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Canada must lead in responding to the desperate plight of the Rohingya

In Myanmar, the Rohingya are now totally vulnerable with no escape route from a deadly civil war. There are steps that urgently need to be taken.

While one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi camps endure dire conditions with no certainty about their future, the civil war in Myanmar is pushing that country’s remaining Rohingya population to the brink of genocide.

The crisis is stark evidence of a collective failure by the international community. Canada and other countries must join hands in protecting the most vulnerable. As Bob Rae, Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, wrote in his 2018 report, Canada can help prevent a methodical mass killing before it is too late.

There are several steps Canada can take now: apply diplomatic pressure; impose sanctions and restrictions on human-rights abusers; lead international condemnation; demand greater humanitarian access to the Rohingya; and work toward more international support for refugees.

Trapped between two sides

Already one the world’s most persecuted minorities, the Rohingya are now caught in the middle of a deadly civil war between Myanmar’s junta and the Arakan Army (AA), the military wing of the Rakhine ethnic minority that seeks autonomy in Rakhine State in western Myanmar.

Although Rohingya are not participants in the fighting, the conflict is destroying their communities and claiming innocent lives.

Historically, both the Rohingya and Rakhine ethnic groups have inhabited the region known as Arakan, now Rakhine State. While there were periods of coexistence, there were also longstanding tensions and conflicts between the communities, influenced by their ethnic, religious and cultural differences.

The mostly Buddhist Rakhine speak a dialect of Burmese, while the primarily Muslim Rohingya speak a language closer to Chittagonian Bengali.

The situation significantly worsened after 1982, when Myanmar’s military junta enacted a citizenship law that effectively denied the Rohingya citizenship by not recognizing them as one of the country’s official ethnic groups.

The government labeled the Rohingya as “Bengali,” implying they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh rather than an indigenous ethnic group with legitimate roots in the region. Effectively institutionalizing racial discrimination, the law severely restricted the rights of the Rohingya, leading to increased marginalization, persecution and violence against them.

The Myanmar military and local vigilantes killed hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and forced nearly a million to flee to Bangladesh in 2017. But now, the Rohingya are caught in a deadly crossfire.

In May, the AA set fire to the entire downtown of Buthidaung, a major Rohingya city and displaced 150,000 Rohingya. Earlier, in the same city, heavy bombs killed 12 and injured 30. Other reports indicate 170 Rohingya deaths due to heavy bombing in a village by the Myanmar military.

Today, out of 600,000 Rohingya left in Rakhine State after the genocidal attack of 2016-17, only one-third remain in their original homes, according to a statement by the Free Rohingya Coalition.

Myanmar, meanwhile, is pressuring the Rohingya to join the army and fight the AA. Because the Rohingya refuse to do so, the military is blocking all aid coming to Rakhine State and confronting families in their homes, taking away any young Rohingya they find.

In a bid to coerce the Rohingya into rejecting the AA and by default support the national army, the Myanmar military is trying to incite conflict between the two communities.

Nowhere to go

The Rohingya have no escape route. Bangladesh tightly controls its border with Myanmar. In April it was reported that Bangladeshi soldiers beat and expelled some 300 Rohingya who were trying to flee the atrocities in Myanmar.

Nor can the Rohingya reach safety in other countries because the Myanmar military has sealed all escape routes. Even if they could escape, Asian countries are not allowing them to seek refuge.

As the war escalates, Rohingya deaths are a daily occurrence. All levels of aid have been halted; there is little or no health care in the camps; and many people, including children, are being killed not just by war but by disease, starvation and mental distress.

After years of being persecuted and victimized, the Rohingya are now totally vulnerable. They have no armed protection, no political influence and no financial resources. Relentless attacks have shattered their livelihoods, destroyed their villages and businesses, and reduced their homes to ashes.

Their survival depends on international aid and support – a dependency that becomes more desperate with each passing day.

There are possible approaches to address the crisis. One is to continue relying on the international community for a solution. However, despite numerous efforts, none has yet materialized.

The lack of decisive action by international bodies has instead enabled widespread atrocities against the Rohingya. Yet, reports of human-rights abuses have met with diplomatic indifference, leading to what is now a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe.

Another tactic is for the international community to directly engage and empower the Rohingya community to find their own solutions. After all, who can better understand their pain than the Rohingya themselves?

In his report, Rae recommended creating a working group in which Rohingya individuals would share their experiences to help guide policies and advocacy methods. Drawing on diverse perspectives and expertise, the group could devise strategies that address the complex challenges facing their community.

By exchanging best practices and lessons learned, the group could improve the ability of interventions to protect Rohingya rights and contribute to the struggle to develop democracy in Myanmar.

What Canada can do

Since the Rae report, however, the situation for the Rohingya people both in Rakhine State and Bangladesh has become even more grave, demanding urgent global intervention.

The Canadian government can start by doubling the funding it committed to ensuring the delivery of urgently needed critical measures. It should also – as a leadership example for the international community – work directly and proactively with local Rohingya-led organizations, rather than being dependent solely on NGOs.

Canada can also lead a diverse coalition to influence positive changes in Myanmar while safeguarding Rohingya rights and saving many lives.

Here are concrete steps that Canada can take immediately to protect Rohingya lives:

  • Diplomatic pressure: Utilize Canada’s diplomatic channels to exert maximum pressure on the military junta in Myanmar and the AA to immediately cease hostilities and ensure the safety of the Rohingya population.

  • Sanctions and restrictions: Advocate targeted sanctions and restrictions against individuals and entities responsible for human-rights abuses against the Rohingya. This includes travel bans, asset freezes and other measures to hold perpetrators accountable.

  • International condemnation: Lead efforts to mobilize international condemnation of the military junta and the AA’s actions against the Rohingya. This includes leveraging Canada’s position in international forums to raise awareness and garner support for decisive action.

  • Humanitarian access: Demand unhindered humanitarian access to affected areas in Myanmar to deliver life-saving aid and assistance to Rohingya civilians trapped in conflict zones.

  • Support for refugees: Increase support for Rohingya refugees and advocate for their rights and protection in Bangladesh and other countries.

Of course, Canada alone cannot solve the Rohingya crisis. That requires global effort and collaboration.

We must not allow political complexities or historical divisions to dilute our commitment to justice and compassion. The international community can rewrite the narrative of suffering into one of resilience, compassion and lasting change.


© 2024, Policy Options, Institute for Research on Public Policy



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