Then suddenly around 10 p.m. Tuesday local time, the camps’ connection to the outside world returned. There were cheers of gratitude — toward Bangladesh for reconnecting the Internet and toward Gambia for supporting the Rohingya’s case on the world stage. But there was also anger and sadness as people caught up on Myanmar’s steadfast denial that it had waged a violent campaign against Rohingya that United Nations investigators concluded had “genocidal intent.”
The joy was also short-lived: By Thursday, the third day of the hearings, Bangladesh had cut off internet again, according to reports from Rohingya in the camps.
On Wednesday, the second day of the hearings, Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, testified before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Suu Kyi, a 1991 Noble Peace Prize winner, has fallen from international grace for her staunch defense of Myanmar’s military campaign, which she told the court Wednesday was simply a response to a security threat.
Ro Sawyeddollah, an 18-year-old Rohingya refugee, told The Washington Post that he gathered around a smartphone to watch the hearings.
“I am very happy, even though she is lying,” he said, referring to Suu Kyi. No matter what, he said, the plight of the Rohingya was finally having its day in court.
“It was such a powerful moment for Rohingya to really feel like the world was finally recognizing what they went through,” said Jessica Olney, an independent researcher and analyst.
Rohinhya refugees including children are watching the hearing of #ICJ on smart phone inside shelter.— Ro Yassin Abdumonab (@Muhamma29985123) December 11, 2019
Refugees are not able to watch the live stream of hearing ICJ. What they can do is to watch the downloaded videos.. pic.twitter.com/ifpeVfCZn3
Still, even in the brief time was access was restored, many refugees remained cut off. The Internet connection in the camps is often too weak for streaming, and many people can’t afford even the basic cost of an Internet bundle or a smartphone.
The hearings were broadcast in English and the dominant Myanmar language, which most Rohingya, long-discriminated against in Myanmar, also known as Burma, don’t speak. So informal media networks run by refugees in the camps and connected through Facebook groups and WhatsApp circulated videos and translations. Others tuned in to the radio. One station’s broadcast interpreted the proceedings into the Rohingya language.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Myanmar have fled across the border into Bangladesh since 2017, when Myanmar’s military began a campaign against the largely Muslim minority that Gambia, backed by reports from human rights groups, has formally charged amounted to genocide.
More than 43,000 Rohingya parents are missing, according to a 2018 report by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. Myanmar imprisoned two Reuters journalists for more than 500 days for reporting on one alleged massacre in Rakhine state.
For decades, Bangladesh has hosted Rohingya fleeing periodic outbursts of violence against Muslims in Myanmar, with the first U.N. camps set up in 1991. But now, two years after the latest mass migration of Rohingya, Bangladesh’s patience is running low.
In August, Rohingya civil society organized protests against Bangladesh’s push to repatriate refugees to Myanmar. The refugees say it’s still far too dangerous to return.
About two weeks later, Bangladesh shut off Internet service in the camps, yet another measure making life harder and harder for the Rohingya. This month, Bangladesh started to build a fence around the camps, further cutting off the Rohingya.
The loss of connectivity upended all aspects of Rohingya life in the already desolate camps, where conditions are dire.
Human rights groups have criticized Bangladesh for restrictive laws that they say effectively prevent most Rohingya from working, studying and even carrying money. Internet connectivity, therefore, was the main means for people to communicate with family back in Myanmar or abroad, to access news and courses online, and to communicate with aid workers.
“The Internet is everything for me,” Sawyeddollah said. It was how he studied, read the news, found definitions of new words and shared his perspective as a human rights advocate.
It was also “important for civil society groups that are emerging,” said Kaamil Ahmed, a journalist who’s writing a history of the Rohingya.
Amid the hurdles to education, Rohingya have set up their own informal education networks. Some who speak English have even organized groups to study relevant international law together, Ahmed said.
“People feel dehumanized,” he said of the effects of Bangladesh’s restrictions. “Young people feel they are stripped of any kind of opportunity.”
The sense of hopelessness is compounded by the sentiment that the international and aid communities have “failed to listen enough to Rohingya,” Ahmed said.
For Muhammed Nowkhim, a 22-year-old Rohingya refugee and activist, feeling that his voice was heard is what made the hearings at The Hague so important.
“We were worried we weren’t be able to see it,” Nowkhim, who spoke in English, told The Post of the preceding months without Internet access.
Now that the Internet is back on, he can think about the next — and much harder — step.
“We hope that something will change,” Nowkhim said.