An assassination in Cox’s Bazar

Rohingya leader Mohib Ullah’s killing should force an awakening.

An assassination in Cox’s Bazar
Mohib Ullah, a leader for the Rohingya community, attends a rally in August 2019 organised to remember the second anniversary of the Rohingya crisis when Myanmar's military crackdown on the ethnic Muslim minority forced over 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh from violence and torture. Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Mohib Ullah, a prominent Rohingya leader, was not unaccustomed to death threats. He survived multiple attempts on his life over the last two years. On Wednesday, September 29th, one such attempt was successful when unidentified assailants shot him dead at his office.

The former teacher came to the spotlight after he was invited to speak at the United Nations and meet the then US President Donald Trump at the White House. In 2019, he organised what was by far the largest Rohingya gathering to date, to commemorate the Rohingya genocide that had transpired two years earlier.

He was despised by Rohingya criminal gangs and radical clerics, who were threatened by his appeal to the wider Rohingya community — especially because he openly spoke against armed groups, narcotics trade and advocated for human rights and progressive education.

A large section of the fragmented Rohingya diaspora leadership also disliked the fact that a civilian leader right within the community from a squalid camp in Cox’s Bazar — as opposed to a safe haven in Europe or the United States — wielded so much influence over the agency of the Rohingya cause.

But most surprising was perhaps how the government in Bangladesh viewed and treated him — despite his enormous contribution to convincing the world that Myanmar needed to be punished for its crimes against Rohingyas. 

The 2019 event, which attracted an estimated gathering of 200,000 Rohingyas, triggered a sensational campaign in the Bangladeshi media. Mohib Ullah was accused of conspiring against Bangladesh by pitting Rohingyas against the host community. Surprisingly, it echoed a sentiment in the Bangladeshi media not unlike a typical Daily Mail coverage of refugees or migrants in the United Kingdom. It was almost as if the Rohingyas had gathered to launch an invasion against Bangladesh. 

The rally also forced a reckoning within the Bangladesh establishment, which saw the rise of a singular civilian figure within the Rohingya community as a problematic phenomenon. Here was a Rohingya leader who, empowered by the legitimacy and acceptability within his community, could decide to not toe the official line.

In 2019, at the behest of China, Bangladesh struck a shortsighted agreement with Myanmar to repatriate a small number of refugees — that too, without any consultation with the refugees themselves. The effort, unsurprisingly, failed. 

Some in the government blamed Mohib Ullah for not helping — if not directly opposing — the repatriation effort. Some others also saw a sinister Western plot to derail the repatriation effort.

The government also did not like the idea that it might need to rely on the whims of a singular figure, should it decide to enforce a major decision on the Rohingyas. Then began the effort to weaken Mohib Ullah. Some of his allies left him. He was soon confined into the office of his organization, Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPHR), where plainclothes state agents put him under almost constant surveillance. The UN’s popular campaign to elect Rohingya representatives — or Majhis — from the Rohingya community was scuttled around the same time.

While the Bangladesh government wanted to assert its control and dominance in the camps, its actions to clamp down on the Rohingya political elements emboldened violent groups such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). ARSA claims to fight for the Rohingyas but has operated in effect as a borderline criminal gang in the refugee camps. Some elements within the Bangladeshi authorities found it convenient to turn a blind eye to the operation of gangs like ARSA. When, for example, the government decided to transfer some Rohingyas to Bhashan Char, some operatives associated with ARSA allegedly issued threats to Rohingyas to cooperate with the authorities. 

Lately, however, the authorities appeared to be trying to tame the ARSA. But the violent campaign to weaken ARSA also coincided with the resurrection of a long-forgotten group, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO). RSO’s re-emergence, led by its old commanders, also came following the military coup in Myanmar. The organisation has routinely promoted materials and a manifesto by National Unity Government (NUG) in Myanmar. Efforts were also made by intermediaries to connect RSO with the Arakan Army, the dominant group in control of Rakhine, but to little success. 

Many, including family members and aides of Mohib Ullah, point their finger at ARSA for the murder – and there is a growing consensus that this was, indeed, the case. Unsurprisingly, ARSA’s opponent, RSO, circulated a statement online condemning the murder while unsarcastically and harshly criticising ARSA. 

Mohib Ullah in recent months showed signs that he was willing to cooperate with the Bangladesh government. For example, in line with the government position, his organisation issued a scathing statement criticising the World Bank’s recent proposal to integrate refugees within the host community. It is widely believed by prominent Rohingya watchers that the Bangladesh government’s realignment vis-à-vis ARSA and RSO may have been a trigger for the tragic killing.

Bangladesh’s highly ambitious military and intelligence apparatus has a history of overrating itself. It probably wanted to replicate its “successful model” in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, where it pitted one ethnic group against the other by clamping down on the stronger group while turning a blind eye to the other, in the Rohingya camps. 

Bangladesh’s successive governments could afford to treat the CHT crisis solely through a security prism and ignore its political dynamics — but the Rohingya crisis is a different ball game altogether. It is also a major humanitarian and diplomatic challenge. The government would be gravely mistaken, as evident by the killing of Mohib Ullah, to leave the Rohingya affairs to spies and security czars.

So far, the existence of armed groups has only helped the government’s case to securitise the refugee camps. The palpable absence of security and safety justified the government’s inhumane securitisation project to erect fences, build watchtowers, install surveillance cameras and execute suspected Rohingya criminals. 

But the intense securitisation of the Rohingya camps has not ensured safety and security for the refugees or the host community. These actions also aggravated the Rohingyas’ feeling of un-belongingness in Bangladesh — so much so that some of them attempted to leave Bangladesh for Rakhine, even though Rakhine remains gravely unsafe for them. In recent months, the Rakhine authorities tolerated some Rohingya returnees, with the state media dubbing it as an “informal repatriation”. 

It is a welcome sign that Western governments have refrained from calling for more “security” in the wake of the murder. They should also make it abundantly clear that Bangladesh must no longer condone or tolerate armed groups in the camps and at the same time acknowledge that securitisation is not the right answer. If anything, it only begets a climate where criminal gangs thrive.  

Bangladesh should also acknowledge that forcing some Rohingyas to go back to Rakhine, by making their lives in Bangladesh as difficult as possible, is not in its long-term interests. Instead, the government should allow Rohingya children to study in schools and learn real-life crafts and training and allow humanitarian organisations to come up with income-generating activities for the Rohingyas with support from donors. Only by making criminal enterprises unattractive will it be possible to dissuade desperate Rohingyas from joining them. 

The government should also accept and encourage Rohingya representation in the decision-making process and re-launch the UN-led process to elect community leaders. The political disenfranchisement of Rohingyas only makes them feel ignored and robbed of voice and agency. 

In 2019, in an interview with Reuters, Mohib Ullah said, “If I die, I’m fine. I will give my life.” If Mohib Ullah gave his life for anything, it would be for his people to be politically empowered.●