In Rohingya Camps, Political Activities Risky For Some

28 April, 2019

It was after Mohib Ullah scored his first political victories that the death threats began for real. On a recent morning, the Rohingya refugee spoke with Reuters in the Bangladesh camp where he lives. He read the latest warning, sent over the WhatsApp messaging app.

"Mohib Ullah is a virus of the community," he read. "Kill him wherever he is found."

The 44-year-old leads the largest of several community groups that have formed since more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims sought refuge in Bangladesh. They fled to escape a campaign of severe attacks by Myanmar's military beginning in August 2017.

Myanmar's government has ordered increasingly severe restrictions against the minority ethnic group for many years, including denying them citizenship.

A new civil society is growing among the Rohingya in the refugee camps in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar area. Some refugee campaigners are seeking justice for reported violence in Myanmar. A small group of women are working for increased rights for females. Others are simply working to improve life in the settlement that is now home to more than 900,000 people.

But several refugees told Reuters reporters that, along with the political awakening, violence has increased at the camps. They say militants and religious conservatives are competing for power. The refugees describe increasing fear in the camps, where armed men have raided shelters at night, kidnapped critics and warned women against violating conservative Islamic traditions.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, is active in the camps, refugees say. So are several other armed groups. ARSA is also known as Harakah al-Yaqin -- the movement of faith.

"In the daytime, the al-Yaqin guys become normal people," said one young woman, who, like other refugees, requested not to be identified for her safety. "But at night," she said, "it's like they have a kind of magical power."

Rohingya refugees line up to receive food at a World Food Programme distribustion center April 2, 2019. (Hai Do/VOA)
Rohingya refugees line up to receive food at a World Food Programme distribustion center April 2, 2019. (Hai Do/VOA)

Talks and threats

Reuters spoke with UN employees, diplomats, Bangladeshi officials and researchers about the forces competing for influence in the world's largest refugee settlement.

Some are hopeful that the stateless Rohingya are beginning to find political expression.

However, there are also fears. Officials worry that a turn to violence could make solving the refugee crisis through talks impossible.

"Refugee camps in many parts of the world are becoming recruitment grounds for terrorists," said Mozammel Haque, the head of Bangladesh's cabinet committee on law and order. He said if this happens, it would affect Bangladesh and nearby countries.

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay did not answer calls seeking comment. Zaw Htay said during a press conference in January that Myanmar had protested to Bangladesh over what he said were ARSA bases inside Bangladesh.

The front line in the struggle for the Rohingyas' future are the bamboo structures where refugees take shelter from the heat and dust. In the office of his group, the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), Mohib Ullah holds an open meeting each morning.

ARSPH has documented reported atrocities the Rohingya suffered in Myanmar. Mohib Ullah went from home to home to try to get a count of the killings, rapes and fires. He shared the information he gathered with international investigators.

ARSPH says its main goal is to get Rohingya involved in international talks on their future.

But not everyone agrees with the group's methods. Some refugees argue for a stronger position in talks about how the refugees might return to Myanmar.

"We are flexible, we want to negotiate," said a senior leader of ARSPH, who asked not be identified. "But we fear we may be harmed because of this."

ARSA is among ARSPH's opponents, that leader said.

Night terrors

Bangladeshi security forces guard the outside of the camps to stop refugees from leaving. But violent men run the crowded camps inside, especially at night, refugees told Reuters.

In some parts of the camps, those men claim ties to ARSA, said more than six refugees. United Nations officials and other workers watching the group's activities say it is unclear how many of those men are under orders from the group's leadership. But some of them reportedly have asked wealthier refugees and shopkeepers to pay taxes. They say the money will be used to fight back in Myanmar, refugees said.

One refugee who volunteers as an aid worker in the camps told Reuters he witnessed a kidnapping in January by men he believed belong to ARSA. Men with wooden sticks moved quickly into one area of the camp and took away a man who had refused to attend one of ARSA's meetings, he said.

"They just carried him off like a goat to the slaughter."

Reuters was unable to confirm the reported incident or find out what happened to the man.

Reuters was unable to reach ARSA for comment.

Police have recorded a rise in violence in the camps in recent months, said Iqbal Hossain, a police official in Cox's Bazar.

"So far we have not found any link to any militant groups," said Hossain. He added that there were only 992 officers deployed to the camps.

Reuters also asked the UN refugee agency about reports of ARSA involvement in the violence. The agency noted police reports that found most violence and threats in the camps were carried out by what they called "criminal elements or related to personal vendettas."

"You didn't listen"

Myanmar government media said ARSA launched three attacks across the border in Myanmar early this year. In February, ARSA promised to continue its armed campaign.

ARSA propaganda shows the group as ethnic freedom fighters and does not suggest a position on religious tradition. But some refugees -- and a report by an international non-governmental organization -- say ARSA members and Islamic leaders push for extremely conservative religious behavior.

Four women told Reuters they had received threats for going out to work for aid groups in the camps. Many women with jobs in the camps are experiencing paid employment for the first time in their lives.

Mohammed Kamruzzaman is an education specialist with the aid group BRAC. He told Reuters that 150 of its female teachers had stopped coming to work in January after receiving or hearing about "violent threats".

I'm Caty Weaver.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

Reuters News Agency reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

magical - adj. related to having a special power, influence, or skill

flexible - adj. able to change or to do different things

slaughter - n. the act of killing animals for their meat

vendetta - n. a very long and violent fight between two families or groups

recruitment - n. the act of finding suitable people and getting them to join a company, an organization, the armed forces, etc.

front line - n. the most important and active position in a job or field of activity

bamboo - n. a tall plant with hard hollow stems that are used for building and to make furniture, tools, etc.

atrocity - n. a very cruel or terrible act or action