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October 12, 2017

World ignores relentless persecution of Rohingya

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

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The Dalai Lama has urged Myanmar’s authorities to heed Gautama Buddha’s teachings and cease harassing their Muslim countrymen. Nobel Peace prize winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousufzai have also urged an end to what the United Nations has called the ethnic cleansing of defenseless Rohingya.

The evidence suggests, however, that Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, its military which wields the real authority in the country and the firebrand Buddhist priests who promote violence have no intention of ending the persecution of the Rohingya.

Suu Kyi used to deny that Rohingya were being persecuted. Now she calls them terrorists because on Aug. 25 Rohingya militants attacked border posts killing 12 security officers. What she does not acknowledge is that Myanmar authorities have been hounding innocent Rohingya for decades.

Some Canadians are demanding that Canada rescind the honorary citizenship it conferred on the Myanmar leader and that she should also be stripped of her Nobel peace prize. But these actions won’t save the Rohingya.

Human Rights Watch has asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to press Myanmar to allow humanitarian aid to the Rohingya, stop the military campaign against them and allow in a UN fact-finding mission. The prime minister, who urged Suu Kyi when he met her in June to stop the persecution of the minority, has condemned the military action, has promised $1 million in aid to the Rohingya and said Canada would consider taking some Rohingya refugees.

Though welcome, these actions do not grapple with the heart of the problem — the Myanmar authorities’ relentless persecution of a helpless minority. The rampage will stop only if the world community acted together to force Myanmar to do so.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told the Human Rights Council that the systematic attacks on the Rohingya amount possibly to “crimes against humanity.”

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy and former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations Allan Rock wrote in part in the Globe and Mail: “The international community cannot simply be a bystander to the mass atrocity that is occurring day by day in Myanmar. We must accept and act on our shared responsibility to protect the vulnerable Muslim population that is being preyed upon by its own government.”

They urged Canada to forge a coalition from across the world to demand that Myanmar end its rampage and to mobilize global opinion to pressure the UN Security Council to act and to hold accountable those who are committing crimes against humanity.

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan chaired an advisory commission on Rakhine state, where most of the Rohingya live. Suu Kyi has given no indication she will accept the commission’s recommendations that include citizenship, mobility and social justice for the 1.3 million Rohingya. Amazingly, most world leaders are ignoring the mass killings, torture, rapes, forced deportations, disappearances and property destruction that are being perpetrated on the Rohingya.

Suu Kyi has blocked the UN from investigating Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingyas. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated he was “deeply concerned” and he urged “restraint and calm to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.” The UN has called Rohingya “the world’s most persecuted minority.”

In the last few months thousands of innocent people have been murdered. Those fleeing are also being attacked. Over 120,000 Rohingya have sought shelter in Bangladesh while 30,000 are stranded in a no-man’s land without food. Bodies of men, women and children who fled in unsafe boats have reached Bangladeshi shores. Some 400,000 are trapped in Myanmar with no food or medical assistance that is blocked by the authorities. The UN had to suspend its food aid to the 250,000 internally displaced persons.

Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya is not new. Though they have lived in Myanmar since the 12th century — and some moved from India to Myanmar during the British rule from 1824 to 1948 — Rohingya were not recognized by Myanmar authorities as Burmese.

The military coup in Myanmar in 1962 worsened the situation. All Burmese were required to obtain national registration cards. But the Rohingya were only given foreign identity cards that limited their employment and educational opportunities.

Crackdown on the Rohingya in the 1970s resulted in murder, rape, torture and arson and forced hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh and other countries. In 1982 a new citizenship law was passed that effectively made the Rohingya stateless and further restricted their basic human rights.

In 2013 Human Rights Watch accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. Though accurate numbers are hard to get because of the violence and Myanmar’s obstruction, more than 420,000 Rohingya are said to have sought shelter in other countries. Some 120,000 are homeless in Myanmar. People are fleeing every day. Some are trapped in a no-man’s land between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

It is a horrendous tragedy, but the international community has not acted. Some Canadians, including the media, are urging Prime Minister Trudeau to take the lead in mobilizing other leaders to act.

— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge

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