The Rohingya are an ethnic group that is largely Muslim and live in the state of Rakhine in Myanmar. They are not considered to be an ‘official’ ethnic group and, as a result, do not have citizenship and are restricted to Rakhine,living in conditions of poverty and lack of basic services. Persecution of the Rohingya has a long history, but a recent military crackdown has escalated the situation and many are fleeing, particularly to Bangladesh and Malaysia.
State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar government have dismissed claims that the violence against the Rohingya is ethnic cleansing and frequently refer to the need to combat terrorism in the area, while restricting access to it by humanitarian groups and human rights investigators.
Earlier this month, Alan Rock and Lloyd Axworthy co-wrote an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail titled, How Canada can respond to the carnage in Myanmar.
Rock and Axworthy offer specific suggestions as to how Canada can respond to the current crisis: “It means forming a coalition of like-minded states drawn from all the world’s regions to demand that Ms. Suu Kyi end the Myanmar military’s rampage. It means calling for accountability for those in Myanmar who have committed crimes against humanity. It means mobilizing global public opinion to put pressure on the UN Security Council, where China and Russia are already standing in the way of any sensible discussion, to take measures that will end the violence.”
They specifically link the situation in Myanmar to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P): “The Security Council must be reminded that when R2P was unanimously adopted, UN member states made a solemn commitment to prevent or stop mass atrocities, such as those taking place today in Myanmar. The Council urgently needs to consider sanctions, embargoes and other measures that will bring pressure to bear on its government to stop the violence.”
As the situation in Myanmar has escalated recently, other Nobel Peace Prize recipients have issued open letters addressed to Aung San Suu Kyi, requesting that she reconsider her current position.
Mairead Maguire (Northern Ireland), Jody Williams (USA), Shirin Ebadi (Iran), Leymah Gbowee (Liberia), and Tawakkol Karman (Yemen) of the Nobel Women’s Initiative “are calling on Aung San Suu Kyi, to break her silence on the violence against the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in Burma.”
In their letter, the Nobel laureates ask Aung San Suu Kyi, “How many Rohingya have to die; how many Rohingya women will be raped; how many communities will be razed before you raise your voice in defense of those who have no voice? Your silence is not in line with the vision of “democracy” for your country that you outlined to us, and for which we all supported you over the years.”
Desmond Tutu also wrote an open letter, beginning “I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired, but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness” and continuing, “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
As well, Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland released a statement saying that Canada is “deeply concerned.” Further, the statement pledges to support “all efforts to build an inclusive, diverse and stable society in Myanmar. Canadians expect that human rights for the Rohingya—and all other ethnic groups—will be protected. The Government of Canada urges the authorities in Myanmar to work together and take measures to protect all civilians from ongoing violence. … Canada continues to call for the full, unimpeded resumption of humanitarian assistance activities.”
WFM-Canada has signed an appeal organized by Human Rights Watch calling on the UN, UN Security Council and UN General Assembly to act on the situation in Myanmar. In part, the appeal says, “We urge UN delegations, especially those from the 114 countries committed to the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Code of Conduct, who made a pledge to support “timely and decisive action” to prevent or end the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, to immediately undertake efforts to adopt a resolution in the UN General Assembly addressing the situation, and call upon the UN Security Council to consider measures to be imposed on the Myanmar government.”
What you can do
As a significant contributor of international assistance, Canada does have influence with the government in Myanmar. Canada has also recently joined a “Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect” which meets at the UN to advance international support for R2P.
While we welcome Minister Freeland’s statement last week, the Canadian government needs to be more specific about what they are willing to do to stop theviolence and support the human rights of the Rohingya.
Write to Minister Freeland and ask her to provide detailed information on the specific commitments Canada is making to help the Rohingya.
For further background information on the Rohingya and the history of their position in Myanmar, see this feature from Al Jazeera.
Learn more about the Responsibility to Protect.