Md Mohibullah, chairman of Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, came to the limelight on August 25 this year when a rally organised by Arakan Rohingya Society to observe two years of the latest Rohingya exodus from the Rakhine state of Myanmar, drew more than 100,000 people.
The rally, at which Mohibullah called for a dialogue with Myanmar authorities before the start of repatriation, came only three days after not a single Rohingya showed up for the repatriation process initiated by the Bangladesh government. The Myanmar government had earlier approved a list of more than 3,000 people eligible to be brought back to Myanmar.
Ever since, Mohibullah has been the subject of some scathing criticism and has drawn suspicion from various quarters about his intentions and patrons. In an exclusive interview with The Business Standard's Mubin S Khan, Mohibullah talks about why the Rohingyas refuse to go back to Myanmar now and what needs to be done to convince them to return.
The August 25 rally to observe Rohingya Genocide Day at the camp came as a surprise not just to the authorities but most Bangladeshis as well. Questions have been raised about how all these people were brought together in one place and how the event was financed. Some have even described the event as a conspiracy against Bangladesh. How do you respond to these allegations?
We had observed the Rohingya Genocide Day on August 25 last year, and this was nothing out of the ordinary. This is an important event for the Rohingya people, which is why so many people showed up. We had informed people through our members – we have a camp committee at every camp. We also distributed leaflets at markets inside the camp. Our total expenditure for the event was Tk23,200, including printing five banners that were used at the event. We collected the money through community donation boxes. We have a full break down of how much money we collected and how we spent it, and we have shown that to the authorities. We still have not paid out Tk7,400.
At the rally, we thanked the Bangladesh government and the people of Bangladesh for their generosity, even though we did not mention any individual. The question of hatching a conspiracy against Bangladesh is ridiculous.
In which case, where do you think all this criticism and suspicion is stemming from?
These criticisms are essentially being driven by our diaspora. We have many diaspora groups – BOR in Malaysia, RRCW in London, RCDC in Germany – who are constantly vying to become our official voice and make decisions for us. Now that we are taking up the mantle of our decision-making ourselves, they are not too happy. For example, ARU representatives came to our camp and asked us to directly to support. When we didn't, they got angry and are now conspiring against us.
Last month, you travelled to the US as a representative of the Rohingya community and met US President Donald Trump. You have subsequently been criticised for not raising the Rohingya issue during your meeting. You seem to have come out of nowhere and become the authoritative voice of the Rohingya community. Some say you have been propped up by international NGOs working in the camps. How do you respond to such allegations?
Donald Trump had walked in from another meeting and told us right at the start that he did not have time to speak to us and all our issues would be handled by his vice-president and the secretary of state. That is why I did not raise our issue. When my turn came to speak to him, I slipped in one question: "We have been thrown out of our country and we want to go back. What is your plan to help us?"
We seem to have become everyone's enemy. The locals hate us, the government is suspicious of us because we organised this rally and the NGOs hate us as well because we hold them accountable for the relief they provide us. When their contractors use Rohingyas to implement projects but then don't pay them, we take up the issue.
Why do the locals hate you? In fact, it appears the goodwill Rohingyas enjoyed at the start of the influx appears to have largely disappeared and the locals seem very disgruntled.
This has become a complicated situation. The bad blood in the relation with local people is being sown by the local media. We don't really understand why they are doing this and we are very confused. We had never before dealt with the media because there is no media from where we come from. We have no idea why they decided to reject us. We are the victims, I don't know why we are being made out to be perpetrators. There should be some form of accountability for the media.
You claim to be a 'peaceful leader' of Rohingyas. The latest exodus of Rohingyas was however triggered by the actions of armed groups and Myanmar claims these violent groups enjoy popularity among the Rohingyas. How do you distinguish yourself from those who advocate an armed struggle against the Myanmar army?
The support for armed groups among Rohingyas is very little, and it is dwindling by the day. The Rohingya people realise that an armed struggle against the Myanmar state is futile. The Tamils were the strongest armed group in the world and they fought the Sri Lankan government for the longest time, and yet they were defeated. Armed groups can become strong, but governments grow stronger. We are a small community in a very large state. Talk of armed struggle is both ridiculous and dangerous.
The August 22 repatriation attempt was the second occasion when such attempts have failed. There is now a growing fear among Bangladeshis and the government that the Rohingyas are unwilling to return especially because of the comfort provided at the camps.
As I explained to the government, Myanmar is simply playing a game with repatriation and does not plan to take us back. They are still torturing our people and burning our houses, so it is impossible for us to return now. The process through which our repatriation is being planned is in itself flawed. Allowing Myanmar to vet each and every application, and then repatriate no more than 2,000 to 3,000 people at a time, is not useful. It will take a few lifetimes for all Rohingyas to return at this pace.
Myanmar should be made to agree in writing that they will take back all of the 12 lakh Rohingyas living in Bangladesh. We will then provide proof of residency for each and every one of them. We have that proof, it won't be that difficult to provide.
Do you expect to go back anytime soon?
Yes, and I see progress in that direction. The visiting Myanmar minister agreed to sit with us on our three-point demand – citizenship, ethnicity, and safety and security. To that, we would add, the right to return to our own homesteads in the Rakhine state.
We are ready to go back as soon as possible.
But do you think the Myanmar government would ever create the circumstances for your safe return?
They would, if the right kind of international pressure is put on them. If pressure is put on the Myanmar generals through the Independent Fact-Finding Mission, if the US government sanctions them and if China becomes proactive, the Myanmar military will be compelled to relent.
The Bangladesh government recently decided to restrict the use of mobile phone inside camps. Some feel this is a part of a larger government move to put pressure on Rohingya community to agree to repatriation.
It doesn't really matter to us. We don't need mobile phones to keep in touch because all of us live inside camps, very close to each other, and news and information can spread through the word of mouth. We don't have a livelihood and we are not traders, so mobiles are not that important for that either. It's the Bangladeshi mobile companies that will lose the revenue.