Monday November 13, 2017

Canada's Special Envoy to Myanmar: 'We have to try to engage Aung San Suu Kyi'

Canad's Special Envoy to Myanmar Bob Rae advised Prime Minister Trudeau before his meeting with Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Vietnam on Friday. He describes her as a 'very extremely disciplined woman.'

Canad's Special Envoy to Myanmar Bob Rae advised Prime Minister Trudeau before his meeting with Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Vietnam on Friday. He describes her as a 'very extremely disciplined woman.' (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

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Since August of this year, 600,000 refugees have fled Myanmar to escape what the United Nations is calling ethnic cleansing.

As Canada's Special Envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae visited refugee camps in southern Bangladesh near Cox's Bazaar. He says listening to the details of what people have been through is "horrific."

Bob Rae

Bob Rae, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's special envoy to Myanmar, said Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi told him she is committed to helping bring the Rohingya home. He said, however, that she must offer reassurances that they will be safe. (CBC)

'There are a lot of accounts of physical violence, sexual violence, rape ... and people are going to have to be held to account for these.' - Bob Rae

Here is part of Bob Rae's conversation with The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti:

Bob Rae: I think there's generally little doubt that there was an insurgent attack on (Aug.) 25th that was quite well-planned and quite systematic.

And just as it had taken place in the previous October, what happens when there is an insurgent attack by this group called ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army), the (Myanmar) army really overdoes it. You know the army just responds with — to put it mildly — a very very heavy hand and a great deal of brutality. And that involves burning down the villages, clearing people out.

MYANMAR-ROHINGYA/BANGLADESH

A Rohingya refugee woman who crossed the border from Myanmar carries her daughter and searches for help as they wait to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps, Oct. 17, 2017. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

There are a lot of accounts of physical violence, sexual violence, rape, and those accounts are going to have to be listened to, and people are going to have to be held to account for these, because these are absolutely unacceptable breaches of people's human rights and human dignity.  And there's enough stories and enough evidence of that to warrant a much deeper investigation, which I'm really hoping is going to continue to take place. 

The additional factor, which is I think equally troubling, is not just the activities of the military, but the fact that there were vigilante groups who were also engaging in efforts moving people out and getting them to leave. 

'Even in the best of circumstances one could envisage in Myanmar, it's going to take quite a long time to get several hundred thousand people back.' - Bob Rae

AMT: So what did you tell Prime Minister Trudeau before he met with Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday?

BR: Well I told him two things. First of all, I told him about the conditions in the camp and that they really are terrible. And that, in fact, is a whole separate issue in terms of what we have to do as a world because the risks in that camp are serious: risks of mudslides, epidemics, water shortages in the dry season and then heavy, heavy flooding and in the wet season.

MYANMAR-ROHINGYA/BANGLADESH

Rohingya refugees cross the Naf River with an improvised raft to reach to Teknaf, Bangladesh, Nov. 12, 2017. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

Even in the best of circumstances one could envisage in Myanmar, it's going to take quite a long time to get several hundred thousand people back, particularly after their villages have been burned and they have nowhere to go back to. So that's going to pose a serious humanitarian challenge for us. 

' The government has to engage with the rest of the world in trying to find solutions.' - Bob Rae

The second was that, as difficult as it is, we have to try to engage Aung San Suu Kyi as the state counselor and as representing, sort of, the civilian side of the government, in understanding that a lot of the explanations that have been given ... can no longer be denied and that we have to find a way to deal with it. The government has to engage with the rest of the world in trying to find solutions. And that was the beginning of the conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi (and Prime Minister Trudeau).

Aung San Suu Kyi Justin Trudeau

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi greets Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Da Nang, Vietnam, where leaders gathered for the start of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. (CBC)

AMT: What was that conversation like?

BR: Tough. It was difficult. She's a very extremely disciplined woman, in a sense of very careful what she says, very focused and, where she felt there were there were exaggerations or factual errors in what the world was saying or what the evidence was, she was very insistent that Myanmar itself would take the lead in resolving these issues. She said that the refugees would be allowed back.

Rohingya refugees Bangladesh border guards

Over a half a million Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh since late August during the outbreak of violence in Rakhine state causing a humanitarian crisis in the region with continued challenges for aid agencies.

She said it would take time because there needed to be ways of making sure that people could be settled and insisted that in her country, people of different races and religions were welcome. And she very much regretted that terrible things that happened but wanted to move on and she kept saying, 'I'm a practical person and I want to make sure that we make some better progress.'

AMT: So she said they would be allowed back. Did she gave any time frame?

BR: No time frame. But she stressed the fact that people who have been living in Myanmar would be able to come back. Now she also stressed that this was going to be a bilateral negotiation between Myanmar and Bangladesh and that the foreign minister of Bangladesh was coming soon. 

'It should not be impossible for people to get to Rakhine State.' - Bob Rae

AMT: And so does that mean that she doesn't want the international community being part of any negotiations?

BR: That's a real issue and it's going to be an issue in future discussions. The international community — the INGO's (International Non-Governmental Organizations), the UN organizations — have had very little access to Rakhine State, and very little access to be able to travel and see what's actually going on. 

Bangladesh Myanmar Attacks

A Rohingya girl carries a child and rests at Palangkhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Special Envoy to Myanmar Bob Rae says he met with kids at the camp to hear their stories. (Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Associated Press)

It should not be impossible for people to get to Rakhine State. And, in fact, at one point she kept saying, you know, that it was terrible what was happening because the Rakhine State was so beautiful. And I pointed out to her that there was no way that I could know that because I hadn't been allowed to go. And she said, 'Well the next time, you'll be able to go.' So maybe they'll start opening up a bit. I don't know. 

*This transcript was edited for clarity and length.*

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson.