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Inside the October violence in the Rohingya refugee camps

  • Published at 08:58 am October 23rd, 2020
Rohingya camp clashes
Continued clashes in Kutupalong Rohingya camp, Octover 7, 2020 Dhaka Tribune

Is it a clash between registered camp refugees and non-registered camp refugees or is there something more sinister afoot?

In the first week of October 2020, a certain number of Rohingya refugee camps in Kutupalong became battlegrounds.

Around 2,000 people left their shelters and sought refuge in nearby camps, away from the violence. Hundreds were injured, and there were nine recorded deaths. There have also been a number of abductions and disappearances.

The local media described the incidents as “factional clashes” between Rohingya groups seeking to establish “control over the contraband drugs trade.”

The camps that were particularly affected by the violence were Kutupalong Registered Camp, Camp 2W, Camp 2E, Camp 1W, and Camp 3.

The “clashes” actually began much earlier in the last few days of August, and reached a climax around the first week of October. Local media referred to the incidents as “registered camp refugees” versus the “unregistered camp refugees,” that is to say, the post-1992 intake of refugees who became UNHCR-registered refugees versus the post-2017 new refugees (not registered as UNHCR refugees but as Forcibly Displaced Myanmar National (FDMN) and not residing in Kutupalong Registered Camp).

This shorthand description does not seek to explain the reasons behind the violence amongst the Rohingya, nor does it allow the identification of the groups or individuals involved.

Some local media went a step further and identified the two protagonists they believed were at the center of the violence — the “Munna Bahini” and the Annas Group. With the release of recordings by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and then by Master Munna himself, as well as cases registered at Ukhiya police station, the battle lines became clearer.

What the Munna video recordings tell us

The reasons behind the violence are indicated in the recordings that were released by Master Munna and by ARSA during the ongoing conflict. The two parties give very different reasons for the violence but share one common analysis — they both blame Burmese “dalals” or agents.

Also Read- Hundreds injured in Rohingya camp internal clashes

Master Munna’s first video was released on October 9 and is entitled “The voice of Master Munna Victim. ARSA Killing Rohingyas in Refugee Camp.”

His younger brothers and brother in law had already been killed (October 6) by the time of the release of the video and he makes mention of these killings. Munna himself had been rumoured to have surrendered and taken away in a police convoy (October 7).

However no video emerged of his surrender and there was no press report or police entry of his arrest. It was soon acknowledged by the police that his whereabouts were unknown giving rise to speculation that he had hatched a deal with law enforcement and secured his safety.

In his first video, Master Munna (the Master title is because he is reportedly an exponent of karate) cites the alleged abduction of Abul Kalam Azad, a registered camp refugee, by ARSA as the spark for the events that followed.

Munna contends that as an inhabitant of the unregistered camp, he knows nothing about Abul Kalam Azad. He further says that he did not kidnap Azad and rather it was ARSA which is responsible for Azad’s kidnap. He concludes that it is Azad’s relatives and the registered camp people who are behind the violence.

In subsequent recordings, an emotional sounding Munna goes on to accuse various individuals (whom he links to ARSA) as being “murderers,” “kafirs,” “bastards,” etc. He says that neither he, nor Allah nor Rohingya will ever forgive them for what they have done. He refers to Ataullah Abu Ummar Jununi, the commander in chief of ARSA, and calls him a murderer and responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Myanmar.

At no point does Munna reveal that he and his hundreds of associates have come to be known as “Munna Bahini.” Nor does he address the lawsuits against him and his associates, submitted at the Ukhiya police station on October 5 by two women for the killing of their immediate family members.

He makes no reference to the widely reported multiple abductions attributed to his group which took place in the last few days of August. Some of the abductees were released upon payment of ransom and some were rescued, as confirmed by Khalilur Rahman, in-charge of Kutupalong Registered Camp. Others have still not returned.

Munna does not address the allegations of drug smuggling against his brothers Faruk and Mahmadullah Gessri. He challenges people to prove the allegations that he is a yaba godfather.

Even though Munna starts his monologue with the issue of Abul Kalam Azad, he does not provide any background information on Abul Kalam Azad only claiming that he knows nothing.

His recordings are lacking in detail, and instead Munna focuses on hurling insults at ARSA and selected ARSA individuals whilst at the same time proclaiming himself innocent.

In his second recording, Munna says that ARSA are Burmese agents and that ARSA members all hold Burmese passports. He appeals to all Rohingya to see them as a malevolent force. He also requests Bangladeshi authorities to apprehend them and thereby save Rohingya refugees.

What the ARSA recordings tell us

ARSA’s first statement regarding the violence was issued on August 31. ARSA make no mention of Abul Kalam Azad or Master Munna in their initial or subsequent recordings.

Their statements denounce the violence and attribute it to dirty tricks by Myanmar. Myanmar’s strategy, they claim, is to heap all the blame on ARSA and to break Rohingya unity. They accuse Myanmar of mobilizing yaba traffickers with substantial sums of money to unleash their gangsters and initiate violence in the camps.

ARSA urged Rohingya in the camps to hand over the trouble-makers to Bangladesh law enforcement authorities.

In their second statement, released on October 5, ARSA give some details of the killings and the burning of shelters that took place between October 1-4. ARSA accuse a coalition of gangs, kidnappers, robbers, and yaba traffickers for the availability of weapons in the camps. These have been smuggled into the camps to secure their illegal operations and drug supply routes. ARSA also make mention of Rohingya (in the registered camp) who do not follow Islam as being part of the mix of “bad people” who contributed to the violence.

Also Read- 16 arrested for clash in Kutupalong Rohingya camp

ARSA’s third statement issued on October 15, entitled: “An Unity Message by Muhaddis Mushtaq,” only tangentially refers to the violence in the camps. Instead Mushtaq makes an appeal, on the basis of Islam, for Rohingya youth to forget their petty differences and enmities and leave the camps to join ARSA in Myanmar to fight for their rights.

None of the ARSA statements address the accusations of Master Munna concerning the killing of his relatives or other Rohingya. Nor do they respond to the lawsuit of Nur Jahan — wife of Abul Kalam Azad.

Connection between Abul Kalam Azad and Master Munna

It is common knowledge that both Munna and Abul Kalam Azad were both formerly members of ARSA.

In the case of Abul Kalam Azad, his recent history is well documented. He was a member of Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) and had been involved in various acts of banditry. He had spent time in a Bangladeshi jail in 2008. He acquired his “Master” title primarily because he was a kung fu expert but he also taught kids privately in Kutupalong registered camp for a short time.

In 2016, he was involved in what has been described as a “sensational” and daring raid on an Ansar camp in Teknaf, southern Bangladesh. An Ansar camp commander was killed and a quantity of firearms and bullets were stolen. This happened on May 13, 2016.

Abul Kalam then made his way across the border to Myanmar and joined ARSA. A few months later, on January 10, 2017, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested Azad and one other Rohingya, on Bangladeshi soil. The speculation is that Azad had returned to Bangladesh without the permission of ARSA and with the intention to sell arms (hidden near the Tumbru border and subsequently recovered by Bangladesh law enforcement).

Azad was in custody and then in jail for a total of 3 years and 7 months. His period in jail was a difficult one. He was released on bail on July 25 this year. From this point, Azad’s history becomes nebulous. The story goes that after Azad’s release he did not return to ARSA. Word reached ARSA that he had teamed up with Master Munna. ARSA approached Munna for his return but that did not happen. On August 26, Abul Kalam Azad was kidnapped.

Alternative version

This version of events is contested by others. They say that Azad had absolutely no connection with Master Munna. He did not return to ARSA because of long standing differences with Ataullah. Azad intentionally left ARSA after what he felt was betrayal during a particular operation. Azad himself had indicated to others that he was further betrayed by ARSA resulting in his capture on December 19, 2015. 

After his release he had no intention to return to ARSA despite repeated visits by them to persuade him. Azad’s wife, Noor Jahan Begum, filed a case on August 29 at Ukhiya police station registering her husband’s abduction. All the accused are said to be members of ARSA (in the document submitted to the police). This version backs up Munna’s recording which starts by denying any role whatsoever in the kidnapping of Azad.

Also Read- Bangladesh govt sends more troops to end Rohingya camp drug turf war

Unlike Azad, Munna arrived in Bangladesh in the post 2017 exodus. He hails from Nagpura and was a person of authority in ARSA. Indeed Munna hints of his involvement in the organisation in his first recording.

After arriving in Bangladesh , his brothers, particularly Gessri, became involved in the yaba trade and kidnapping and extortion. This became a point of conflict between Munna and ARSA. ARSA requested Munna to rein in his brothers and stop these activities. This did not happen and some 15 months ago, Munna decided to fully sever his connections with ARSA and quickly established himself as a yaba godfather — as described by the Bangladeshi media and law enforcement.

Rohingya WhatsApp groups have also connected Munna’s origins in Nagpura to Aung Zaw Win, a Rohingya and a former MP in Myanmar’s House of Representatives. He also comes from the same locality. Aung Zaw Win is said to be extremely wealthy and has close connections to the Myanmar military and establishment. The chatter is that Aung Zaw Win was a conduit for funds to Munna and his nefarious ends.

The local angle

There have been seismic changes happening in law enforcement in Cox’s Bazar during this very period. The killing of Major (Rtd) Sinha Mohammad Rashed Khan on July 31 heralded these changes. Sinha was killed on the orders of Pradeep Kumar Das, the police officer in charge of Teknaf area. 

Pradeep has openly boasted about extra-judicial killings of alleged yaba traders and acts of arson against them. He was never held to account for these admissions despite chalking up some 200 extra-judicial killings in Teknaf, including dozens of Rohingya, and various acts of extortion through threats of “crossfire,” etc. To many in the region, Pradeep was protecting the interests of the yaba traders.

The killing of an army officer decisively changed things. Mizanur Rahman, a civil servant who had formerly been an official of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Committee (RRRC) until 2020, was given the task of investigating the circumstances of the murder. Pradeep was swiftly sent to jail and by September 25, some 1,400 police personnel of all ranks were replaced in the Cox’s Bazar area.

Pradeep was also involved in the crossfire or extra-judicial killing incident which claimed the life of Bakhtiar Member, a Bangladeshi who occupied a key position in the nexus between Rohingya yaba trafficking and Bangladeshi officialdom.

To what extent the strife in the camps is related to this recent crackdown remains to be confirmed, but analysts suggest that it may not be a coincidence.

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