Bob Rae tasked with helping to address Rohingya crisis in Myanmar

Bob Rae, special envoy to Myanmar, holds a press conference in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Photo from CP Images

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed this week that he had appointed a special envoy to help resolve the ongoing crisis in Myanmar.

Trudeau selected Ontario’s former premier and ex-Liberal MP Bob Rae. His appointment comes as the Rohingya mark two months of mass exodus into neighbouring Bangladesh.

Rae’s new role in the government is one of the first concrete steps the government has taken in addressing the crisis. Rae announced in a Monday news conference in Ottawa that he would be heading to Myanmar next week to meet with senior officials from the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh.

“I do think it’s worthwhile for us to keep on as many paths as possible in reinforcing the message about the extent of the crisis in Myanmar that’s causing this extraordinary exodus of over half a million people since August,” said Rae. “I think the more we can do to reinforce that, the better off we are.”

He didn’t cast any judgments on the situation in Myanmar, dodging questions about what he hoped to discover during his mission that wasn’t already reported by non-governmental organizations operating there. Rae said his purpose was to come to a resolution aimed at ending the violence, rather than make accusations against specific parties.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who was also at the news conference, said Rae’s appointment was meant to show the Myanmar government the seriousness with which Canada takes the persecution of the Rohingya.

“The prime minister is not only putting one of our smartest, best people on the case,” said Freeland. “These are crimes against humanity and the responsibility for ending the ethnic cleansing falls squarely on Myanmar’s military leadership and its civilian government.”

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled their homes since a long-simmering campaign against them in the Rakhine state intensified two months ago. According to the United Nation’s latest figures, 900,000 Rohingya are now refugees in Bangladesh, with 600,000 arriving since the end of August.

Meanwhile, the country’s notorious Nobel laureate and honorary Canadian citizen, Aung San Suu Kyi, has failed to seriously condemn what Amnesty International has called “a targeted campaign to push the Rohingya people out of Myanmar.” Canada has been one of the few countries to repeatedly call attention to their plight, both on the international stage and at home.

The Rohingya population has been stateless since 1982, when the Myanmar government did not acknowledge their ethnic group. Even prior to 1982, the Rohingya’s status in Myanmar was uncertain. The country was once administered as part of the British India, and so internal migration was normal, Al Jazeera reports, citing the Human Rights Watch.

Following Myanmar’s independence in 1962, the Rohingya Muslims were given foreign identity cards, hindering their ability to secure employment and education.

In Canada, Parliament has devoted time to discuss the Rohingya crisis, with an emergency debate convening in the House of Commons on September 26. Members of Parliament provided testimony that they had received about atrocities committed by Myanmar’s army from survivors of the violence during a fact-finding mission.

“Soldiers shot them and in some cases used knives to inflect fatal wounds to necks,” said Garnet Genuis, a Conservative MP, speaking about the situation in Myanmar. “We have here a clear textbook case of ethnic cleansing, of genocide against the Rohingya people in Burma.”

Freeland seemed to agree with that assessment. “The security operations that followed were grossly disproportionate, and the Rohingya suffered many human rights violations, including arson, rape and torture,” she said.

Rae’s mandate will last until the end of January 2018. He will pen a publicly-available report to the government and the prime minister on the situation in Myanmar at the conclusion of his time as a special envoy.

There are currently no plans to resettle any Rohingya in Canada, but Freeland left the door open to that question. “We are looking at all different ways that Canada can be supportive in this crisis,” she said. “It’s going to take an international approach.”