The actions of the Burmese government against the Rohingya “looks a lot like ethnic cleansing,” says Canada’s foreign affairs minister, who vows to apply pressure on the international community at the UN General Assembly next week.
“This is an issue that matter to me very much. It matters very much to our prime minister,” Chrystia Freeland told a crowd of about 100 people in Matt Cohen Park at a protest on Saturday organized by the Burma Task Force and several Canadian Muslim organizations.
More than 370,000 Rohingya refugees have fled the military crackdown in Burma, a crisis that the United Nations human rights chief has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The Burmese government has reported that 176 out of 471 Rohingya villages are now abandoned, with satellite images showing stretches of villages burnt to the ground.
Freeland told the crowd that she had spoken to the foreign minister of Bangladesh, as well as former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan.
“Our ambassador is seeking access to the Rakhine State (in western) Burma, so that Canadians can see first hand what is happening,” Freeland said.
Anwar Arkani, president of the Rohingya Association of Canada, was in the crowd — representing one of 34 Rohingya families who have settled in Kitchener-Waterloo in the last two decades. There are 25 Rohingya families in Quebec City, and 20 more in Vancouver. All of them are refugees; most have moved here from refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“We want to mobilize the Canadian government,” Arkani said in an interview. “I’ve been screaming this for many, many years. People only woke up . . . when they saw massive numbers of people crossing the border in just a day.”
Arkani has called his relatives in Burma every day for the past 20 years, since he first moved to Canada as a government-assisted refugee. Last year, in July, his youngest sister and her husband were killed by military forces. Three years before that, his nephews were taken by the same forces — never to be heard from again. Arkani thinks they were buried alive in a mass grave or drowned in a river.
“You assume everyone you know there is dead,” he said. “You’re lucky if you only know who’s alive.”
Ethnic Rohingya have long faced discrimination in Burma and are denied citizenship, even though many families have lived there for generations.
Habibur Rahman, a teacher who has served one of the refugee camps in Bangladesh for over 20 years, told the Star in a phone interview from overseas that he has never witnessed this many people at the camp before.
“There are more people here than there is room to walk,” he said through a translator.
People are sleeping in his classrooms, not studying, anymore.
Speaking from Bangladesh, Rahman said he is worried because of the severe rainy season in the region, with cold temperatures around the corner.
“There’s not enough food or clothes, people are starving,” he said. “People are weak, children are very weak. We don’t have medical supplies.”
“People are coming here with nothing but a horror history of their houses burned down,” he added.
One of those people was Sayed Ahmed’s uncle, who fled from Maungdaw in Burma to Bangladesh a week ago with thousands of people. He called Ahmed with Rahman’s phone.
“He told me that they don’t feel safe anymore in his own country,” said Ahmed, a longtime resident of Kitchener-Waterloo, who hasn’t seen his Burmese relatives since he moved to Canada in 2006.
“He said that people are running for their lives. Whoever is left behind are burned in fire.”
In the crowd were several other politicians, including MPs Rob Oliphant (Don Valley East), Salma Zahid (Scarborough Centre), Michael Levitt (York Centre) and Ali Ehsassi (Willowdale); and city councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Neethan Shan.
“This is a Canadian issue,” Oliphant said, to strong applause from the crowd.
Oliphant promised that the Rohingya crisis would be the first issue that parliament would tackle when it goes back into session next week.
Another grassroots rally gathered at the Legislative Assembly Grounds at Queen’s Park to also call for the end of the “genocide” of the Rohingya. Protests are also set to take place in Ottawa and Edmonton on Sunday.