When Anwar Arkani, a Rohingya Muslim now living in Canada, calls his sister and her children in Myanmar (formerly Burma) he is met with screams.
“Why are you not doing anything? Even if these people don’t kill us, we will die of starvation inside the house!” they tell the Kitchener, Ont. resident.
“I have no way to console them,” Arkani said Saturday. “They think I can change things like that, with the snap of my fingers.”
Arkani, who came to Canada from Myanmar in the 1970s, is the president of the Rohingya Association of Canada. He was recounting his plight to a large crowd of protesters gathered at Matt Cohen Park Sept. 16.
They were there because of the ongoing violence committed by Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the state of Rakhine.
In the last month alone over 400,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into neighbouring Bangladesh.
They escaped a mass campaign of indiscriminate violence launched by Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya minority in what is being described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations’ human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina calls it “genocide”.
Refugees who did make it to safety have described widespread slaughter where entire villages have been destroyed and rape has been used as a weapon. The Myanmar military has also been laying landmines along the Bangladesh border, to prevent refugees from returning to their homes.
The military claims it is only conducting a “clearance” operation against insurgents, who attacked a police station on Aug. 25, where 12 officers were killed.
The persecution of the Rohingya isn’t new. As Ahmed Ramadan, the outreach coordinator for the Canadian branch of the Burma Task Force points out, a massive military build up had been observed in Rohingya areas since the beginning of August. At the same time Bangladesh was increasing it’s patrols along the border with Burma.
“This issue is not three weeks old, this issue has been going on for over 30 years,” Ramadan said.
Historic persecution against the Rohingya
Although there has been ethnic discrimination against the Rohingya for almost a century, they still had civil rights and were able to participate in the government. But then, in 1982, the military junta striped the Rohingya of their citizenship.
Since then, their situation has only deteriorated.
A round of violence erupted in 2012, in which hundreds were killed and children were hacked to death. A Human Rights Watch report labeled it ethnic cleansing.
“Over 150,000 have been living in internal displacement camps since [then],” Ramadan said. “With extremely limited or no access to food, water, healthcare, schooling and just being able to work.”
“They are limited in how much they can move, they need special permission to be able to move from town to town,” he said.
Before the latest round of violence, 400,000 had already fled to Bangladesh. With the latest round of refugees that number is expected to double.
Many in the international community had hoped that Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader in Myanmar, would attempt to put a halt to the persecution. As someone who herself was persecuted by the former military-led government, and spent years fighting for democracy in Myanmar, it was believed that she would oppose the atrocities.
But those hopes have been dashed.
As Ramadan points out she’s not just been silent during the latest round of violence, but has in fact been denying their existence.
“She’s basically turned into a buffer between her and the military. So the military have been able to do things now that were never able to be done before,” he said.
One of the techniques that Burma Task Force U.S.A. has used during past crackdowns is to have the U.S. ambassador go to the areas of the country where the persecution is taking place. According to Ramanda, when the American observers were in the area, the killing would halt. They would like Canada to try a similar tactic.
“We’re asking the Canadian ambassador to (Myanmar) Burma, Karan McArthur, if she can go into these afflicted areas,” he said. “Where they can see that the world is watching and maybe that will result in directly saving lives.”
For Anwar Akani, there is only one solution: “intervention, creating a safe zone, sending in UN peacekeepers,” he said. “It is the only solution to save, not all, but some of the people, some of the Rohingya who are still alive.”