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How Facebook posts sparked Bangladeshi anger

Tense calm returns to Buddhist community after thousands of Muslims torched temples in southern border area.
Last modified: 3 Oct 2012 00:02
Buddha sculptures and temples were attacked by Muslims protesting against what said were offensive Facebook photo's [Reuters]

Amid the burning ashes is a man standing strong. Fifty-six-year-old Sogoton Barua is the caretaker of a small 250-year-old Buddhist temple in Ramu, southern Bangladesh.

His calm struck me. I observed him meticulously rearranging the earth with his bare hands and watering the plants of the grounds of a burning Buddhist temple.

"There is peace in this earth," he says with serene confidence.

Barua has cared for the temple all his life. The night before, he watched tens of thousands of enraged Muslims, set ablaze and destroy hundreds of years of Buddhist history in just a few hours. Twelve temples were destroyed along with ancient scriptures and artifacts.

Facebook pictures

Crowds of Muslims descended onto Ramu after pictures desecrating Islam and the Quran were found on the Facebook page of a young Buddhist man living in the area.

Some of the photos showed pigs eating Islam's holy book, and women standing on the Quran. The owner of this Facebook page is 26-year-old Uttam Kumar Barua.

He and his family are now in hiding under police protection. His friends say Kumar is innocent. The photos on Facebook, they say, were tagged to his name. "Uttam Kumar Barua" is a name common enough in South Asia that it could really belong to anyone.

But the two-million-strong Buddhists minority in Bangladesh's Muslim majority now live in fear. "This is the worst violence in centuries," says Ajit Ranjan Barua from the Bangladesh Buddhist Association.

The last time there was any violence against the Buddhist community was in 1966 when a young Buddhist boy eloped with a Muslim girl and scores were injured in the communal clashes that followed.

Authorities shut down Kumar's Facebook page and removed as much as they could the blasphemous pictures online to avoid fuelling further violence.

Internet connectivity, let alone access to electricity, is limited in the area. Most people have not seen the pictures they have so carefully tried to remove.

I would not have seen them myself if Shamsul Haque, a local madrassa teacher, had not saved them on his mobile phone.

Shamsul clenched his old mobile close to my face showing me the offensive photos one by one. He says he wasn't involved in the mob violence but defends it anyway, saying: "Muslims in this community wanted justice and are fed up of being insulted."

About 25.000 people marched after last week's Friday prayers against the anti-Islam video even after the Bangladesh authorities shut down access to YouTube.

Tensions high

Tension has been running high since June when sectarian violence broke out just a few kilometres from Ramu, across the border in Myanmar.

Muslim Rohingya minorities faced persecution and violence from Myanmar's Buddhist majority because of their religious differences.

Out of fear, 300,000 of Rohingyas fled the country to live in Bangladesh near Ramu where the Buddhist sites were burnt. They live as refugees in makeshift camps and their movement is restricted. It's unlikely that Rohingyas were involved in the mob.

As we travelled through the streets of Ramu passing smouldering Buddhist sites, I asked our driver who he thought did this. He said: "Everyone was involved. Get a crowd of angry men together and it's bound to turn ugly."

As we leave the car for narrow streets, the men around us move quickly, keeping their eyes to the ground. Ramu's market was unusually quiet and the air seemed heavy in shame.

Police along with Border Guards and the military are now patrolling the streets. Hundreds of local men have already been arrested.

On the surface calm has returned to Ramu. Except, the 250-year-old wooden Buddhist temples are no more.

"We haven't lost faith," says Sogoton Barua as he wipes ashes off the statue of a reclining Buddha. "We will live in peace. Muslims and Buddhists together."