'Do we not have a right to exist?': Canadians call for action in wake of violence against Rohingya in Myanmar
'If they sit idle like this, very soon, very soon, the Rohingya will be another genocide'
When Anwar Arkani first fled what is now Myanmar in the 1970s, he hoped the worst was over. But in the last five years alone, more than 17 of his relatives have been lost amid the violence there and he fears they won't be the last.
"It is extremely difficult for me to stay calm or quiet, because I still have siblings alive," Arkani told CBC News.
"People are getting killed, slaughtered, burned ... Why is there no intervention? Do we not belong to this planet? Do we not have a right to exist?"
Arkani is a member of the Rohingya community who has called Canada home for nearly 20 years.
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While his family has lived for generations in the country known until the late 1980s as Burma, Arkani says his citizenship was effectively stripped overnight, as was the citizenship of more than a million other Rohingya residents there, leaving him stateless.
In late August, an attack by Rohingya militants on police and military bases in the country prompted a crackdown on the ethnic minority. The United Nations' latest estimate puts the number of Rohingya who have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh at 270,000 in the last two weeks alone.
10,000 signatures in five days
Now as spectre of violence rises in that country, Arkani questions why the Canadian government, along with its international partners, isn't doing more to call Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi — an honorary Canadian citizen — to account.
"How can somebody just stand quiet, fold their arms and be a spectator to this horrible thing?" he asked.
"If they sit idle like this, very soon, very soon, the Rohingya will be another genocide. And they'll say 'Never again,' again and again."
Arkani isn't alone.
We Canadians take a lot of pride in saying we are champions of human rights ... it is an obligation for us to act.- Washim Ahmed, Toronto-based lawyer
In the last week, at least four petitions have sprung up calling for the Canadian government to revoke Suu Kyi's honorary citizenship, the largest of which collected 10,000 signatures over the span of five days.
"In 2007 the Canadian government bestowed an honorary Canadian citizenship on Aung San Suu Kyi stating that 'her long struggle to bring freedom and democracy to the people of Burma has made her the embodiment of these ideals of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law,'" the petition reads.
"What is happening under Aung San Suu Kyi's watch in Myanmar right now is about as far as you could get from [these] ideals."
The Canadian government made various statements about the crisis as those fleeing Myanmar climbed to staggering numbers this week. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called out the "serious abuse against the Rohingya" in a tweet, saying he also addressed the situation directly with the Nobel Peace Prize winner when she visited Ottawa.
Words and dollars not enough, says lawyer
Canada's former ambassador of religious freedom Andrew Bennett went further, saying Suu Kyi was "squandering" the public backing she'd once amassed by "not taking a strong enough position in defence of her own citizens."
Canada is deeply concerned by the flow of refugees from Myanmar & reports of serious abuse against the Rohingya. Civilians must be protected—@JustinTrudeau
The federal government has also pledged $1 million to help assist with humanitarian effort in Rakhine state — located on the western coast of Myanmar.
But Washim Ahmed, a Toronto-based lawyer and spokesperson for the non-profit Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative, says words and dollars aren't enough.
Since 2013, Ahmed told CBC News on Saturday, Canada has provided $95 million in foreign aid to Myanmar, with $5.5 million as recently as last year.
"It's Canada's obligation to make sure that all the foreign aid that Canada has given to Myanmar is not used to commit those atrocities, to commit those crimes against humanity."
If it doesn't, he says, Canada will have "significant liabilities on its hands."
"We Canadians take a lot of pride in saying we are champions of human rights," Ahmed said. "We take a lot of pride in saying we stand for global justice … it is an obligation for us to act in this situation right now and protect those innocent lives that are being destroyed."
But with Suu Kyi being a Canadian citizen, Ahmed argues Canada has the power, through the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, to investigate what role she may or may not have played in the violence being carried out in Myanmar.
Calls for establishment of safe zone
Meanwhile, one group that trying to take tangible action is Islamic Relief Canada, a charitable organization that has been working in Myanmar since 2008.
"What we're hearing from our teams on the ground there is that this is one the worst cases of violence they've seen," Islamic Relief Canada spokesperson Rehyana Patel told CBC News. "The stories that we're hearing, there's no words to describe it. It's beyond devastating, there's no food, there's no water."
And those are just from the locations the group can access.
Patel points out there are areas where humanitarian aid agencies simply aren't allowed at the moment.
That's why one of the actions Arkani wants to see the Canadian government work towards is the establishment of safe zones on the country's border with Bangladesh.
For her part, Suu Kyi has played down any suggestion the Rohingya are being mistreated, posting a message on Facebook this week claiming the Myanmar government was "defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible."
The post also decried what Suu Kyi referred to as "fake information" that was being reported "with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists."
That denial is in part why Arkani says action by the government can't come soon enough. The violence that may feel a world away remains a pit in his stomach every day, he says.
"Even on the way driving here, I talked to one of my relatives and he said, 'Please pray for us. They came here to attack yesterday, they didn't do it. But if we don't survive tonight, this is the only time we can talk.'"
With files from Talia Ricci