Several Rohingya leaders have been planning to hold anti-repatriation rallies across all Rohingya camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf upazilas in Cox's Bazar for a while now and, as per the plan, the first demonstration took place on Monday morning.
Initiated by the leaders, Rohingyas took part in the anti-repatriation rally which was organized at Balukhali 1 camp in Ukhiya before 9am. The demonstrators demanded reinstatement of their civil rights and termed the repatriation process unsafe.
An organizer of the rally, seeking anonymity, told the Dhaka Tribune: “We are not against our repatriation but we want safe passage and repatriation to Rakhine, and we feel the situation there has not improved yet and it’s not safe for us.
“Today, we have organized our first successful rally. Now, we are thinking of going to all the camps to share our message with other Rohingyas who need to know that this is related to our lives. We do not want to be persecuted anymore.”
How are the Rohingya refugees organizing?
When asked about the specific time frame for demonstrations, the organizers said they chose the morning because camp areas remain under Section 144 from 5pm until 9am the next day. During this time, no outsider is allowed to enter the camp areas with the exception of security officials.
They added that the vigilance of law enforcers is usually low during this time, and this allows them the scope to arrange meetings and carry out their activities.
However, law enforcement agencies and camp officials did not know about any such rallies taking place or who were organizing them. They said the intelligence wing of the agencies are now searching for information on the matter.
This correspondent managed to witness the demonstration after he received information from some Rohingyas that a rally was taking place. He then managed to make contact with some leaders and talk to them about their demands.
The demonstrators chanted slogans holding placards and banners at a secluded part of the camp. They said the Myanmar Army and their associate Moghs were still burning down entire Rohingya villages and markets in Rakhine, and were also torturing the remaining Rohingya people there, resulting in the continuing exodus of Rohingya refugees.
The refugees' demands
Pointing out that the reinstatement of the ethnic status of Rohingya was the foremost demand of the displaced community, Rohingya leader Abu Harees said: “We want the restoration of our right to freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and freedom of association.”
“Hold all the perpetrators of acts of violence accountable for the crimes that they have committed in Arakan (Rakhine). Allow immediately to resume international humanitarian relief works in all affected areas,” he added.
Abu Mushud, another Rohingya Leader, said: “We want a UN-led international and independent investigation and enquiry team in Arakan. We definitely want to go back our native Arakan with all our Rohingya people, but it should be safe.”
“It only can be safe when a neutral safeguard like a UN peacekeeping force will help us for our safe return,” he added, voicing demands for the full implementation of the Kofi Anan-led Advisory Commission’s recommendations on Rakhine State and the five-point proposal recently placed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at a meeting of the United Nations.
Rohingyas not ready for repatriation
Earlier, the Rohingya refugees living in the no man’s land between Myanmar’s Tambru and Bangladesh’s Konapara border areas, who were protesting the repatriation process, found renewed justification for anxiety as many were on the list of Rohingya handed to Myanmar.
Demonstrating in Tambru’s no man’s land on Saturday and Sunday, the refugees said they wanted the Myanmar government to accede to their demands, including ensuring their safety and rights, before they are sent back.
After the Myanmar Army crackdown in Rakhine state that began on August 25, 2017, nearly 700,000 displaced Rohingyas entered Bangladesh, while several hundred thousand more have been living in Cox’s Bazar for years, Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission said.
Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingyas as citizens, and forces many of them to live in squalid camps with apartheid-like conditions.
Dhaka and Naypyidaw signed an agreement to repatriate the Rohingya refugees in November last year. Though the process was scheduled to begin in January, it was delayed.
Hundreds of Rohingya refugees staged protests at Kutupalang camp as the repatriation was to begin, refusing to be sent back unless the conditions were safe.
The protest came ahead of a visit by UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee to the camps, and Monday’s protest was held on the same issue.
Meanwhile, police in January arrested two 60-year-old Rohingya refugees, Abdul Jabbar and Ali Hossain, for protesting against repatriation. In addition, two Rohingya men were killed over disagreements on repatriation at Kutupalang and Balukhali camps in the same month.
“The Rohingyas, since the signing of the repatriation deal, have been holding protest rallies against the return proceedings, but police are always alert to any kind of untoward situation. We have already arrested some people who attempted to commit misdeeds in the camps,” said Md Abul Khayer, officer-in-charge of Ukhiya police station. Around 75% of the Rohingya refugees have been sheltered in Ukhiya.
Kutupalaung Registered Rohingya Camp In-charge Rezaul Karim said: “The anti-repatriation groups sometimes gather and vanish in a flash after completing their misdeeds. We are collecting information about such groups through law enforcers and intelligence agencies.”