Saturday, June 29, 2013

Canada Downplays Persecution of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims

(July, 2013, MuslimLink)
By Matthew Behrens
            While the Harper government imposes stricter sanctions on Iran, it is opening up trade and diplomatic relations with Burma, despite that government’s ongoing oppression of a Muslim minority that has led to well-placed charges of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Burma may soon become the only nation on the planet that limits family size based on religion (with a revived policy restricting Muslims to two children), yet Canada is forging ahead with plans to open an embassy and full-time trade commission in Rangoon.
            According to an April, 2013 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Burma’s Rohingya Muslim population has been under attack by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who have killed hundreds, displacing over 100,000 Muslims while the Burmese government appears at best to have stood back and refused to intervene, and at worst to have encouraged the looting, rape, and murder of Muslims in that country. The HRW report was released the same day that the European Union lifted long-standing sanctions against the Burmese government, best known for the lengthy military dictatorship’s brutal repression and the long-time house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been notably silent on the issue.
            The majority Buddhist country has long refused to recognize the status of the Rohingya – indeed, they were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 – declaring them illegal immigrants who should be removed from the country, and enforcing discriminatory laws that prevent employment and freedom to move, such as the recent proposal that would ban Muslim men from marrying Buddhist women.  British MP Rushanara Ali recently wrote that the Rohingya, whose heritage in the area can be traced to the 7th century, have been designated by the United Nations as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.” 
            A long history of discrimination forms the backdrop to the massacres and human rights abuses documented in the 153-page report, “All You Can Do is Pray: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Artakan State.” HRW documents how the Burmese government has created “a humanitarian crisis” with “coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population. The tens of thousands of displaced have been denied access to humanitarian aid and been unable to return home.” HRW’s deputy Asia Director added in a press statement, “the government needs to put an immediate stop to the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable or it will be responsible for further violence against ethnic and religious minorities in the country.”
            On October 23, over 70 Rohinya Muslims were massacred in Yan Thei Village. HRW reports, “Despite advance warning of the attack, only a small number of riot police, local police, and army soldiers were on duty to provide security, but they assisted the killings by disarming the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves. Included in the death toll were 28 children who were hacked to death, including 13 under age 5.”
            The October, 2012 atrocities were preceded by earlier destruction of mosques, mass arrests, the razing of villages, and killing of residents. Since the 1990s, UN special rapporteurs have identified and condemned such abuses as “widespread,” “systematic,” and resulting from “state policy”, while new technology confirms what governments seek to deny or downplay:  HRW last year obtained satellite imagery of areas affected by the violence, which showed the destruction of over 4,800 structures across some 350 acres of largely Muslim property.
            “Many of the displaced Muslims have been living in overcrowded camps that lack adequate food, shelter, water and sanitation, schools, and medical care,” the reported continued. “Security forces in some areas have provided protection to displaced Muslims, but more typically they have acted as their jailers, preventing access to markets, livelihoods, and humanitarian assistance, for which many are in desperate need.”
            Attacks have continued unabated, and while Aung San Suu Kyi, considering a run for the presidency, has been extremely cautious, offering only tepid, bland remarks about respecting the rule of law and not wanting to take sides, President Thien has stoked the flames by suggesting the Rohingya all be placed in refugee camps or expelled from the country.
            A month before the October 2012 massacres, the Harper government send a trade delegation, including representatives of the Bank of Nova Scotia, Manulife Financial, and Skywave Mobile Communications. While Ed Fast, Minister of International Trade, has warned that Burma-bound corporations should be cautious because of the fluid economic situation, he has been non-specific on the Rohingya’s plight. “We’ve made it clear that as we engage in trade and investment relationships around the world that we also expect our partners to respect basic human rights, respect democratic processes,” Fast said in a prepared statement, a common shout-out to rights that has little effect as investment begins to pour into the country and there appear to be no sanctions on the horizon to ensure human rights compliance.
            While the government of Canada insists that trade is the mechanism that opens the door to democratic rights (a claim that has not worked well in China, where Canadian Muslim Huseyin Celil remains detained because of his religion), British MP Rushanara Ali declared “The international community must push the Burmese government to amend its 1982 Citizenship Act to ensure that all persons in the country have equal access to citizenship and are not discriminated against on grounds of ethnicity and religion.” The United Nations last month also called for full citizenship status as well, noting the Rohingya remain segregated in camps that they are not allowed to leave.
            Such a specific recommendation to end the violence against Muslims in Burma is not apparent in vague Canadian statements. Canada’s language on the attacks in Burma has been instructive, carefully worded in a manner that some might view as not wishing to harm investment opportunities by insulting the current government. While Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom has in recent months issued statements with strong language – “Canada Condemns Iran’s Continued Religious Freedom Violations, Including Persecution of Baha’is”,  “Canada Condemns Church Bombing in Tanzania” – its March statement on Burmese atrocities was more measured:  “Canada is concerned by recent reports of deadly violence targeting Muslims in Meiktila, Burma.”
            Such language appears to be a deliberate choice that sacrifices the rights of the Rohingya Muslims to the niceties of diplomatic and commercial engagement. It is also clear from a long line of similar statements that Canada downplays the violence that both now and historically targets Burmese Muslims. Indeed, in a 2011 speech to the UN, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird declared:  “We respect state sovereignty, but Canada will not ‘go along’ or look the other way when a minority is denied its human rights or fundamental freedoms.” Laudable as the sentiment is, Baird went on to condemn Iran for “persecution” of women, Christians and Bahai, but said in the same breath that in Burma the regime simply “restricts the activities of Muslims.”
            While Canadian companies line up to reap the riches Burma may offer, Human Rights Watch lists a series of recommendations that Canada and other nations should be pushing for, from holding to account those behind the atrocities to new legislation upholding the rights of all Burmese Muslims, immediate lifting of all restrictions on freedom of movement, unhindered humanitarian agency access, an independent international mechanism to investigate crimes against humanity, and a return of displaced persons to their homes.

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