Prominent leader’s assassination highlights the plight of Rohingya Muslims


A prominent Rohingya Muslim leader has been shot dead in a refugee camp in southern Bangladesh.

Mohibullah, who was in his late 40s, led one of the largest of several community groups to emerge since more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar after a military crackdown in August 2017, Al Jazeera reported.

He was talking with other refugee leaders outside his office after attending evening prayers when a gunman shot him at least three times, Mohammad Nowkhim, a spokesman of Mohibullah’s Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARPSH), said.

A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the agency was “deeply saddened” by the killing.

Invited to the White House and to speak to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Mohibullah was one of the most high-profile advocates for the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority that has faced persecution for generations.

Mohibullah formed the ARPSH in a Bangladeshi camp months after the influx of refugees from Myanmar, and it helped investigate the carnage carried out by the Myanmar armies and the Buddhist militias during the crackdown.

In August 2019, he organized a massive rally at Kutapalong camp, the main Rohingya settlement, which some 200,000 Rohingya attended. The rally confirmed his top leadership among the refugees.

But in recent years, Bangladeshi security forces restricted the activities of Mohibullah’s group and ARPSH was not allowed to hold any rallies during the anniversary of the crackdown in 2020 and 2021.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are an ethnic group, the majority of whom are Muslim, who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. Currently, there are about 1.1 million Rohingya in the Southeast Asian country.

The Rohingya speak Rohingya or Ruaingga, a dialect that is distinct to others spoken throughout Myanmar. They are not considered one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless.

Nearly all of the Rohingya in Myanmar live in the western coastal state of Rakhine and are not allowed to leave without government permission. It is one the poorest states in the country, with ghetto-like camps and a lack of basic services and opportunities.

Due to ongoing violence and persecution, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighboring countries either by land or boat over the course of many decades.

Since the 1970s, a number of crackdowns on the Rohingya in Rakhine State have forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, as well as Malaysia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. During such crackdowns, refugees have often reported rape, torture, arson and murder by Myanmar security forces.

In November 2016, a UN official accused the government of carrying out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. It was not the first time such an accusation has been made.

In April 2013, for example, HRW said Myanmar was conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. The government has consistently denied such accusations.

2020 was ‘deadliest’ year ever for Rohingya sea journeys: UNHCR

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says that 2020 was the deadliest year on record for refugees crossing the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, the favored sea route for Rohingya attempting to reach Southeast Asia from the sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Of the 2,413 people known to have travelled in 2020, 218 died or went missing at sea, the UNHCR said in a new report: Left Adrift at Sea: Dangerous Journeys of Refugees Across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, which was released on August 19, 2021.  That made an already dangerous journey eight times more deadly than in 2019.

The agency noted that many countries in Southeast Asia tightened their borders as part of their response to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving many refugees stranded at sea. That number was the highest since the region’s “boat crisis” of 2015.

“As long as States bordering the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal are reluctant to rescue and land those in distress at sea, that collective failure to act will have tragic and fatal consequences,” Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, said in the report. “We can and must do better.”

Over the past 10 years, thousands of Rohingya refugees have tried to reach safety in Southeast Asia – usually in Malaysia or Indonesia – after being denied their basic rights in their native Myanmar. After a brutal military crackdown in 2017 that is now the subject of a genocide investigation, hundreds and thousands fled across the border to Bangladesh where they now live in crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar or on the remote, low-lying island of Bhasan Char.

The agency noted reports that countries had “pushed back” vessels leaving refugees marooned for months on unseaworthy boats which lacked food and water.

The report comes in the same week a boat carrying about 40 Rohingya refugees capsized in bad weather in the Bay of Bengal after the group tried to escape Bhasan Char. Fishermen rescued about 14 people who were taken back to the island but more than two dozen others were feared drowned.

In June, a boat carrying 81 people washed ashore on an uninhabited island off the Indonesian island of Sumatra after drifting for more than 100 days at sea. Refugee workers say the group, many of them women and children, had originally come from camps in Bangladesh to waters off the coast of India. When their boat broke down, the Indian coastguard fixed it and gave them supplies but did not allow them to land.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America ( email:  [email protected]

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