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October 3, 2018

Complicit in Rohingya Muslims Genocide

Eleven years after Canada granted honorary citizenship to Myanmar's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, the House of Commons voted unanimously to revoke it on September 17, 2018 declaring the treatment of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar (Burma) government to be genocide.

Before coming to power in a landslide victory for her party, the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi was widely perceived as the embodiment of hope, a brave symbol of defiance against the Myanmar military dictatorship and a heroine of the human rights community.  It is a perception that has sadly collapsed, having foundered on the treatment of the country’s Rohingya Muslims population, who make up just 4 percent of the country’s 53 million population.

2012 saw an outbreak of communal violence in Myanmar that resulted in the displacement of more than 100,000 Rohingya people who were forced into makeshift refugee camps. At least 200 people were killed in clashes between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine state, a territory of 3.1 million people on Myanmar’s west coast. Although Muslims have been in Myanmar since at least the 9th century, their numbers increased markedly during British imperial rule. Nonetheless, the majority Buddhists, who make up 90 percent of the country’s population, regard them as interlopers.  The violent blow-up generated by ethnic differences has largely discredited the country’s heralded transition to democracy, which began in 2010.

Fast forward six years, the crisis shows no sign of abating. Since the onset of the crisis, outside observers have continued to document numerous mass atrocities including widespread killings, torture, rape and burning of villages by Myanmar’s army and other state security forces. As widely reported, more than 717,000 people have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017. Zeid Raad Al Hussein, the UN Human rights chief, has called the security operation in Myanmar “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Having joined the government, Suu Kyi could no longer deflect the blame and responsibility. Unfortunately, her response has not been any more commendable. She has repeatedly failed to speak out against the violence inflicted on the Rohingya or address the allegation of ethnic cleansing, insisting that the crisis was instigated by “terrorists” and distorted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation” – something her government has bizarrely continued to maintain by obstructing independent investigations into the crisis. Suu Kyi’s refusal to condemn the violence or attempt to lead her government away from it has made her the target of worldwide condemnation as her country’s military wages its campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In a 2013 interview with the BBC, for instance, she refused to acknowledge the rising violence directed at the Rohingya and pointed out that Buddhists had also been displaced from their homes and similarly subject to violence. Then she went on to claim that Myanmar as a whole – as do many other parts of the world – live in fear of “global Muslim power.” Instead of raising eyebrows, this Islamophobic remark went largely unnoticed, with Western leaders continuing to embrace her advancement. A champion of human rights and democracy could not have possibly made such an Islamophobic remark.

The plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority is essentially a fight for identity.

Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and its representatives, including the powerful military and the country's de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, understand this well. They use a strictly-guarded discourse in which the Rohingyas are never recognized as an ethnic group with pressing political aspirations. Thus, they refer to the Rohingyas as "Bengali," claiming that the Muslim minority are immigrants from Bangladesh who entered the country illegally. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Her government arrested journalists who were reporting on a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims, whose mass grave they discovered. The victims were just a few of the countless Rohingyas killed in the western state of Rakhine meant to drive them across the border into Bangladesh.

“If you’re an accomplice of genocide, you won’t have honorary citizenship here,” said Gabriel Ste-Marie, the opposition member of Parliament who put the motion forward, after the vote. Earlier in the House of Commons, Ste-Marie, a member of the separatist Bloc Québécois party, charged that the killings had “unfolded under the watchful eye of the de facto head of government: Aung San Suu Kyi.”

“Whether she has citizenship or not doesn’t help the Rohingyas,” Prime Minister Trudeau told CBC. “Parliament granted her citizenship, Parliament can take it away. But we’re focused on the millions of people who are suffering either in place or as refugees.”

Javed Akbar can be reached at

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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