COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: The flames and anger took the Ramu community by surprise in 2012.
The Buddhist occupants had largely lived peacefully for generations in this part of Cox’s Bazar but now sectarian violence was literally on their doorsteps.
Monasteries and houses were torched by an enraged mob, thousands strong, sparked by a Facebook post showing the desecration of the Quran.
About 300 people were arrested over the attacks and Rohingya Muslims were among those detained.
“We were inside our home. Suddenly someone set fire to the house from behind. We ran away when the flames starting falling upon us,” said Aarati Barua, in front of her house that has since been rebuilt with assistance from the government.
“We had nothing to do but cry. All the family members were crying.”
Chandra Shekhor Barua remembers an angry procession burning temples before descending on people’s homes. “They chanted Allahu Akbar, but we didn’t know who they were,” he said.
“Now we are living in some peace. Police and the army regularly patrol now.”
It is unsurprising that fear and mistrust lingers in Ramu, exactly five years since the attacks. People have vivid memories of that night and the Rohingya crisis that has engulfed southeastern Bangladesh has people on edge.
Muslims in Rakhine have been denied citizenship and persecuted for years in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. They have been swept out of the country in recent weeks amid deadly violence in what the United Nations has labelled “ethnic cleansing”.
“I feel some fear since the Myanmar crisis. We are a bit afraid,” Chandra said.
However, the overwhelming sentiment is one of empathy and sympathy towards the plight of nearly half a million people – Muslims no less – who have flooded across the border, perhaps never to return to their homeland.
“We don’t like violence anywhere. We feel guilty when we see the Rohingyas being repressed a lot. We don’t like what the Myanmar government is doing,” Chandra said.
“Certainly I feel bad,” Aarati agreed. “I cry when see the scenes of tortured Rohingyas on TV. We had to flee the same way once.”
The messaging from Buddhist leadership in Ramu is even stronger. Pragyananda Bhikkhu, the assistant director of Shima Bihar and a strong voice for the community says the violence being perpetrated and propaganda being unleashed, some of it in the name of Buddhism, is abhorrent.
“We, the Buddhists outside Myanmar, are saying that what Myanmar is doing is a human rights violation and anti-human activities and the Buddhist religion does not support it at all,” he said.
“We cannot support it as human beings. The religion says every living creature of the universe should be happy and the Rohingyas are not excluded from living creatures.”
The attitudes largely differ from the hardline Buddhist teachings in Myanmar, particularly those propagated by ultra-nationalist group Ma Ba Tha and one of its firebrand monk leaders Ashin Wirathu.
The nationalists have been blamed for causing division and isolating Muslim communities, contributing to waning relations in Rakhine.
In a pre-election interview in 2015, Ma Ba Tha’s leader in the state called for the people to vote in a manner to avoid a Muslim “occupation”.
“They must stop telling lies to the world that they are 'Rohingya'. The Bengalis want to take this land on a permanent basis for generations to come," Nan Da Ba Tha said in an interview with Channel NewsAsia at the time.
In Ramu, Pragyananda countered that this type of religious instruction was at odds with the pillars of Buddhism and motivated by outside forces.
“They are not doing this for religion, rather doing it for national interest,” he said.
“If there are some Buddhist nationalists, then this is not an act of Buddhism. They are getting scope because of state forces. No one can do this if the state mechanism does not allow them.”
The words of Ramu’s monks have been backed up by their actions too.
Since the exile from Myanmar began in late August, the community has helped distribute aid including dry goods and water to 1,500 Rohingyas. That role has since been taken over by the army and approved non-government organisations.
They organised a blood collection service to aid hospitals providing crucial care to badly injured evacuees, including those wounded by gunfire and landmines, and organised protests against the violence.
The community will also tone down celebrations at an upcoming lantern festival with the money saved to be donated.
The risks to peace and safety are still very real though, and made worse each day this crisis remains unresolved. The presence of an officer armed with a rifle guarding a local meditation centre and its exquisite reclining Buddha fuels Pragyananda’s despair and regret.
“We have a long tradition here. If you spare some incidents, we have been happily living with religious harmony,” he said.
“Now, the common people are afraid and feeling unsecure about the situation.”