DHAKA: It began with a message on WhatsApp. Soon, the notification calling for Rohingya refugees to attend a mass rally in Bangladesh Cox’s Bazar spread to popular social media sites.
The rally, marking two years since the start of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar, was attended by more than 100,000 refugees on Aug. 25. Now, to avoid any future rallies, Bangladeshi authorities have clamped down on the internet in Cox’s Bazar and heightened surveillance.
“The mass gathering created a lot of tension (with host communities), so we had to increase monitoring of the refugee camps,” Ashraful Afsar, additional district commissioner of Cox’s Bazar, told Arab News, adding that authorities are trying to track the rally’s sources of funds.
“We came to know that many Rohingyas contributed from their pocket to organize the rally,” he said, adding that some refugees were illegally employed outside the camps, with some making money by selling humanitarian aid in
“To restrict Rohingyas’ movement outside the refugee camps and ensure the security of host communities, we’re planning to build barbed wire fencing along the camp areas,” Afsar said.
“We’re afraid that some Rohingyas may get involved with smuggling the drug Yaba, which is smuggled from Myanmar.”
But Rohingya community leader Mohammed Nur told Arab News that funds for the rally were raised from legitimate salaries, with nearly 10,000 Rohingyas employed by local and international NGOs.
Last week, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission directed all mobile operators to shut down 3G and 4G internet services from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day.
“We’ve taken the decision to maintain law and order in the camps, and it will remain effective until further notice,” BTRC Chairman Jahirul Huq told Arab News.
He said 900,000 illegal sim cards had been traced from the camp areas, and were being used by Rohingyas.
“For any emergency communication, we’ve kept 2G mobile communication uninterrupted, so it won’t disrupt emergency services,” Huq added.
Afsar said: “All these illegal sims will be blocked in different phases.”
Abul Hossain, a 24-year-old Rohingya refugee in Balukhali camp, said: “My older brother has lived in Malaysia for the last five years. I usually talk with him twice a week via the Internet, but for the last week I couldn’t reach him due to Internet restrictions.”
Nobi Alam, a 37-year-old refugee in Kutupalang camp, said: “Three of my uncles and cousins still live in Rakhine (in Myanmar). Previously, I could contact them at a very nominal cost through the Internet, but now it has become very costly for me to receive any updates from Myanmar.”
Authorities say the clampdown is necessary as some Rohingyas are involved in illegal activities.
According to data provided by the district police, 187 cases were filed against Rohingyas up to Aug. 25 this year, more than double the 76 cases filed in 2017.
“We’ve increased patrolling inside the camps. In additionally to the seven existing police stations, two more will be established soon,” Ikbal Hossain, additional police superintendent in Cox’s Bazar, told Arab News. So far, “everything is under control and implementation of many steps is underway,” he said.
Faruk Khan, a ruling party lawmaker, said the government has “reason to worry,” adding: “I suggest that the Rohingyas be repatriated to Rakhine state, in a safe zone under the surveillance of the UN and ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) unless their demands are fulfilled by the Myanmar authorities.”
He said some Rohingyas are now trying to get Bangladeshi passports and migrate to other countries.
“If these Rohingyas get involved with any crime in other countries, the responsibility will fall on our shoulders and it will hurt Bangladesh’s reputation, so at this point we want a quick solution to the Rohingya crisis,” Khan added.
Rohingya community leaders say the rally was necessary to make their voices heard to the international community.
Bangladesh hosts more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar due to a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar that the UN said had “genocidal intent.”