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Dhaka Tribune

Everything you always wanted to know about Mohib Ullah

His untimely death should challenge Bangladesh to seek changes

Update : 06 Oct 2021, 01:41 AM

Mohib Ullah was gunned down in his office in Kutupalong on September 29. His assassination is perhaps the most high-profile killing that has happened in the Rohingya camps of southeastern Bangladesh.

Unlike many of the Rohingya leaders and spokespersons in the diaspora, Mohib Ullah was no stranger to operating in a complex political landscape.

In Myanmar, he was the chairman of the local branch of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party for several years.

As far back as 2011, as chairman of the Regional Development Association (RDA) of Maungdaw Town, Mohib Ullah had run-ins with other Rohingya belonging to other political organizations and/or armed rebellion groups.

This set him apart somewhat and, unsurprisingly, Rohingya leadership in the diaspora looked at him askance when he began to emerge as a figure to contend with in the camps of Bangladesh.

In Myanmar, he was also a teacher and did community work for the French NGO, Gret.

What did he stand for?

Mohib Ullah emerged when the Bangladesh authorities started to issue Rohingya refugees with smart cards in 2018.

The refugees were suspicious that this was a means to collect information to share with Myanmar. They were doubly troubled that the word "Rohingya" was not present on the card.

Rohingya organizations in the diaspora were lukewarm in their opposition to the smart card. Within the camps, however, the mobilization against the cards was headed by Mohib Ullah.

He was head of Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), an organization that was becoming increasingly vocal. ARSPH succeeded in spreading alarm about the smart cards. As a consequence, ARSPH came to the notice of the Bangladeshi authorities.

On the ground, the mobilization against the card was patchy and perhaps even tokenistic.

A face-saving compromise was found, and it was claimed that the term "Rohingya" had been added as a field within the database that logged family information. However the word was not present on the card itself.

Mohib Ullah was pragmatic. He announced his campaign a success, calling it off in December 2018, and then finally took the card himself in February of 2019.

2019 was to be a pivotal year for Mohib Ullah.

He travelled to the US, spoke to President Donald Trump in the Oval Office in a group meeting, and addressed the UN Human Rights Council.

These highlights from 2019 have been flagged in the many news reports about Mohib Ullah that have appeared after his assassination.

However, these events were to be eclipsed by the remembrance meeting he organized on August 25, 2019 -- the second anniversary of the Myanmar clearance operations.

Over 100,000 Rohingya gathered to remember those killed by the Myanmar military in 2017. The prayer meeting was an emotional one as speaker after speaker spoke of their gratitude to Bangladesh and pledged their dedication to the struggle for justice.

"No more genocide," they chanted and:  "We want justice."

At the same time, they reiterated their desire to go back to their motherland, Myanmar.

On that day, Mohib Ullah symbolized Rohingya dignity and a sense of self-worth and self-respect.

Videos and photographs of Mohib Ullah addressing the massive gathering of white-shirted Rohingya youth, demanding action against Myanmar and justice for Rohingya, provided imagery very different from the visual tropes usually deployed when referencing Rohingya refugees -- of a broken people crying out to be saved and pleading for aid.

Yet the portents weren’t quite right. The gathering happened in tense circumstances -- just days earlier there had been a failed repatriation attempt by the government of Bangladesh.

There was also the killing of a ruling party cadre by a Rohingya.

The massive event Mohib Ullah pulled off was seen in some circles as an affront to Bangladesh.

Overnight, he became perceived as a person to watch, a potential enemy.

Large swathes of the Bangladeshi body politic perceived the remembrance event as some kind of challenge and Mohib Ullah as someone who could potentially be trouble down the line.

Mohibullah's card was marked.

And for the refugees in general, there followed measure after restrictive measure, starting with mobile sim confiscation, a ban on 3G and 4G internet, and barbed wire fencing.

Who wanted him dead?

"It was the work of ARSA," Habib Ullah, the younger brother of Mohib Ullah, said.

His testimony is damning, and was delivered to newsmen in person the day after the assasination.

Habibullah claimed to be present at the shooting and, at considerable risk to himself, named the killers and the organization behind it.

The victim himself had a clear idea of the threat he was under.

In a series of WhatsApp recordings he sent to a contact in North America, Mohib Ullah explicitly states that ARSA were not happy that he had resisted coming under their control.

He said he had evaded their calls to go to Myanmar. Moreover, Mohib Ullah presciently paints a scenario of how he might be killed by a gunman.

He states that the only reason that ARSA forces have not finished him off as yet is because of the international opprobrium it would bring.

Possibly the most explosive recording is one where Mohibullah states unequivocally that "they (ARSA) work hand in glove with the government."

Bangladesh has always pushed back on the idea that ARSA is on its soil. What it cannot deny however is the presence of armed groups in the camps.

Indeed, their existence has led the Bangladesh authorities to develop a rhetoric based around criminality to justify a panoply of restrictive security and punitive measures affecting the refugees.

In line with this, Bangladesh's narrative is that Mohib Ullah represented a moderate leadership which was supportive of the central tenet of Bangladeshi policy -- repatriation.

It was for this reason he was killed by those who oppose repatriation or harbour "vested interests," as Foreign Minister AK Momen put it.

Indeed in an extraordinary interview conducted by local news channel TTN, on August 25, Mohib Ullah claimed that repatriation was about to get underway. He further stated that it could start as early as October of 2021.

He said to the interviewer that the "National Unity Government (NUG)" of Myanmar had agreed a set of terms and that at the forthcoming UN meeting these matters would be decided upon and if resolved, then repatriation would proceed.

His words, however, had no basis in reality. Suspicion exists that they were scripted for him to deliver, and designed to be heard by Rohingya in the camps, who for want of knowledge, would believe them.

Whatever might be the case, Mohib Ullah was not naive enough to believe the things he said. The very idea of an October 2021 repatriation with the situation in Myanmar as it is does not merit serious consideration.

His analysis was particularly odd given that Bangladeshi ministers have refrained from talking about actual repatriation time-frames.

Coincidentally, and seemingly out of the blue, a month after Mohib Ullah's interview and a day before the assassination, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal  said that repatriation would start very soon.

How could something like this have happened?

The camps are bristling with barbed wire, spies, and various law and order operatives. Mohib Ullah was under constant surveillance.

Yet the gunmen were able to enter, fire several shots at Mohib Ullah and then depart without hindrance.

The world has heard about Mohib Ullah because of his leadership status. Yet last October when carnage was unfolding with fighting in the camps for days on end, there was very little headline news unlike now.

2,000 people were displaced and sought refuge in nearby camps, away from the violence. Hundreds were injured, and there were nine recorded deaths. Yet the same spies and law and order operatives were operating then as they are now.

The killers, whoever they were and of whatever badge, appeared to have had free rein as they seemed to have done on September 29.

What does this mean for the future?

The international response to Mohib Ullah's death has been such that it has reminded Rohingya and their advocates that the capacity of refugees to live in security, and assert their claims to basic rights is not at all straightforward in Bangladesh.

In particular refugees are denied participation in political processes that affect them.

For Bangladesh, a simplistic approach to security and the devolution of responsibility of the refugee camps to the state’s various law and order and intelligence agencies has proved to be dangerously flawed.

It is a blemish on the reputation Bangladesh acquired when it gave shelter to a million Rohingya refugees.

Mohib Ullah's untimely death should challenge Bangladesh to seek changes so that refugees themselves are active agents of their own future and in which their basic freedoms are protected and respected.

Shafiur Rahman is a journalist and documentary film-maker.

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