Trudeau appoints Bob Rae as special envoy to Myanmar

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is appointing Bob Rae as Canada's special envoy to Myanmar, two months into a growing crisis that has left 600,000 Rohingya Muslims displaced.

Rae expected to seek permission to visit region where Rohingya live under 'brutal oppression'

Bob Rae, seen speaking to the media in this January 2014 file photo, has been named special envoy to Myanmar. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is appointing Bob Rae as Canada's special envoy to Myanmar, two months into a growing crisis that has left 600,000 Rohingya Muslim people displaced.

The move comes in response to growing public pressure to act in the face of what Canada and the United Nations have labelled ethnic cleansing of a long persecuted minority in Myanmar. As of Sunday, it's estimated 603,000 Rohingya, mostly from the troubled Rakhine state, have fled to shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh.

The former Ontario premier is expected to seek permission to visit Rakhine state, where Rohingya have long lived under what Trudeau called "brutal oppression."

Rae will advise the prime minister directly on the matter. According to a source familiar with the new role, Rae can play a sharper, more political role within Myanmar without jeopardizing diplomatic relationships on the ground with a government that is prickly about foreign interference in its affairs.

'Promote accountability for alleged crimes'

Myanmar authorities have made it difficult for foreign officials and journalists to visit Rakhine state, recently barring a UN fact-finding mission and only allowing diplomats (including Canada's) a look on a controversial, military-organized visit under their watchful eye earlier this month.

Rae is also expected "to promote accountability for alleged crimes perpetrated against vulnerable populations, including the Rohingya Muslim community, other religious and ethnic minorities, and women and girls," according to a written statement on the appointment.

Thousands of Canadians have signed a petition calling on the government to strip Myanmar's state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, of honourary Canadian citizenship she was given back in 2007.

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Suu Kyi, also a Nobel laureate, has disappointed supporters around the world for failing to side clearly with the Rohingya in their plight.

The true power in Myanmar lies with the military, which retains control over key ministries such as home and border affairs.

Canada has called on both the civilian and military arms of the government to end the violence and allow humanitarian access to remaining Rohingya populations.

The longstanding tension in Rakhine state escalated on August 25, when Rohingya militants attacked security forces, killing several. The military responded with overwhelming force, and with the support of Buddhist nationalist mobs, have burned down villages and killed an untold number of Rohingya.

The UN's human rights office now says the military's actions preceded the August 25 attack, and were intended to drive Rohingya out for good.

Though they have lived in Myanmar for generations, Rohingya Muslims are considered foreigners by the authorities and are not entitled to citizenship. They are denied basic rights to freedom of movement and education.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.