Who will speak for the Rohingya refugees now?
Mohib Ullah and his family walked for eight days before they could reach Bangladesh. The former Rakhine state schoolteacher lived, lived amidst constant death threats for a week, when the Tatmadaw unleashed their scorched-earth campaign to wipe out the existence of the Rohingya from Myanmar in 2017.
Once in Bangladesh, Mohib and his family might have heaved a sigh of relief at having escaped the Myanmar military crackdown. Unfortunately, the sense of relief was not meant to last long. Mohib was brutally murdered in the Rohingya camp in Kutupalong, Cox's Bazar, on the evening of September 29, 2021. Assassins shot at Mohib at close range as he spoke with people in front of his office.
Mohib's family suspect the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) for his murder. Mohib's brother informed the media that he had received multiple death threats recently—from many unknown phone numbers—and he suspects that ARSA committed this atrocious act. But what made Mohib a target for ARSA?
Mohib was a leader who had played a proactive role to promote the cause of his community. Over the last few years, he emerged….one of the few from the Rohingya refugee community—to have boldly raised the concerns of the Rohingya community and worked towards ensuring a safer and respectable life for them. Mohib spoke on international platforms, including the UN Human Rights meeting in Geneva, and met the US president, to highlight the cause of the Rohingya refugees.
Mohib also established the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), a rights group, which unearthed and documented the sufferings of the Rohingya refugees at the hands of the Myanmar military.
However, it was Mohib's unfailing commitment towards a peaceful resolution to the Rohingya refugee crisis that might have made him a potential target for the ARSA. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army is known for its ruthless terrorist activities. Fortify Rights earlier suspected the militant group to be behind the abduction and torture of at least five Rohingya refugees. And Mohib's resolve to take a peaceful path to promote the Rohingya cause angered the ARSA who threatened him even earlier this month. Nur Khan Liton, a Rohingya rights activist told the AFP, "His [Mohib's] peaceful activism angered ARSA." ARSA might as well have acted on their threats.
However, Mohib was a threat to many more. Mohib was also known for his activism against any kind of repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, until a conducive environment for their return was ensured. Mohib led a peaceful protest in 2019 when a repatriation process was announced. This also made him an enemy of the quarters—even within the Rohingya community—who were and still are pushing for a so-called repatriation of the refugees.
And there are many other players in the Rohingya camps who could have been behind Mohib's murder. Violence is a common scenario in the Rohingya camps. One might remember the October 2020 gang violence that erupted in the Rohingya camps as different factions tried to establish their dominance in drug trafficking that led to the killing of seven people and left many families without shelter. There are also speculations that people within Mohib's own organisation might have been behind this, due to differing opinions. Or even the other factions who felt threatened by Mohib's rising popularity and greater acceptability among the refugees.
Police have arrested a suspect—a man named Mohammad Selim alias Lomba Selim, was arrested from Ukhiya on October 2. "They fired five rounds of bullets and fled immediately. Our search mission is on to arrest the killers," deputy police chief in Cox's Bazar, Rafiqul Islam, was quoted by Reuters. However, the killing of Mohib has raised multiple questions about the security situation in the Rohingya camps. If ARSA indeed has committed this crime, that too in full public view, then the possibility of their active presence and operations in the camps cannot be ruled out. If this turns out to be the case, then it is high time the government revisit its security strategy in the Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar. ARSA's presence in the Rohingya camps is not just a threat to the security of the Rohingya, it is a security threat for the country and the region.
Even if any other quarter has carried out the assassination attack on Mohib, this incident has nonetheless exposed the security lapse in the camps. How can murderers just kill a man in public and get away with it?
As of writing this column, the police informed the media that they were investigating the murder. The bullet shells are being scrutinised to trace them back to the killers. Witnesses are being interviewed. The police initially suggested that the witnesses saw four to five men shooting at Mohib before fleeing the scene. Given the tight security that is supposed to be in place at the Rohingya camps, how could this have happened?
The current state of security affairs in the Rohingya camps reflects poorly on the living conditions in the camps. While human trafficking, drug trafficking and sex trafficking have remained constant threats in the Rohingya camps, the murders of various individuals at the camps over the years have exposed the security loopholes in the area. Unfortunately, not much has been done it seems to rectify the situation. As a result, an honest man, a father of nine, an activist, died for supporting the right cause. According to a Reuters report, in view of the threats, Mohib had earlier sought security support from the Bangladesh authorities and the United Nations. But he was provided with none it seems. Why?
Rafiqul Islam suggested that Mohib did not file any official complaint. "If he did, we could have considered that," Islam was quoted as saying by Reuters.
In the Rohingya refugee crisis, Myanmar looks after its own interests and thus they are unwilling to take the refugees back. While Bangladesh is trying its best to accommodate the refugees, it cannot continue to host them in Cox's Bazar for long. And even if the refugees are shifted to Bhashan Char, this will not be a sustainable solution. Unfortunately, Bangladesh has not been able to secure international support to force Myanmar into taking back its people amidst peaceful conditions. And the international community—due to the various economic and political interests in Myanmar of many influential countries—are not helping the cause of the Rohingya refugees either. For them, economic and political gains perhaps come before human rights.
So, the refugees are caught in a limbo. They have nowhere to go, and they do not have a voice of their own. As Mohib was once quoted by The Guardian as saying, "Imagine you have no identity, no ethnicity, no country. Nobody wants you. How would you feel? This is how we feel today as Rohingya." Today the Rohingya are an unwanted people, and their only voice was Mohib. And now that voice has been taken away from them.
Who will now speak for the Rohingya refugees? Who will be their voice?
Mohib was more than just another Rohingya refugee. Mohib was an influencer and he could have played a constructive role in aligning and promoting the concerns of the Rohingya in the coming years as well. He could have also played an instrumental role in the safe repatriation of the refugees.
"For decades we faced a systematic genocide in Myanmar. They took our citizenship. They took our land. They destroyed our mosques. No travel, no higher education, no healthcare, no jobs… We are not stateless. Stop calling us that. We have a state. It is Myanmar," Mohib had said. And at the end of the day he wanted to go back to his state, provided the conditions were right for his people.
The killing of Mohib is not just a major loss for the Rohingya community, but also for the Bangladesh government as it lost the one person who could have been helpful in mobilising support for safe Rohingya repatriation. While Mohib's assassination has left a void in the leadership space for the Rohingya, it has also sent …a very alarming message to those who are working to support the cause of the refugees through peaceful means.
While the void cannot be filled so easily, the killers of Mohib should be immediately apprehended and brought to justice. The security situation in the camps needs to be reassessed. Further bloodshed at the Rohingya camps must be avoided at all costs.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb