Canada’s response to the Rohingya crisis

The Government of Canada’s website states the nation’s official stance on the Rohingya crisis. Unsurprisingly, it approaches the subject in a fastidiously diplomatic manner. “Canada remains deeply concerned by the violence in the Rahkine State and the displacement of more than 620,000 people into neighbouring Bangladesh,” it begins. “We have condemned the violent attacks of August 25th, attributed to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Canada has also called on the armed forces to exercise restraint and to protect all civilians. We urge the military and civilian authorities in Myanmar to do everything in their power to end the violence now.”  

This appeal seems awfully vague. Though the Canadian government attempts to convey a tactful and neutral position on the matter, this stance looks more and more like ambivalence with every new article, photograph, and statistic that depicts the atrocities in Myanmar. The government fails to directly condemn the Myanmar military for their active participation in the violence. Given Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent desire for more involvement in international affairs, the aforementioned statement feels like a cop-out, a strategy to passively tiptoe around the matter rather than addressing the crisis head-on.  

To those who are uncertain about or unaware of the disaster in western Myanmar and Bangladesh, here’s a summary: the Rohingya people are a stateless Muslim minority from Rahkine, Myanmar. They have also been called “The Boat People” by multiple news sources. In October 2016, Myanmar’s armed forces issued several crackdowns on Rohingya villages in response to attacks by Rohingya militants on border police camps. Less than a year later, an attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army provoked an exorbitantly violent response from authorities.  

Officials cut off food supplies and laid siege to western Myanmar. Entire villages were pillaged and set ablaze. Survivor testimonies describe gang rapes and brutal aggression against infants. According to a detailed survey published just last month by Médicins Sans Frontières, at least 6,700 Rohingya people were killed during the initial month of conflict. An overwhelming majority of these victims died from gunshot wounds.  

Within the first month of these attacks, nearly half of the remaining Rohingya people in Myanmar fled to neighbouring countries. Hundreds of thousands of refugees climbed aboard rickety wooden boats or trekked thousands of miles in search of asylum. Hundreds of these refugees died along the way, perishing from disease and hunger or from being stranded at sea. Bangladesh currently receives the majority of these refugees. It plans to move the refugees to Thengar Char, a small island in the Bay of Bengal, approximately nine hours from the refugee camps. Not only is Thengar Char extremely prone to flooding and cyclones, there are no roads or infrastructure on the island. Nevertheless, the Bangladeshi government approved this resettlement plan at the beginning of 2017. 

The Honourable Bob Rae, Canada’s special envoy, visited the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar at the end of last year. He noted the absence of roads and spaces for toilets as well as the alarming number of refugees who were women or children under the age of 15. According to his interim report, the camps were “deplorably overcrowded and [posed] a threat to human health and life itself.” He pays particular attention to the sexual violence experienced by female refugees at the hands of the Myanmar military. He urges governments and non-government organizations to prioritize healthcare, sanitation, and education. 

While the United Nations expressed shock and disgust over these attacks and their subsequent mass exodus, State Counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi has remained inactive and indifferent. She has drawn international criticism for her failure to recognize these atrocities and to condemn the Myanmar military.   

Canadian news sources must be careful about how they depict this issue. Although its severity is at an all-time high, the Rohingya crisis is not a recent phenomenon that emerged out of thin air. Persecution against the Rohingya people has been apparent since Myanmar’s independence.   

Myanmar was a British colony from 1842 to 1948. During this century of British rule, there was a steady migration of workers to western Myanmar. In the eyes of British officials, Myanmar was part of the greater Indian colonies. The native population did not share this opinion. Instead, they saw Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Following Myanmar’s independence in 1948, authorities deemed this migration illegal. In 1982, new citizenship laws did not include the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s officially recognized ethnic minorities. To be a citizen of Myanmar, one had to possess proof of living in the country prior to 1948. Since Rohingya people were denied these documents, they could not register as legal citizens. The Myanmar government has since imposed severe legal restrictions on the Rohingya people. It is nearly impossible for Rohingya people to pursue professions in medicine, law, or politics.  

And yet, we barely hear about these facts. Instead, our media sources sensationalize current events. Babies being thrown into bonfires or children slowly wasting away during their escape to refugee camps are just some of the themes on which articles linger. To focus on the extent of the current exodus is a necessity, but it is not enough. We cannot dismiss the complex and long-term socio-political oppression of the Rohingya people. The current representation of the Rohingya crisis in Western media detracts from its true severity. Rather than portraying these events as newly emergent, we must show that the contemporary conflict is profoundly rooted in Myanmar’s bitter colonial history. Our approach must change and it must change quickly if we wish to expedite strategies towards fruitful reconciliation.  

 

This article is part of an ongoing series in which The Strand tackles issues relating to systemic oppression, privilege, and identity. All are welcome to contribute to the discussion. Pitches should be directed to opinions@thestrand.ca.