Reign of terror
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - October 17, 2020 - 12:00am

Fear and violence are coming to a boil in the biggest refugee camp in the world, with the lives and safety of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable refugees at risk. The atrocities that sent Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar/Burma were already horrific and are alleged to amount to genocide. So why are governments, aid agencies, rights campaigners and others that have otherwise spoken in favor of the protection of Rohingya studiously turning a blind eye now that thousands are once again fleeing for safety from violent attacks?

In the past week, I’ve heard several separate accounts of what has been happening in the sprawling makeshift shelters on the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar. None of the people who spoke to me were willing to go on the record for fear that they would become victims of the group they say is most responsible for the violence that has burst out of control.

Accounts on mainstream outlets say that this is a turf war between rival drug dealing gangs: on one side is the Munna group, on the other is “a faction” of the notorious armed rebels who are variously called Harakah al-Yaqin (aka al Yaqin in English “Faith Movement”) or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) by analysts and journalists. Other refugees often call them “Hala Fati” – in English it’s literally “Black Party” possibly because some of them wear black clothes, so it’s something like calling them “those guys in black” because they don’t want to use their real names for fear and resentment.

Brief news reports about the week of deadly violence from Oct. 4 frame it as a matter of rivalry between criminal gangs over drugs in which at least seven people have been killed and thousands of refugees were forced to flee their temporary shelters, some of which were set ablaze. There is huge cross-border trade in “yaba” – “crazy pill” – what Filipinos know as shabu. A mind-boggling 40 million pieces were intercepted by authorities in 2017, now  consider how much more was not, and how much more the business has expanded since, in this southern area of Bangladesh that’s been described as relatively lawless.

The Bangladesh government reportedly deployed additional police, border guards and military to bring the situation under control. A joint force conducted raids in the camps throughout the week and arrested at least nine armed Rohingya for their involvement in clashes. But it comes too late: security wasn’t provided previously and that compounded lawlessness within the camps and may have given the chance for violent groups to take control.

“Both gangs are dealing illegal drugs and all should be arrested but it’s   important to know that Munna has a few people – maybe 30-40 – doing illegal drug trade. ARSA has more than 5,000 in all camps and Munna doesn’t undertake terrorist activities such as killing, abduction, murdering, etc,” I was told.

According to one account ARSA is close to taking over in all but two of the camps, and if such accounts are to be believed, ARSA members’ violent intimidation of the very people they claim to defend has been going on for years.

Back in August 2017 it was ARSA’s simultaneous attacks on around 30 Myanmar security forces’ positions (supposedly to defend Rohingya people) that provided the de facto military government of Myanmar with the excuse to unleash the horrific brutality of the subsequent “clearance operations.” Satellite images showed almost 290 Rohingya villages were totally or partially destroyed in North Rakhine State in the far west of the country. Author Carlos Sardiña Galache writes in his recent book “The Burmese Labyrinth” that the full extent of the Myanmar army’s attacks still isn’t known because independent researchers have been refused entry ever since, but estimates range from the “most conservative estimations” of 6,700 killed including 730 children younger than 5 years of age, by the aid agency Doctors Without Borders, to 24,800 deaths and around 18,500 raped by a group of international researchers.

Aid agencies scrambled to help the more than 700,000 people who crossed the border into Bangladesh. They say they need $877 million to fund their joint response plan this year but it’s only half funded. An online international donor conference will be held on Oct. 22 to urge countries to increase assistance for Rohingya refugees, host communities and internally displaced people in Myanmar.

The UN and major donors have reiterated that any sustainable solution to this crisis must include the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees and other displaced people to their homes or to a place of their choosing. The Myanmar government is blaming Bangladesh for the delay in repatriating the Rohingya because, its representatives say, Dhaka has failed to crack down on ARSA. The Bangladesh government has rejected the suggestion that it is harboring the insurgents and troops and has almost completed building a razor wire fence around the camps to prevent people leaving.

It’s difficult to verify the allegations of ARSA’s activities independently, because people won’t risk speaking out for fear they will be abducted, tortured, beaten and even killed as has happened in several cases. However, the sheer volume of complaints and the reliability and desperation of the refugees making them indicate there is certainly a case at least for further investigation and increased protection. I was told that ARSA members operate openly, holding meetings and giving speeches at mosques. They extort 500 taka (about $6) from small shops and 3,000 to 5,000 taka ($35 to $60) from big shops. If anyone refuses to pay, they are beaten, tortured or killed. Women are forced to wear burqas and marry ARSA members. The boys in black reportedly have taken nearly all the solar lights that aid agencies placed along the road to help women specifically and others to feel safer. Conversely, evidence has not emerged to back Myanmar government claims of ARSA’s links with international jihadists and the threat that it poses to the state.

“Aid workers take the information we give them but no one is brave enough to contradict the Bangladesh government,” I was told. Meanwhile in the camps, people are once again living in terror that they may be killed, women assaulted or forced into early marriage. “They kidnapped and slaughtered uncountable innocents in the camps,” said another refugee. “Their tactics are so inhumane and terrible, we are forced to become blind, deaf, helpless and hopeless.”

The situation is increasingly unbearable and literally unspeakable. If the refugees say nothing, they will be killed; if they say something they will also be killed.

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