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The Rohingya Genocide – An Urgent Call to the Canadian Government

With their homes destroyed and their lives in constant peril, the Rohingya are in desperate need of international intervention.

By: /
1 July, 2024
Nearly two hundred Rohingya people from across Canada participated in a protest on Parliament Hill last month, calling on the Canadian government to intercede on behalf of the Rohingya trapped in Myanmar. Photos: John Jonaid.
John Jonaid
By: John Jonaid
Journalist and human rights activist

“We are facing total genocide now. Our brothers, sisters, and parents are in grave danger in Rakhine State,” said Rohingya protesters who gathered last month on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. They urgently demanded that the Canadian government intervene decisively to protect Rohingya lives in Rakhine State, Myanmar.

In June, the Arakan Army, which is fighting government forces, issued a statement ordering the Rohingya to leave Maungdaw as soon as possible – the last remaining Rohingya populated city in Rakhine State.

Given the dire situation, “We want the Canadian government to work with like-minded countries and G7 nations to intervene and take urgent action or whatever possible at their capacity to save the Rohingya,” said protest organizer Ahmed Hashim Ullah, a prominent Rohingya refugee advocate based in Kitchener-Waterloo. “Rohingya people are being killed, raped, and persecuted by a regime that seeks to extinguish us from existence.”

Nearly two hundred Rohingya people from across Canada participated in the protest, including women, girls, and children in solidarity with fellow Rohingya caught in the crossfire between the Arakan Army and the military junta in Rakhine State.

“Anything could happen to them. Their homes have already been burned down. They are hiding and surviving in the forest. Some of us have already lost our loved ones,” added Rahima Akter Khushi, a Rohingya refugee activist. She delivered a powerful speech noting that she had seen for herself “women who are not allowed to remarry because they were raped by the military. Their lives are destroyed because of this crisis and the inhuman treatment by the Myanmar military. These things deeply touch my heart and motivate me to speak out for our Rohingya community, especially for the women and children who face these hardships.”

During the protest, those present collectively chanted slogans for two hours: “Stop killing Rohingya right now. Genocide no more.” They called on the Canadian government to listen to their cries of desperation.

The Rohingya, an ethnic minority in Rakhine State, the western part of Myanmar, have faced systematic persecution for generations. And they have relied heavily on the international community to bring about a solution to their crisis. However, due to lack of international attention, which has largely been drawn to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the situation for the Rohingya continues to deteriorate with each passing day.

After Myanmar citizenship for the Rohingya was removed in 1982 by military general Ne Win, the Rohingya were labeled as illegal immigrants in their own land. This systematic disenfranchisement marked the beginning of a campaign aimed at erasing the Rohingya’s identity and presence in Myanmar. Over the years, the situation has worsened, with the Rohingya facing severe restrictions on movement, lack of access to education and healthcare, and widespread violence and discrimination.

Originally numbering 3.5 million people, the Rohingya population has now been reduced to only a few hundred in Myanmar, most of whom are displaced in concentration camps across Arakan (Rakhine State). In 2017, when the military launched a clearance operation intending to complete the genocide of the Rohingya, nearly one million were forced to flee to Bangladesh.

Today, the vast majority of Rohingya are scattered around the world, while the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar are in immediate danger of extermination. Previously, it was primarily the military junta killing them. However, and since the civil war began in 2021, the Arakan Army, a Rakhine ethnic armed group fighting for self-determination, has become the most powerful armed group in Rakhine State. 

While other armed groups are collectively fighting for a federal democracy, the Arakan Army is pursuing its own political agenda. They are not willing to share power in a federation under the National Unity Government (NUG), Myanmar’s government in exile, because the NUG recognizes the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar. Instead, the Arakan Army’s goal is to eliminate both the Rohingya and the military junta and claim Rakhine State for themselves.

“It was the Rakhine people who killed hundreds of thousands of people in 2017 with the military junta. We face as much hatred and discrimination from the Rakhine people,” said one of the protesters. The protestors, as a result, also submitted a statement to the House of Commons, requesting that the Arakan Army be designated as a terrorist group and urging measures to prevent them from killing innocent Rohingya civilians.

Indeed, the Arakan Army has recently devastated many Rohingya communities, including Buthidaung. The Rohingya from this city are now sheltering in the forest between Buthidaung and Maungdaw, and day by day, they are being killed. Maungdaw, located near the border with Bangladesh, has about four hundred Rohingya residents left and is now also under attack – the death of Rohingya, trapped in the city, is a daily occurrence and they have nowhere to go. The Bangladeshi government tightly controls the border, firing at anyone trying to cross.

Ullah also noted that the Rohingya are facing extinction in Rakhine State: “With each attack against the Rohingya population, we lose thousands of our people, and they all go uncounted. We are slowly facing extinction, and soon no one will hear the name Rohingya if things continue the way they have for decades.”

Ullah explained that as Rohingya homes and villages continue to be destroyed, those remaining in Bangladesh have no homes or properties to return to. Most of their homes, land, and properties have been distributed to other communities, including the Rakhine. Their cultural symbols, history, and anything indicating their existence in Rakhine State have been destroyed.

He also noted that those living in other countries face similar challenges, as the Rohingya have been unable to establish their community to preserve their culture, as most remain in limbo and uncertain refugee situations due to a lack of support from host countries.

As for Khushi, she grew up in the Kutupalong refugee camp, the world’s largest refugee camp located in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, after her parents were forced to leave Myanmar in 1992. She says that she faced several challenges growing up as a refugee child with no basic rights, including the right to education.

“As a child, I was very interested in higher education,” says Khushi. “I saw other local kids going to school with nice uniforms, colorful dresses, and bags and books in their hands. I used to ask my mom why I couldn’t go to school like those kids.”

However, Khushi was able to attend a refugee learning center where she learned basic English, science, and math. Later, she pretended to be a local with the help of some local citizens, finished school, and attended college. But when her identity as a Rohingya was discovered, she was suspended in her second semester in 2019.

“They did a lot of negative campaigning about my story and my university situation. They said this Rohingya woman should be sent back to Myanmar, to the Rohingya camp. She’s taking education she is not allowed to have. She should be killed. So, it was really a lot going on in my life. Any other girl would have killed herself in such a situation,” Khushi said. Earlier this year, UNHCR helped resettle her in Canada.

“Canada was the first country to recognize the atrocities against the Rohingya people as genocide. Yet, it has failed to protect us as the Arakan Army has completed the genocide,” noted Ullah . “We, the Rohingya, do not have many friends around the world. The Burmese government and its policymakers have made us suffer for more than four decades. We have become a burden on many countries as Rohingya people flee the genocide.”

The protesters’ demands were clear and urgent. They called on the Canadian government to take a leading role in international efforts to protect the Rohingya and to pressure the Myanmar government to cease its brutal campaign against the ethnic minority. It’s something that Canada used to do but seemingly no longer. In 2017, Bob Rae was appointed special envoy to Myanmar to lead Canada’s diplomatic efforts to help resolve the Rohingya crisis.  After he left in 2020 to become Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations no replacement has been forthcoming. The demonstrators also sought increased humanitarian aid and resettlement opportunities for Rohingya refugees, many of whom have endured years of persecution and displacement in Bangladesh.

As the protest concluded, the message was clear: the plight of the Rohingya cannot be ignored. With their homes destroyed and their lives in constant peril, the Rohingya are in desperate need of international intervention. The organizers, led by Ullah, vowed to continue their advocacy, hoping that Canada’s response would be swift and meaningful. The powerful display of unity and determination on Parliament Hill was a stark reminder of the human cost of inaction and the urgent need for a global response to the crisis.

Their requests to the Canadian government included:

  • Reinvigorating International Pressure: While there have been calls for increased financial support and political pressure on Myanmar, these measures have not been sufficient to halt the violence.
  • Finding Sustainable Solutions: Temporary measures, such as providing humanitarian aid, are critical but do not address the root causes of the crisis. A more robust and proactive approach is necessary.
  • Protection of Civilians: UN peacekeeping forces could provide much-needed protection to Rohingya civilians caught in the conflict, ensuring their safety and preventing further atrocities.
  • Enforcing Accountability: An international intervention could help enforce accountability measures against those committing human rights abuses, deterring future violations.
  • Increasing Humanitarian Aid: UN intervention could facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to those in desperate need, improving living conditions in refugee camps and ensuring access to basic services.

Parliament Hill, the heart of Canadian democracy, served as a fitting backdrop for this call to action. The Rohingya protesters and their allies hoped that their voices would reach the highest levels of government and spur concrete measures to alleviate the suffering of their community. The event underscored the importance of global solidarity and the need for countries like Canada to advocate for human rights and justice on the international stage.

Canada has already demonstrated its humanitarian approach to saving lives in times of crisis in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Syria. Now there is a well-known and increasingly urgent humanitarian crisis for the Rohingya, and it presents an opportunity for Canada to demonstrate its compassion and leadership on the global stage once again. For example, and in addition to the requests already mentioned above, Canada could also create an emergency travel program for the Rohingya, similar to the one established for Ukrainians after Russia’s February 2022 invasion. By doing so, Canada can offer refuge and save thousands of Rohingya lives. This initiative would also reinforce Canada’s commitment to human rights and international solidarity, showcasing its dedication to protecting vulnerable populations in times of dire need.

Khushi, in her speech, called on the Prime Minister to lead international efforts to save the Rohingya people. “Without your help,” she implored, “we cannot regain our rights.”

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