedly in attacks by Rohingya insurgents, but the attacks on other groups has been nowhere on the scale of the attacks on the Rohingya,” it added.
Elsewhere, Amnesty International issued a letter to members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) calling on them to take urgent steps to resolve the human rights crisis.
“ASEAN is failing to take a stand as one of its member states carries out a violent campaign of ethnic cleansing,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a news release.
“Governments in the region must uphold the commitments to human rights enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, commitments which Myanmar’s military is showing clear contempt for as they perpetrate crimes against humanity against the Rohingya.”
UN Fears Fresh Exodus
On Friday, the United Nations was bracing for a possible further exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar, a U.N. humanitarian aid official said. About 515,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh from Rakhine since the last week of August, in what the U.N. has called the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency.
“This flow out of Myanmar has not stopped yet, it’s into the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya (who are) still in Myanmar, we want to be ready in case there is a further exodus,” Mark Lowcock, U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told a news briefing in Geneva.
“Half a million people do not pick up sticks and flee their country on a whim.”
An estimated 2,000 Rohingya arrive in Bangladesh every day, Joel Millman of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told a separate briefing.
Aid agencies have warned of a malnutrition crisis with about 281,000 people in Bangladesh in urgent need of food, including 145,000 children younger than 5 and more than 50,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.