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Rohingya Muslims In Myanmar Inquiry-Debate Continued

 

The Senate

Leave having been given to revert to Other Business, Inquiries, Order No. 56:

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the inquiry of the Honourable Senator Jaffer calling the attention of the Senate

to the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and the mandate of Canada’s Office of

Religious Freedoms

 

Hon. A. Raynell Andreychuk: Honourable senators, I rise to contribute to this timely inquiry by the

co-chairs of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights. I would like to thank both Senator

Jaffer and Senator Ataullahjan for participating in the recent meeting of the Standing Senate

Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade on this very topic.

 

Our committee has been looking at the situation of the Rohingya Muslims of Burma with concern

since at least 2013. The Senate has just now adopted the committee’s twelfth report, which looks at

the Canadian engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. Our report includes a case study on Burma

and deals in some detail with that country’s difficulties with ethnic inclusion.

 

Burma is at a very particular stage in its development. In recent years, it has shown a new

willingness to engage with the international community. It has begun to open new space for freedom

of expression and civil liberties. Long a leader in pushing for democracy in Burma, Canada has

welcomed these developments, but there is also a recognition that Burma still needs to overcome

many obstacles.

 

A main concern is that the military still maintains a great deal of control in the country and in its

Parliament. Headlines last week announced that a vote in the Parliament had fallen short of the 75

per cent threshold needed to remove the military’s veto over constitutional change. This is a setback

for Burmese democracy. It comes amid ongoing constitutional reform negotiations and with elections

in November quickly approaching.

 

Peace talks are also under way, though conflict continues between the central government and a

number of armed ethnic groups. Ethnic minorities in Burma, of which there are nine main groups and

a number of smaller ones, have many legitimate grievances. Sustainable, political and economic

reconciliation relies heavily on leaders’ abilities to redress these grievances and to chart a more

inclusive future for the Burmese society.

 

The Rohingya Muslims are among the most marginalized ethnic groups in Burma. According to the

organization Refugees International, the Rohingya are also one of the largest stateless groups in the

world. Persecuted since the 1940s, an estimated 1 million Rohingya today live in exile. Another 1.3

million Rohingya still live in Burma. Mostly, they live in the Rakhine state, close to Burma’s border

with Bangladesh. All but 40,000 of Burma’s Rohingya are officially stateless. They are largely

perceived to be economic migrants from Bangladesh. This, however, is a false perception.

 

Appearing before the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Peter

MacArthur, Director General, South and Southeast Asia and Oceania with the Department of

Foreign Affairs and International Trade, explained:

         For hundreds of years, they have been migrating from the Middle East as Arab traders,

         shall we say, a Muslim-faith visible minority. Only since 1948, when independence occurred

         from the British, has there been this kind of tension. The current government in Burma is

         trying to discriminate between those who have been there since 1948 and those who were

         already there before 1948, when the country gained independence. Being able to discriminate

         between those two groups is very difficult to do and not the right way to go, of course.

 

Despite their long history in Burma, Rohingya statelessness is embedded in government policy. The

1982 Burma citizenship law stripped the Rohingya of citizenship, making them resident foreigners

instead. This caused the Rohingya ethnicity to be omitted from a recent national census. Moreover,

Burmese law prevents non-citizens from obtaining citizenship. Rohingya children born in Burma are

prevented from obtaining citizenship even though their families may have been there for generations.

This is despite Burma’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in

1991.

 

Article 7 of that convention states:

          1. The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a

          name, the right to acquire a nationality . . . .

          2. States Parties shall ensure the implementation of these rights in accordance with their

          national law and their obligations under the relevant international instruments in this field, in

          particular where the child would otherwise be stateless.

 

The United Nations refugee agency has urged Burma to review its citizenship law in light of these

obligations. It has also offered financial, technical and legal support, but to no effect. The Rohingyas’

lack of citizenship also means that they have been restricted from travelling within the Rakhine State

within Burma and abroad. This is in violation of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human

Rights and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Other restrictions

on the Rohingya have been less widely reported.

 

In July 2012, Myanmar’s Minister of Home Affairs, Lieutenant-General Ko Ko, told Parliament that

the authorities were:

          . . . tightening the regulations [against Rohingya] in order to handle travelling, birth, death,   

          immigration, migration, marriage, construction of new religious buildings, repairing and

          landownership and [the] right to construct building[s]. . . .

 

The Rohingya also face restrictions in accessing education and employment. Adding to these

problems, in recent years the Rohingya have been targeted by Buddhist ultra-nationalists. Violence

against the Rohingya has been frequently fuelled by extremist monks, many of whom are important

community leaders. Rohingya homes and mosques have been burned and shops have been looted.

Authorities have all too often stood and watched by the sidelines. The persecution of the Rohingya

must be brought to an end.

 

Today there is unprecedented international awareness of the plight of the Rohingya. In early May,

media reported on the discovery of mass graves of migrants in southern Thailand. The BBC

broadcast shocking images of Rohingya boat people stranded and abandoned by their traffickers and

left to drift by regional powers. The same month, the former Special Rapporteur on the situation of

human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said: ‘‘The Rohingya are in a process of genocide.’’

 

Under international pressure, the foreign ministers of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia held a

meeting on May 20. Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to host the migrants for a year on the condition

that the international community would provide support for their care and repatriation within a year.

 

This is clearly only a temporary solution to help those who have risked their lives to escape

persecution in Burma, but other initiatives are under way. The Government of Bangladesh, for

example, has put aside $59 million for its Coast Guard. There have also been a number of arrests of

human traffickers.

 

Canada’s support for ethnic and religious inclusion in Burma and for anti-trafficking and anti-

smuggling efforts in the region will help such efforts. The only sustainable solution to decades of

persecution and neglect, however, is for the Rohingya to be fully recognized as citizens. Burma is

today under pressure from its neighbours and the broader international community to take action. It

is critical that parliamentarians and governments around the world make sure that the plight of the

Rohingya remains an issue in the lead-up to Burma’s elections in November.

 

Aung San Suu Kyi remains, in the words of Prime Minister Harper ‘‘a symbol of the desire of the

Burmese people for political freedom.’’ However, we should not make the mistake of holding her

responsible for the plight of the Rohingya. Ethnic tensions have torn Burma apart in the past.

Today’s prospects for reconciliation must be carefully managed. Parliamentarians in Canada and

around the world should work with all parties in Burma to encourage a freer, more rights-respecting

democracy.

 

Canadians have long stood with the people of Burma. Let us use this inquiry, brought by our

colleagues here, to convey our hope that Burma’s leaders will commit to political inclusion, human

rights and, above all, citizenship. Let us share with them our experiences in building a strong and

multicultural democracy as we approach July 1. Let us use this inquiry to express our expectations

that Burma’s leaders will seize the opportunities before them today to build a democracy that is open

and free, inclusive of all ethnic groups of Burma, accepting of Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus alike,

and home to the Rohingya.

 

(On motion of Senator Cordy, debate adjourned.)