Photo/IllutrationRefugees at this camp for Hindus say they have been threatened by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) fighters in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh. (Ryuta Sometaya)

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COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh--Rumors of intimidation, violence and murder flowed from a sprawling, squalid camp here for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled from neighboring Myanmar.

But finding Rohingya refugees willing to talk about these incidents proved a daunting task. They were living in fear of reprisals by the alleged perpetrators of the attacks: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the self-proclaimed protector of the Rohingya refugees.

I first heard about the assaults in August 2019 in Rakhine state in the western part of Myanmar, a hotbed of sectarian conflict between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists.

Ichiro Maruyama, the Japanese ambassador to Myanmar, visited the area that month on behalf of the Myanmar government to hold hearings with refugees who had returned from Bangladesh.

The Myanmar government’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims created an international humanitarian crisis. An estimated 700,000 refugees fled the country after August 2017.

In November 2017, Myanmar and Bangladesh announced they would start repatriating refugees in stages on an “official route.”

However, no one has taken this official route.

Instead, several hundred refugees returned through “unofficial routes.”

Many of the returning refugees told me that they believed Myanmar was still a dangerous place for them.

When I asked them why they decided to return to an unsafe country, they mentioned the attacks by ARSA fighters in the refugee camp. They also said ARSA members have threatened anyone who wanted to return to Myanmar.

Returning home, especially through the official route, would indicate an acceptance of the Myanmar government’s measures. And this could weaken ARSA’s clout in its battle against the government.

ARSA is an armed organization formed by Rohingya refugees. The group’s attack against a police facility in Rakhine state in August 2017 triggered the crackdown that led to the Rohingya exodus.

ARSA on Twitter and other media has declared: “We protect Rohingya who are the most persecuted in the world.” Many Rohingyas support the group.

To find out if ARSA was actually attacking the same people it had vowed to protect, I visited the refugee camp in suburban Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh in December.

The camp was crammed with temporary housing made of bamboo and sheets provided by the United Nations. Raw sewage flowed in spaces between the homes, emitting a foul stench.

Sunlight poking through gaps between the sheets was the refugees’ only source of light.

RELUCTANT TO SPEAK ABOUT ARSA

The Rohingyas there repeatedly said: “ARSA have fought for us.”

But when asked about any troubles in the camp, they lowered their heads and remained silent.

Ninety percent of the refugees at the camp are Rohingya Muslims. Some Hindus also fled to the camp from Rakhine state amid the confusion of the Myanmar military crackdown.

The Hindus were the first ones willing to speak to me about ARSA-related problems.

Shuvash, 62, said that he and 10 other Hindu refugees were summoned to a meeting with ARSA members at the temporary home of a group member about a year ago.

The Hindu refugees demanded that ARSA return the money that they had loaned the group.

The ARSA fighters then took the 11 Hindu refugees to separate locations and assaulted them, Shuvash said. Only nine of them returned.

“The other two are probably no longer alive,” he said.

Another Hindu refugee, 41, said that around November 2018, when he was working outside the camp, he was taken to a forest by men who called themselves ARSA members.

They ordered him to read from a script in front of a video camera. When he refused, they beat him.

So he followed their orders, saying, “We Hindus are also angry about the measures taken by the Myanmar government.”

A few days later, the video spread through Facebook.

“They probably wanted to show that not only Rohingya but also Hindu refugees are angry about the Myanmar government,” the man said.

Younus, a 40-year-old who has pulled Hindu refugees together in the camp, said he was threatened by ARSA members after he expressed a desire to return to Myanmar at a meeting of representatives of camp refugees.

“You should not step out of line with us,” he quoted ARSA members as telling him. “We won’t allow you to selfishly return.”

Younus also said they told him not to attend any more meetings at the camp.

“Everybody is scared of being assaulted,” he said.

HINDUS NOT THE ONLY VICTIMS

Syed Alim, 28, a Bangladeshi reporter who helped me in my work, said Hindus are not the only targets of ARSA.

“ARSA has been involved in various crimes,” he said. “Many of the victims are Rohingyas.”

With my seven-day visa in Bangladesh nearing its expiration date, I was able to contact a Rohingya refugee who said her husband was killed by ARSA.

She was worried about speaking with a foreign reporter, so I let a Bangladeshi interpreter talk to her first.

Arif Tasmin, 30, then granted me the interview.

“My husband was repeatedly asked by ARSA to join the group, but he refused,” Tasmin said.

In July 2018, her husband, Urah, 35, was stabbed in the chest and other body parts and died on a street outside the camp, she said.

Tasmin said the crime was committed in public, and three suspects were immediately arrested. But she said she was never informed about the motive for the attack or whether the assailants were connected to ARSA.

Tasmin, citing a warning for her husband to be careful a few days before the fatal assault, said she has no doubts on who was responsible for his death.

“It was definitely ARSA,” she said.

However, she did say, “To be honest, I didn’t want to talk about it now that Myanmar has been sued at the International Court of Justice.”

In November 2019, Gambia filed a lawsuit against the Myanmar government at the ICJ, the United Nations’ highest court, accusing it of committing genocide against the Rohingyas.

In December, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s top political leader, defended her country against the charges at the court.

Tasmin said she was worried that telling her story could influence the court’s ruling if people around the world knew there are bad people among the Rohingya Muslims.

When I tried to ask her some in-depth questions, Tasmin’s relatives stopped her from speaking further, saying: “Don’t say anything else.”

According to Syed Alim, the Bangladeshi reporter, more than 40 people have been killed at the camp within a year. Although ARSA is believed to be behind many of the incidents, refugees won’t discuss the details even to local reporters.

When I thought I had to wrap up my interviews, I made contact with a 25-year-old Rohingya man who agreed to be interviewed by phone.

LAWLESS CAMP

The man said he was taken to an unknown location by seven or eight masked men in October 2019.

“We heard that you want to return to Myanmar,” they said, before punching him twice in the face.

He said he had told his family and friends that he wanted to return, and that information must have somehow found its way to ARSA.

He said they issued a further threat: “If you say you want to return, we will keep observing you forever. No one can protect you if you step out from the camp.”

The man said he no longer uses the word “return.”

He introduced me to a 67-year-old Rohingya refugee who told me about his near-experience with ARSA fighters.

A few months ago, he said, about 20 ARSA members arrived at his temporary home in the camp, but he was not there at the time.

“I had consulted with the United Nations because I knew that ARSA members have sold relief supplies given by the U.N.,” he said.

He said he believes that the ARSA members who visited his home planned to punish him.

He has since moved around among the temporary homes of acquaintances to avoid the fighters.

“Many people have noticed that ARSA members are doing strange things, but no one can say anything because we fear them,” he said. “If we opposed them, we would be ignored by our friends who have believed that ARSA is the group that is protecting Rohingyas.”

A Bangladesh staff member of international medical aid organization Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) explained the reasons for ARSA’s aggressive tactics in the camp.

“A group of several hundred people in the camp identify themselves as ARSA. With prolonged living in the camp, young people who have lost hope for the future are inclined to join the group. There are no specific leaders, and they keep changing their alignments,” the staff member said.

ARSA is also involved in illegal drugs and prostitution, and its activities have been expanding for a year, the member said.

“At night, the camp becomes almost lawless after Bangladeshi police and NGO members leave. ARSA is apparently working under such conditions,” the member said.

According to a member of British charity group Christian Aid, more than a dozen Rohingya families confirmed that they wanted to return to Myanmar 48 hours before their scheduled departure from Bangladesh in November 2018.

But on the day of the return, no one showed any desire to leave Bangladesh. Some refugees mentioned “pressure from ARSA.”

“By delaying the return, ARSA might be trying to maintain its power of being a symbol of the Rohingya,” a member of an NGO said.

Through the interviews with the refugees, I felt that further postponements in repatriation will cause the threats by ARSA to spread at the camp.

(Ryuta Sometaya is chief of The Asahi Shimbun’s Yangon Bureau.)

CORRECTION

The original eighth paragraph that cited "several hundred thousand refugees" was corrected to "several hundred refugees" on Jan. 22.