Rohingya have lost a pioneering leader in Mohibullah
Refugee camps are places of misery and despair more often than places of refuge and hope. In such precarious conditions, some of humanity’s best impulses can come to life. But at least as often, some of the worst impulses will also become manifest. The tragic assassination of Mohibullah, one of the most humane and effective community leaders in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, by fellow Rohingya reveals the ugly and self-destructive side of people caught up in a struggle for survival.
Back in Myanmar, Mohibullah used to be a science teacher and administrator — a public servant with a knack for numbers and evidence. As soon as he arrived in the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar in 2017, fleeing as the Myanmar army burned down his village, he began collecting information from his neighbors in the camp, trying to compile a list of those killed in the attacks, checking and cross-referencing every bit of testimony the victims could provide. The hope was that, one day, some international court would use this information to bring the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity to justice.
For this purpose, Mohibullah founded a nongovernmental organization, the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, which raised his profile among the community and foreign NGOs working in the Bangladesh camps. Through his documentary work, and his advocacy for the rights and needs of the refugees, he became known to the wider international network of human rights workers in the region. They, in turn, invited him to speak to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2019, as well as to the White House. But though he had every opportunity to seek asylum while in the West, Mohibullah went straight back to his work in the camps, documenting and advocating for the community.
Unfortunately, what is best for a community is not always best for some people in that community. And those who work to serve the community always find enemies among those whose private interests they cross. Like most international observers, Mohibullah argued that the best outcome for the Rohingya is for them to be allowed to return to Myanmar, provided they had guaranteed equal rights with other citizens of the country — rights they had been denied for decades. But not everyone in the camps would be served by the betterment of their community.
Refugee camps, especially those as large as the sites in Cox’s Bazar, where more than 1 million people huddle together in an extremely precarious situation, are places where enforcing the kind of law and order and community policing we are used to in normal society is virtually impossible. In that vacuum of law and order, “alternative” political and economic ways of organizing emerge — that is to say, gangs, informal (criminal) markets and, inevitably, extremist groups.
We do not know exactly which group was responsible for the daylight assassination of Mohibullah, although his brother, Habibullah, said that he saw the killing and that elements of the extremist Islamist Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army were responsible. But in any case, both Islamist extremists and traditional criminal gangs would have an equal motive to remove any community leader with wide public credibility who would advocate for a return to some kind of normalcy within the broader political context. The kind of political and economic interests that are served by the destitution and despair of a refugee camp would be threatened by the betterment of the overall community.
Unfortunately, those who work to serve the community always find enemies among those whose private interests they cross.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
There is a wider lesson for everyone here, even those living comfortable lives in stable, developed societies: You and I may have a vested interest in what is best for our communities and societies overall, but not everyone does. And there are plenty of people who will put their own private motives and gain before what is best for the community as a whole. We must never be complacent about these basic facts of the human experience, lest we allow the worst of us to dictate how all of us should live our lives.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim