Rohingya camps in Bangladesh spawn a new civil society — and political violence

It was after Mohib Ullah scored his first political victories that the death threats began in earnest. On a recent morning, the Rohingya refugee leaned back on a plastic chair in the Bangladesh camp where he lives and translated the latest warning, sent over the WhatsApp messaging app.

“Mohib Ullah is a virus of the community,” he read aloud, with a wry chuckle. “Kill him wherever he is found.”

The 44-year-old leads the largest of several community groups to emerge since more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar after a military crackdown in August 2017.

In the refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, a nascent civil society is emerging among the Rohingya, who spent decades under apartheid-like restrictions in Myanmar.

Some campaigners are seeking justice for alleged atrocities in Myanmar, a small cadre of women are raising their voices for the first time, and others are simply working to improve life in the new city of tarpaulins and bamboo that, after the latest influx, is home to more than 900,000 people.

Mohib Ullah himself was invited to Geneva last month, where he told the United Nations Human Rights Council the Rohingya want a say over their own future.

But the political awakening has been accompanied by a surge in violence, with militants and religious conservatives also vying for power, more than a dozen refugees said. They described increasing fear in the camps, where armed men have stormed shelters at night, kidnapped critics and warned women against breaking conservative Islamic norms.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which sparked the 2017 crisis with attacks on security posts, is resurgent in the camps, refugees say, alongside several other armed groups. The group is also known as Harakah al-Yaqin — the Movement of Faith.

“In the daytime, the al-Yaqin guys become normal people,” said one young woman, who like other refugees requested anonymity to speak about the group without fear of reprisals. “They mix with everyone else. But at night it’s like they have a kind of magical power.”

Dialogue and threats
Reuters conducted dozens of interviews with U.N. staffers, diplomats, Bangladeshi officials and researchers about the forces competing for influence in the world’s largest refugee settlement.

While some are hopeful the stateless Rohingya are beginning to find a political voice, there are also fears that a turn to violence threatens to make solving the refugee crisis through dialogue impossible and could bring more instability.

“Refugee camps in many parts of the world are becoming recruitment grounds for terrorists,” said Mozammel Haque, the head of Bangladesh’s Cabinet committee on law and order. “God forbid, if something like that happens, this will not only affect Bangladesh but the whole region.”

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay did not answer calls seeking comment. Zaw Htay said during a news conference in January that Myanmar had complained to Bangladesh over what he said were ARSA bases inside Bangladesh.

The front line in the struggle for the Rohingyas’ future is the bamboo huts where refugees take shelter from the heat and dust of the camp to voice their views. In the makeshift office of his group, the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), Mohib Ullah convenes an open meeting each morning.

“We couldn’t gather more than five people in Myanmar, so when we have this kind of huge gathering it makes us very happy,” said 57-year-old Abdul Fayez, one of several dozen refugees gathered cross-legged on the floor at a recent meeting.

ARSPH made its name documenting alleged atrocities the Rohingya suffered in Myanmar. Mohib Ullah went from hut to hut to build a tally of killings, rape and arson that has been shared with international investigators.

Last year it won a victory with a campaign for the refugees to have more say in the process of issuing identity cards, calling a general strike in the camps in November that forced Bangladeshi officials and U.N. staffers to meet ARSPH leaders.

It now says its main goal is to give the Rohingya a voice in international talks on their future.

But not everyone agrees with ARSPH’s approach. Hard-liners in the camps argue for a more assertive stance in talks on the terms under which the refugees might return to Myanmar.

“We are flexible, we want to negotiate,” said a senior leader of ARSPH, who requested anonymity. “But we fear we may be harmed because of this.” ARSA was among Mohib Ullah and ARSPH’s antagonists, the leader said.

Mohib Ullah was involved in local politics back in Myanmar, drawing accusations from opponents that he worked too closely with the hated government. “If I die, I’m fine. I will give my life,” Mohib Ullah said.

Night terrors
Bangladesh security forces patrol the perimeter of the camps to stop refugees slipping out. But, especially at night, the warren-like interior is run by violent men, refugees said.

In at least some parts of the camps, those men claim affiliation to ARSA, said more than half a dozen refugees. U.N. officials and nongovernmental organization workers monitoring the group’s activities say it is unclear how many of those men are under orders from the group’s leadership. But some of them have asked wealthier refugees and shopkeepers to pay regular taxes, saying the money will be used to fight back in Myanmar, refugees said.

One refugee, who volunteers as an aid worker in the camps, said he had witnessed a kidnapping in January by men he believed to be from ARSA.

Men with wooden sticks moved swiftly into an area of the camps known as Jamtoli and took away a man who refused to attend one of the group’s meetings, he said. “They just carried him off like a goat to the slaughter.”

Reuters was unable to corroborate the incident or find out what happened to the man, but five refugees from the same area said men they knew had been involved in ARSA attacks inside Myanmar were now involved in kidnappings in Jamtoli.

Reuters was unable to reach ARSA for comment.

Researchers for Fortify Rights have also gathered testimony that ARSA had abducted at least five Rohingya refugees in recent months, the campaign group said on March 14.

A posting from a Twitter account previously used by the group called the Fortify Rights report “shallow, shoddy, and not aptly verified” and denied allegations that ARSA was involved in criminal activity.

Police have recorded an escalation in violence in the camps in recent months, said Iqbal Hossain, additional superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar.

“So far we have not found any link to any militant groups,” said Hossain, adding there were just 992 officers policing the camps.

In response to questions about reports of ARSA involvement in the violence, the U.N. refugee agency cited police reports that found most violence and threats in the camps were carried out by “criminal elements or related to personal vendettas.”

Two U.N. officials and several researchers working regularly in the camps said ARSA was behind at least some of the violence, however, citing sources among the refugees.

‘You didn’t listen’
ARSA launched three attacks across the border in Myanmar early this year, according to state media there, and in February vowed to continue its armed campaign.

ARSA propaganda portrays the group as ethnic freedom fighters and does not emphasize a religious agenda. But some refugees and a report by an international NGO say its members, together with Islamic leaders, have promoted ultraconservative religious practices.

Four women said they had received threats for going out to work for aid groups in the camps, where many have begun doing paid work for the first time in their lives.

They said men from ARSA, backed up by religious leaders, issued the threats. Fortify Rights also said it had gathered testimony linking ARSA to the threats against women working. ARSA on Twitter denied that, insisting it “has no activities/objectives except for defending Rohingyas’ legitimate rights.”

U.N. officials and aid workers discussed the threats at a series of meetings of the “protection sector working group” in Cox’s Bazar, according to minutes.

“There is a complex combination of factors that have contributed to the threats and restrictions on women in refugee camps, which we are all seeking to address,” the U.N. refugee agency said.

Mohammed Kamruzzaman, an education sector specialist at Bangladeshi aid group BRAC, said 150 of its female teachers had stopped coming to work in late January after receiving or hearing about the “violent threats.”

One woman in her late 30s said she had received a phone call in late January telling her she must immediately quit her job at BRAC. Two nights later a group of about 10 men, dressed in black and wearing masks barged into her shelter.

“They said, ‘We told you not to go out and work, you didn’t listen,’” she said. “One of them beat me with a stick on my back.”

Another young woman, who was also threatened, summed up the divide in the camps.

“We are just doing something good for our community,” she said. “Some people support them, but many feel like us. They put superglue over our mouths.”

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Easter a holiday in Bangladesh this year

In Bangladesh, where Sunday is not a holiday, Easter will be celebrated as a holiday for the first time in 30 years.

This was largely the effort of Gloria Jharna Sarker, the first Catholic woman parliamentarian chosen in the last elections who fought to have the rights of the Christian community recognized at the national level, reports AsiaNews.

On Easter Sunday, April 21, all schools in the country will remain closed. Welcoming the good news, local Christians say it is a positive sign of good relations between religions.

A Dhaka merchant explained to AsiaNews that since independence gained in 1971, Sunday was a holiday, including Easter Sunday. However, Sunday ceased to be a holiday since the mid-1980s, when former president Hussain Muhammad Ershad introduced the Islamic tradition making Friday the weekly holiday. “In this way, the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ was excluded from the nationally recognized festivities ”.

The merchant pointed out that after the Sunday holiday was suppressed, the bishops did not do much to oppose it, unlike some ecumenical movements that sometimes gave rise to protest demonstrations, organizing sit-ins and symbolic events.

However, the Easter holiday this year happened to be mere luck. The merchant explained that an opportunity presented itself this year with the election of the deputy, who “was able to intelligently exploit a quibble of bureaucracy”. Islamic moveable festivals are established each year by a commission led by the Minister for Religious Affairs based on the movement of the moon.

At the beginning of the year, the Islamic festival of “Shab-e-Barat” (night for forgiveness) was set for April 21, which is Easter. After a re-calculation of the various lunar movements, the day was moved to April 22, Easter Monday. At that point, April 21 was declared a holiday anyway.

It is not known whether this will happen in the years to come but this year Christians have welcomed it with joy. (Source: AsiaNews)

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Attempts to improve public health in Bangladesh appear to have misfired

GIVEN A CHOICE between using a nearby water well known to be contaminated with arsenic or a more distant one not known to be poisoned, every sane person would opt for the latter. In Bangladesh in the early 2000s, however, that appears to have been the wrong decision. In 1999 the government began a massive campaign to convince households drawing water from shallow backyard wells with high concentrations of arsenic to switch to deeper wells or streams that were free of the toxic metal. Arsenic is present naturally in groundwater across the globe, but is especially prevalent in Bangladesh. Prior to the campaign, roughly 65% of Bangladeshis in the authors’ sample were drinking water with unsafe levels of arsenic, high exposure to which could lead to increased rates of cancer and infant mortality as well as decreased intelligence quotient for affected children. However, alternative sources were typically farther away from people’s homes, increasing the likelihood that users would make fewer trips and store their water for longer periods of time. And improperly stored water is often mishandled, increasing the rates of cholera, dysentery and other water-borne diseases. As a result, by asking people not to use wells polluted with arsenic, the government unintentionally caused the number of deaths resulting from ingesting water contaminated by faecal matter to rise.

In a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Nina Buchmann, an economist at Stanford, and her co-authors collected data from 3,138 Bangladeshi households in 2007. Their data included a sample of more than 12,000 children born between 1980 and 2007, which allowed them to evaluate the mortality rate among households that were and were not encouraged to switch water sources during the government’s campaign. According to their study, post-campaign, households encouraged to switch water sources had 48% higher rates of child mortality than those not encouraged to switch. They found that the increase in deaths was higher in households that were farther away from a deep well, which increases the storage time.

Bangladesh mission observes Mujibnagar Day

Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi observed the historic Mujibnagar Day on April 17, in a befitting manner. On this day in 1971, the first government of independent Bangladesh was sworn in at Baidyanathtala (Mujibngar) in now-Meherpur district naming Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the president, Syed Nazrul Islam as vice-president and Tajuddin Ahmed as the Prime Minister. Syed Nazrul was made acting president in the absence of Bangabandhu who was arrested and jailed in a West Pakistan prison.

The significance of the role provisional government of Bangladesh played in leading the nine-month War of Liberation and mobilising international opinion and support was discussed at a meeting held at the mission. High Commissioner Syed Muazzem Ali, a freedom fighter diplomat, presided over the discussion meeting. “The liberation war stands out as the most glorious chapter in the history of our independence struggle against Pakistan,” said the envoy.

“This has been our pride and I feel proud to be associated with this unforgettable part of our history,” he said. He paid tributes to Bangabandhu – the greatest Bengali of all times, the four national leaders, Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, Capt Mansur Ali and AHM Kamruzzaman. The discussion was also addressed by Brig Gen A K Mohammad Ziaur Rahman, Defence Adviser, Selim Jahangir, Minister (Consular), Jamal Uddin Ahmed, counsellor and Zakir Ahmed, first secretary. The Mujibnagar Day messages of President Md Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina were read out respectively by Dr A K M Atiqul Haque, counsellor (commerce) and Shahed bin Aziz, first secretary. A special prayer was offered for the progress and development of the country.

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Bangladesh pick uncapped Abu Jayed for World Cup

Bangladesh have named uncapped right-arm pacer Abu Jayed in their 15-man squad for the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2019.

Jayed has played five Tests since making his debut in July 2018, but is yet to earn an ODI cap. Javed’s ability to swing the ball should make him handy, as he showed during the Tests in New Zealand, should the conditions in England provide enough assistance.

Jayed’s inclusion comes at the expense of fast bowler Taskin Ahmed, who had missed the New Zealand tour with an ankle injury. Ahmed also doesn’t feature in the 17-member squad that has been announced for the tri-series against Ireland and West Indies that takes place before the World Cup.

“Taskin played his last ODI in October 2017 and it was a long break for him. When we thought about him again for the New Zealand series he sustained an injury once again. According to the reports we have, he is not fit. He represented (his domestic team) in one match but his fitness is still not up to the mark,” said Minhajul Abedin, the Bangladesh chief selector. On Jayed’s surprise selection, he said: “He can swing the ball and we felt that can add value to our bowling attack.”

The other big inclusion was that of Mosaddek Hossain. The middle-order batsman last played for Bangladesh in the 2018 Asia Cup. However, his poor performances in the tournament led to him getting dropped for the subsequent ODI series against Zimbabwe, although Steve Rhodes, the head coach, had said at the time that Hossain continued to figure prominently in Bangladesh’s plans for the World Cup.

Hossain will provide the back-up all-rounder option, with Mahmudullah still recovering from a shoulder injury that was aggravated during the New Zealand tour. “Mossadek did well in (recent) domestic tournaments,” said Abedin. “We want an all-rounder who can bowl off-spin. Mahmudullah has a shoulder injury, so he may not bowl over there (in the World Cup). As a back-up spin all-rounder, we included Mossadek.”

Although the squad features plenty of young players, Bangladesh will welcome the return of their core, with Shakib Al Hasan joining fellow senior players Tamim Iqbal, Mushfiqur Rahim, captain Mashrafe Mortaza and Mahmudullah.

Shakib had been through injury troubles that had kept him out of the ODI and Test series against New Zealand. He now returns to the squad as Mortaza’s deputy.

The rest of the squad is filled with young blood. Liton Das, Mehidy Hasan Miraz, Mohammad Saifuddin, Mustafizur Rahman, Soumya Sarkar and Jayed are all aged 25 or younger.

In addition to the 15 travelling for the World Cup, Bangladesh have also picked uncapped players Nayeem Hasan and Yasir Ali for the tri-series in Ireland. Hasan made his Test debut late last year, but like Jayed, is uncapped at the ODI level. He was in the squad for the one-day internationals against New Zealand, but didn’t get a game. Ali, on the other hand, hasn’t played international cricket yet.

Carrying a Culture’s Expectations: Work-Life Balance for Women in Bangladesh

The United States marked April 2 as Equal Pay Day, which “symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.”

In the past decade, Bangladesh has made strides in narrowing the gender pay gap, lifting the status of women, and ensuring easier and greater access for women to participate in the workplace. As a society, however, it still lags in terms of empowering women and balancing gender workloads.

Regardless of women’s participation in the professional workplace, societal norms are that the woman will be responsible for household work. This cultural expectation, coupled with Bangladesh’s dominant religious views, makes work-life balance for career women in Bangladesh even more difficult than their counterparts in Western societies.

Progress has been made

Over the past decade, government policies have pushed the country toward attaining and maintaining steady progress in gender equality. As a result, Bangladesh has been ranked No. 1 for gender equality among South Asian countries for two consecutive years in the Gender Gap Index.

The index, prepared by the World Economic Forum, considers education, economic participation, health and political empowerment to measure gender equality.

According to a 2018 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), at 2.2% the gender wage gap in Bangladesh is the lowest in the world, where the average gender pay gap is 21.2%.

According to a report published in the Dhaka Tribune on July 12, 2018, the number of working women in Bangladesh was 18.6 million in 2016-17, a marked increase from 16.2 million in 2010.

According to The Global Gender Gap Report, Bangladesh was ranked 48th among 144 countries in wage equity in 2018. Other South Asian countries ranked much lower, including Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Bhutan and Pakistan, which were ranked 100, 105, 108, 122 and 148 positions, respectively.

Cultural expectations

A study by Action Aid Bangladesh, called “Incorporation of Women’s Economic Empowerment and Unpaid Care Work into regional polices: South Asia,” released in December 2017, found that a woman in a typical Bangladesh household spends on average six hours a day doing unpaid work in the household, including cooking, cleaning, caring for children and elders, while men spend just over an hour on such activities.

Farah Kabir, country director for Action Aid Bangladesh, told the Dhaka Tribune that if men and women equally shared household work, women would be able to earn more because they would be able to work more hours or put in more effort at paying jobs.

While women have seen access to employment opportunities, education and health care grow, some say additional action is needed for on-the-job training, options for elder care and improvements in mass transportation. Because of the religious and cultural taboo in the country, many women do not drive, even though they are legally able to drive. Many women end up relying on mass transportation, where availability is limited.

Debate renewed

Many impediments remain that affect women’s work-life balance: The Bangladeshi culture expects women to cook, clean and look after their children, even if they have full-time jobs. The discussion around women’s unpaid household work were renewed by a speech made by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that went viral on social media nearly two years ago.

Envoy: Bangladesh set to see more Japanese entrepreneurs

Japanese Ambassador in Dhaka Hiroyasu Izumi has said the Special Economic Zone for Japanese investors in Bangladesh—and the One Stop Service Act—are likely to attract more Japanese companies; especially in the fields of: food, commodity products, light industry, and ICT.

“Since the year 2008, the investment from Japan to Bangladesh has been expanding and the trend is getting stronger, especially after 2011,” he told UNB in an interview.

This trend, Ambassador Izumi said, is likely to continue for the coming years; considering the competitive labour force and the size of the market of Bangladesh with its large, young population.

He, however, said the investment climate and doing business in Bangladesh “are not very favourable” for foreign companies.

The time-consuming process of applying to launch businesses and registration, as well as a lack of sufficient infrastructure, an intricate process of applying for work visas, and a complicated tax system— including retroactive taxation—could be named as the main bottlenecks to start businesses in Bangladesh, he said.

In particular, Ambassador Izumi said, the insufficiencies in logistics and taxation systems, such as “too-heavy tariffs,” need to be addressed.

“They are not only the hindrances for FDI from Japan but also cause drawbacks to the growth of the local economy in Bangladesh,” he said.

Analysing the current situation of the foreign companies, and listening to their requests, are essential to make the overall investment environment more attractive, said Ambassador Izumi.

Responding to a question, the Japanese envoy said that surrounded on all sides by the sea, Japan is also deeply rooted in the blue economy and has a long history of using marine resources.

“I, therefore, believe Japan and Bangladesh can exchange knowledge and expertise in blue economy and marine resources,” he said.

A conference was co-organised in March by the Ministry of Fisheries & Livestock and Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the envoy said adding, “‘Bangladesh Blue Economy Dialogue on Fisheries and Marine Culture’” was quite suggestive and meaningful.”

“We would like to consider future cooperation in the field of blue economy with the government of Bangladesh,” said the Ambassador.

When asked about Bangladesh’s exports to Japan, he said in Japan they are seeing more and more clothes manufactured in Bangladesh, but Japanese people are not very aware that they are made in Bangladesh.

“To further encourage exports from Bangladesh to Japan, I believe it is very important for Bangladesh’s companies to conduct thorough market research in Japan, especially focusing on the quality-oriented tendency of the Japanese consumers,” said the Japanese envoy.

Other potential exports from Bangladesh to Japan, he thinks, could be medicine, leather goods or agricultural (marine) products.

“For any product, however, creating additional value that attracts Japanese consumer is the key to expand and boost exports to Japan from Bangladesh,” said the Ambassador.

To do so, he suggested having more opportunities to introduce Bangladeshi products in Japan, such as organising trade fairs or exhibitions, to make them familiar to Japanese consumers.

Responding to a question on people-to-people contact, he said friendship between Japan and Bangladesh started immediately after the independence of Bangladesh. “Since then, the two nations have always been very close friends.”

For example, the Ambassador said, Japan has provided scholarships for more than 4,000 Bangladeshi students over decades.

Last year, more than 120 students received this scholarship and went to Japan from Bangladesh. Also in the field of business, there are currently more than 260 Japanese companies operating their businesses in Bangladesh, and interaction through business is also growing rapidly.

Dhaka, Tokyo plan big for 2022

The year 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and Japan.

“The coming years will be very important for our two countries. Toward this anniversary, we are working hard to enhance our bilateral relations even further,” said the Japanese Ambassador.

In celebration of this anniversary, Bangladesh and Japan are expecting to see more and more interaction between the two countries, including cultural and people-to-people exchanges in the years to come.

The Ambassador said several cooperation projects were launched with the successful mutual visits by the two Prime Ministers— Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—in 2014.

“Apart from bridges, we are working on other projects like the Dhaka International Airport Terminal, Dhaka Metro lines, and Matarbari port and power plant, and all these projects are going well as planned with high quality. It is my tremendous joy to celebrate this anniversary with the people of Bangladesh based on this ever-growing relationship,” he said.

Since his arrival in 2017, Ambassador Izumi said he has been witnessing an increasing number of visits both at ministerial and other levels. “I expect our bilateral relationship to grow even closer and stronger in the years to come.”

He said Japan has been the single biggest bilateral development partner for Bangladesh and the amount of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Bangladesh from Japan last year marked $1.8 billion.

“This figure was a record, the largest-ever Japanese ODA support to Bangladesh for one year. I am pleased to inform you that Bangladesh is now the second-largest recipient of Japan’s ODA in the world,” he said.