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October 12, 2017

Ali Khan: How world leaders - including Trudeau - can help the Rohingyas

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

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A Rohingya Muslim woman holds a child as she pumps water at a camp for refugees in New Delhi, India, Monday, Sept. 18, 2017. Tsering Topgyal / AP

The news from Myanmar continues to be shocking. United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Hussein has said that the Rohingyas are being subjected to ethnic cleansing. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned about a pending humanitarian catastrophe.

Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and some other leaders have called on Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to stop the carnage, it seems that only concerted multinational pressure on Myanmar can halt the ethnic cleansing and perhaps later produce reforms to enable the Rohingya minority to live in peace and security.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to be the ideal leader to initiate such a move. If he succeeds, he will save thousands of lives and make Canada a world leader in championing human rights, security and justice.

Kosovo, where a North Atlantic Treaty Organization air campaign ended similar ethnic cleansing and led to an uneasy but stable peace, offers a relevant precedent. In Myanmar, military action might not even be needed. Threats of such action, along with economic pressure, might achieve the goals.

The UN in 2005 adopted the Responsibility to Protect principle – known as “R2P” – by which members agreed that the world body should act where necessary to prevent genocide or ethnic cleansing, the very thing that is now happening in Myanmar.

Because of the violence and the refusal of Myanmar’s authorities to permit the UN to investigate, it is difficult to be precise about the numbers of Rohingya victims. There were some 1.3 million Rohingyas in Myanmar. They have lived there since the 12th century, though a fair number came from India during the British raj (1824-1948).

On independence, families that had lived in Myanmar for two generations could apply for identity cards. After the 1962 military coup, citizens were required to get national registration cards. But the Rohingyas were only given foreign identity cards that severely restricted education and job opportunities. A new citizenship law in 1982 effectively made the Rohingyas stateless.

Violence started against the Rohingyas in the 1970s at the instigation of firebrand Buddhist priests. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyans left for nearby countries, mostly Bangladesh. Thousands sought shelter in squalid camps after their houses were torched or they were beaten and tortured.

Outside agencies, including the UN, have been warning about what former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan calls “severe restrictions on their basic rights” and also about brutal assaults on these people. In 2013, Human Rights Watch said Myanmar was conducting ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas. The UN has called the Rohingyas the world’s “most persecuted minority.” In March, the UN passed a resolution to set up an independent mission to investigate the abuses.

In October 2016, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army retaliated by attacking police posts, killing nine policemen. The government has hit back against Rohingyas massively and indiscriminately. Nearly 300,000 people have fled, thousands have been trapped in no-man’s land and almost all are without adequate food, water and shelter.

Trying to flee by sea in rickety boats, refugees have died and their bodies have washed up on Bangladeshi shores. Some 400,000 remain in Myanmar in miserable conditions. The UN has had to suspend its food operations for safety concerns.

The situation has been festering and worsening for years. Clearly it is the moral duty of the world to act to end the brutalities and support a political solution based on respect for human rights, the rule of law and an end to discrimination and persecution.

Now some leaders and the media are beginning to take note. A Sikh group in India has provided a worthy example of human concern. Amarpreet Singh, the leader of Khalsa Aid, has gone with his followers to Teknaf, a border town in Bangladesh. The group took provisions to provide food and other necessities to 50,000 refugees. Instead, they found 300,000 people without adequate water, food, clothes and shelter.

Khalsa Aid is now trying to bring in more supplies and volunteers to help. This noble gesture should prompt world leaders, including ours, to fulfil their duties also.

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired journalist, public servant and refugee judge in Ottawa. 

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