A disturbing trend of ethnic violence targeting minorities in Myanmar and Bangladesh in recent times is causing grave international concern.
Myanmar witnessed renewed state-backed armed attacks against the minority Rohingya Muslim community settled in Northern Rakhine province of Myanmar. Myanmar army confirmed the death of at least 75 persons following an operation against Rohingyas in the area. But other reports from human rights groups suggest that the toll was much higher. For the first time, the troops used helicopter gunships, which sprayed indiscriminate fire on the villagers.
Soldiers not only set fire to Rohingya villages but allegedly shot dead able-bodied men and children as well. There were allegations that women were raped and tortured. While most Rohingyas tried to flee in their boats towards Bangladesh border through the local waterways, some decided to put up some resistance against the troops, according to media reports.
Bangladesh naval guards reportedly pushed back the boats carrying Rohingyas trying to flee, instead of letting them land. As much of the action occurred during the night some days ago, it was being assumed that the boats carrying the Rohingyas might have headed out to the sea, which could trigger a fresh refugee crisis in the region.
In the past, most boatloads of fleeing Rohingyas ended up near the shores of Thailand or Malaysia, where they usually got some temporary relief and put up in special camps -- but not before some people died of hunger or drowned during the journey.
These reports prompted the United Nation Human Right Commission (UNHRC) authorities in Geneva towards issuing an appeal to Bangladesh. The appeal was to keep its borders open and receive those who have escaped, offering them humanitarian assistance. The displaced groups of people would almost certainly need food, shelter, and medicines urgently.
Bangladesh had refused to help the Rohingyas fleeing from Myanmar in the past as well. Until the new outbreak of violence, the UNHRC authorities had kept over 160,000 poor Rohingya villagers settled for several generations in Myanmar, supplied with essential items until October 9.
Given this background, the possibility of Bangladesh adopting a softer, more humane approach towards the stateless Rohingyas -- Myanmar does not recognise their fundamental rights as citizens--- appears very slim.
The army operation followed an earlier incident when armed Rohingyas were accused of attacking several police posts in the area, killing seven police personnel. There has been no official explanation about the motives of the attackers. But the incident certainly cleared the decks for what seems to be a full-scale army crackdown against the mostly poor Muslim community, also deprived of even minimal government assistance from the Myanmar government.
Ironically, it appears that the fate of the Rohingyas has not been much better than Santhals living for generations in Bangladesh. Only days ago, at Gobindaganj area in Gaibandha, Bangladesh, three Santhals were killed and scores arrested, after the police opened fire on them on the night of November 6.
They were accused of living illegally in villages on land that belonged to a local sugar mill owner. The police were helped in their eviction drive against the Santhals by workers of the mill, according to Dhaka-based media.
A delegation of the main opposition party BNP later visited the currently homeless Santhals and distributed Saris and Lungis among them, the reports said. The BNP accused local Awami League leaders, who ruled the area of having played a significant role in the anti-Santhal drive.
A standard feature in these incidents in Bangladesh and Myanmar is that in both cases, poor and backward communities, for whom few HR groups are active locally or internationally, have been targeted.
In comparison, minority Hindus in Bangladesh have fared a little better in that law enforcing agencies are ordered by Dhaka to make sure that anti-Hindu attacks do not totally get out of control. But representatives of the minorities allege that this does not mean that the majority Muslim attackers get punished. Recently, on two separate occasions, temples and holy Hindu religious sites in Bangladesh were attacked and defiled by groups of armed miscreants in several areas, during the festive season.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promptly ordered the police to take action. However, the BNP again accused the Awami leaguers of having taken the lead in communalising the situation. The Government of India too took up the matter with Dhaka.
Unfortunately, for Santhals, Chakma tribals of Chittagong, and the Rohingyas of Myanmar, there is no Government to speak for them, unlike the Hindus. International HR groups try to do their best to help them, but they do not get very far in their efforts to provide adequate assistance for the beleaguered minorities.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)