Mohib Ullah does not come across as an international advocate, the face of a community at risk. The 44-year-old botanist is mild-mannered, giving off the air of a kindly schoolteacher. When he speaks to you, he gives you his undivided attention, smiling, his eyes gazing straight into yours.
Yet it was Ullah who helped document the genocide carried out by the Burmese army against his people, the Rohingya. It was Ullah who addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in March to ask for help. It was Ullah who stood in the Oval Office, asking Donald Trump how the administration planned to help his community.
And on the second anniversary of the genocide, it fell upon Ullah to tell his fellow Rohingya that they were fast running out of options. Standing on a stage wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt and a lungi, a type of sarong worn by men on the Indian subcontinent, he spoke into a microphone, telling the assembled spectators that they had two choices: to resign themselves to life here—by some measures the world’s densest refugee camp—and rely on global compassion that was eroding, or demand that their rights be upheld in Myanmar (by a government whose army has sought to slaughter them) and then return home.
These are now the only real possibilities on offer for the Rohingya, a community that is, by and large, on its own, with dwindling numbers of supporters on the international stage, and grandiose talk of worldwide relief and international law and justice accompanied by little to no action. Ullah knows it—help is not on the way. “In big meetings, no one speaks the reality,” he told me, referencing his visits to Washington, D.C., and Geneva. “Truth is, nobody is coming to help us.”
In the reams that have been written about the plight of the Rohingya, chronic and utter disenfranchisement is the most consistent thread. The origins of their bottom-tier status are colonial, but were codified in 1982 when the Burmese government passed a law that restricted their movement and access to education, and allowed for arbitrary confiscation of property. Wave after wave of extreme violence against them culminated in August 2017 with a crackdown that forcibly displaced nearly a million people. At least 9,000 members of their community died in just the first month of the onslaught, according to Médecins Sans Frontières, an NGO that has produced the most authoritative estimate of fatalities to date. The atrocities continue to this day, deepening the humanitarian catastrophe in the province of Rakhine. (Myanmar has repeatedly denied carrying out any ethnic cleansing or genocide.)