BANGKOK — About one million Rohingya Muslims in camps in Bangladesh could soon lose a vital connection to the outside world if the government moves forward with a threat to suspend cell service to the world’s largest refugee settlement.
Citing “state security” and “public safety,” the Bangladeshi telecommunications minister ordered a halt this week to mobile phone service in camps crowded with Rohingya Muslims who fled ethnic cleansing in their native Myanmar. The blackout is scheduled to take effect by Sunday.
“Our suffering will be unlimited if mobile phone communication goes off,” said Ramjan Ali, a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh.
The directive from the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, which was issued last Sunday, notes that only Bangladeshis with national identity cards are allowed to possess local SIM cards and bans the sale of cellphone services in the camps. Telecom companies that violate the order will be fined, it said.
The Rohingya, most of whom flooded over the border to Bangladesh in 2017 following a campaign of murder and rape led by the Myanmar military, are largely stateless.
While extending a welcome to a huge, traumatized population of Rohingya, the Bangladeshi government has declined to categorize most as refugees and grant them the rights that come with such a designation.
The Bangladeshi authorities have pushed for the Rohingya to be repatriated as soon as possible, even though the leadership in Buddhist-majority Myanmar has not admitted to the orchestrated campaign of terror that catalyzed their flight, much less forsworn any further violence.
Already, mobile internet services have been disrupted at night and early in the morning in the camps, members of the Rohingya community said. A nighttime curfew keeps aid workers and others out of the sprawling settlements, which have been inundated with mud and raw sewage during the monsoon season.
As in any community of this size, occasional violence has stalked the camps, including a series of murders and other violence attributed to the illegal drug trade. The criminal activity was one reason Bangladeshi officials gave in justifying the mobile phone ban.
But Rohingya said that innocent people, already devastated by having to flee their homes in Myanmar, were being unfairly punished.
From Sri Lanka and Indonesia to Sudan and India, the authorities are using online blackouts to obscure areas of conflict. Across the border from the camps, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the government has shut off mobile internet services for many residents since June.
Rakhine State has been convulsed not only by anti-Rohingya pogroms but also by conflict between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Myanmar military. While internet access was restored in four townships this month, human rights groups warn that the military is continuing incursions against ethnic Rakhine that could constitute war crimes.
This week, United Nations experts called for an independent investigation into the deaths of at least 15 ethnic Rakhine men who died in the custody of the Myanmar military. The men were accused of being linked to the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine militia.
Other Rakhine civilians have been held in incommunicado detention or may have been tortured, the United Nations’ human rights investigators said.
For months, both Myanmar and Bangladesh have maintained a fiction that Rohingya repatriations are imminent. In the last failed attempt, late last month, 3,450 Rohingya were cleared to return home — a home where most of their villages have been razed and refuge comes in the form of internment camps.
The Bangladeshis prepared buses for the Rohingya to go back to Myanmar. No one showed up.
Instead, Rohingya in the camps observed the second anniversary of their exodus from Myanmar with peaceful rallies. As tens of thousands of people looked on, elders prayed and women gave speeches. Camp leaders spoke out against a plan by the Bangladeshi government to move some Rohingya to a cyclone-prone island in the middle of the Bay of Bengal. They wept at news of continuing repression at home.
Since the mass gathering in the camps, a number of top Bangladeshi administrators with oversight of the camps have been reassigned. More than 40 nongovernmental organizations working with Rohingya refugees have been ordered to cease operations, their employees said.
Aid workers noted that had the mobile phone ban been in effect late last month, social media would not have been inundated by images of a sea of Rohingya convened in nonviolent protest.
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