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'Shameful milestone' for Rohingya crisis as new worries surface about refugee children

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: new concerns about child refugees as Rohingya crisis reaches one-year mark; Maxime Bernier quits Conservatives to form own party; Pope faces mixed welcome in Ireland

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Rohingya refugees gather in the 'no man's land' behind Myanmar's border in Maungdaw district, Rakhine state, in this April 25 photo. A study by Save the Children says half of the 6,000 'unaccompanied' children living in the refugee camps were orphaned by the violence they fled. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)

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  • Rohingya crisis about to reach a 'shameful milestone'
  • Maxime Bernier is quitting the Conservatives and will start his own right-wing party
  • Pope faces mixed welcome in Ireland this weekend
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

'A shameful milestone'

This weekend marks the first anniversary of the Rohingya crisis, and there is no end in sight for the refugees who have been forced from their homes.

Starting on Aug. 25, 2017, coordinated attacks by Myanmar's army and local militias on Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine state caused more than 700,000 members of the Muslim minority community to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.  

Homes were burned, women raped, and there were several large-scale massacres. By some estimates, more than 40,000 Rohingya died in the violence. The UN's human rights chief called it a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

Rohingya Muslims aboard a makeshift raft made with plastic containers cross the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh, near Shah Porir Dwip, in November 2017. (A.M. Ahad/Associated Press)
There is no mystery about who was behind the brutal campaign. Human rights organizations have produced reports naming the generals and commanders, and outlining their roles. And many Western governments, including Canada's, have imposed sanctions on the same military men.

But no one is facing charges, and the Rohingya are no closer to leaving their crowded refugee camps and heading home.

"This anniversary marks a shameful milestone," Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International's Crisis Response Director, said today in a blistering statement. "Lack of political will, not a lack of evidence, is at the root of the international community's inaction. It is undeniable that Myanmar's security forces committed crimes against humanity against the Rohingya. But while the international community drags its feet deciding what to do about it, vital evidence risks disappearing or being destroyed."

Another NGO, Save the Children, has released a study suggesting that half of the 6,000 "unaccompanied" children now living in the refugee camps were orphaned by the violence, rather than simply separated from their parents.

Rohingya refugees collect boxes of food aid at a distribution point in the Kutupalong camp near Cox's Bazar on Aug. 14. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
The organization is also calling for the perpetrators of the "systematic, ruthless and deliberate attacks" in Myanmar to be brought to justice.

Myanmar's government has formed an independent commission to probe the allegations of genocide and human rights abuses, and there is an agreement in place to start repatriating the Rohingya, but few outsiders have faith in the process.

After all, the UN and aid groups are still being denied access to Rakhine state.

Perhaps for good reason.

A Sky News correspondent travelled to Rakhine this week under government escort, and reports that the signs of the violence — empty farms, burned buildings, scattered possessions — are still visible a year later.

The international community is also coming up short on the funds needed to support the Rohingya stuck in the Bangladeshi camps. In March, the UN unveiled its 2018 Joint Response Plan and asked for $950 million US to fund it. So far, pledges total about a third of that amount.

In a report released today, UNICEF warns that the 380,000 children living in the camps risk becoming a "lost generation," because Bangladesh prohibits them from receiving a formal education for fear that they will put down roots in the country.

Most of the international action seems to be on the symbolic front.

This morning, Edinburgh became the latest city to strip Myanmar's civilian leader,  Aung San Suu Kyi — once a human rights darling — of a previously bestowed honour.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech in Singapore on Tuesday. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has come under fire over the plight of the Rohingya. (Wallace Woon/EPA-EFE)
She will no longer enjoy "freedom" of the Scottish capital, joining 19th century Irish nationalist Charles Parnell in the "revoked" category.

At the beginning of August, The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg announced that it is removing a reference to Suu Kyi from one of its displays, and dimming her illuminated portrait in another gallery.

But for now, she remains an honorary citizen of Canada.

Clashing conservative visions

Maxime Bernier is quitting the Conservatives and will soon start his own right-wing party.

"I have come to realize over the past year that this party is too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed," the longtime Quebec MP told an Ottawa news conference this afternoon.

"The whole strategy of the party is to play identity politics, pander to various interest groups and buy votes with promises, just like the Liberals."

Quebec MP Maxime Bernier tells a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday that he is leaving the Conservative Party. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
​Bernier, who finished second to Andrew Scheer for the Conservative leadership last May, timed his announcement to let the air out of a Tory convention that begins today in Halifax.

And he did not mince words when it came to his once and future rival.

"Andrew Scheer keeps talking about his 'positive Conservative vision.' But nobody knows what that vision is," declared Bernier. "The Conservative Party has abandoned conservatives. It does not represent them anymore. And it has nothing of substance to offer Canadians looking for a political alternative."

The 55-year-old said that he is already in contact with Elections Canada about the mechanics of registering his as-yet-unnamed party, and intends to seek advice from other unhappy Conservatives across the country in the coming weeks.

But perhaps he should look back as well as forward.

There's a long history of Quebec politicians splintering off from their parties, although mostly over sovereignty and language issues.

René Lévesque was a cabinet minister for Jean Lesage's provincial Liberals until their 1966 defeat, but then struck out on his own forming the Mouvement souveraineté-association. It joined forces with other separatist groups in 1968 and became the Parti Québécois.

Rene Levesque, seen here in January 1980 when he was premier of Quebec, left the Liberals in 1966 and formed what would evolve into the Parti Quebecois. (Canadian Press)
The party only won 13 seats combined in its first two elections, with Lévesque failing to win election of both occasions. But in 1976 the PQ swept to power with 71 seats, and he became premier.

Irked by the resistance to Meech Lake, Lucien Bouchard resigned from the federal Conservatives in May 1990, and briefly sat as an independent before gathering other disaffected Quebec MPs and launching the Bloc Québécois.

Success came quicker for him, with 54 seats and Official Opposition status in the 1993 election, narrowly beating out a Western Canadian splinter group, the Reform Party. And after almost leading the sovereigntists to victory in the 1995 referendum campaign, he jumped to provincial politics, replacing Jacques Parizeau as premier.

Lucien Bouchard split from the federal Conservatives and launched the Bloc Québécois. (Robert Galbraith/Canadian Press)
Other parts of the country have also seen their share of splits and protest movements.

The anti-bilingualism Confederation of Regions party rose out of the ashes of Richard Hatfield's New Brunswick Progressive Conservatives and became the official opposition in 1991, then faded away in the next provincial election.

But Alberta is probably the current Canadian home of political disenchantment.

Last summer's merger of the provincial Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party into the United Conservative Party has failed to put an end to a decade of right-wing splintering.

Disgruntled remnants of Wildrose formed the Alberta Advantage Party, and in mid-July, Derek Fildebrandt, a MLA who had been kicked out of the United Conservatives last winter, announced that he is forming the Freedom Conservative Party of Alberta.

Independent MLA Derek Fildebrandt created the Freedom Conservative Party of Alberta. (CBC)
Parties born of dissatisfaction frequently fail to last, however. And even those that find success, eventually fall victim to the same forces that led to their creation.

Bloc Québécois leader Martine Ouellet resigned in June after seven of her 10 MPs bolted and she received just 32 per cent in a party confidence vote.

The slow-motion unravelling of the Bloc left Lucien Bouchard feeling blue.

"When you've been the founder of the Bloc and you know what the Bloc has managed to do, with its successes and its failures, and you look at what is happening now, you get very discouraged," he told the Canadian Press this past spring.

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Papal pushback

The last time a head of the Catholic Church visited the Republic of Ireland — Pope John Paul II in 1979 — almost three-quarters of the population turned out for an open-air mass.

Pope Francis shouldn't expect the same sort of welcome this weekend when he touches down in Dublin.

The worldwide child sex abuse scandal that is rocking the Church will be top of mind for the public and the politicians who greet him.

Pope Francis visits Ireland this weekend, dogged by fallout from the abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. (Associated Press)
Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, told reporters yesterday that he doesn't intend to "skirt over" the tough questions about the Church in his brief meeting with the Pontiff, scheduled for Saturday.  

"My first words are absolutely going to be words of welcome on behalf of the Irish people … But there are a number of issues, ranging from human rights to child sex abuse, and I am going to want to talk about them as well," he said. "I am going to raise as many issues as I can."

The Irish Taoiseach also intends to demand greater cooperation from the Vatican in ongoing investigations of historic abuses.

"We want to make sure that there is truth and justice and healing for victims, and that has to be part of it," Varadkar said.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar says he has some tough question for the Pope during the Pontiff's visit this weekend. (Eric Vidal/Reuters)
The comments came a day after the head of the Irish Church, Archbishop Eamon Martin, acknowledged that many Catholics no longer trust the leaders of their faith.

"In the aftermath of child abuse scandals and other shameful episodes of the past, there are those who feel they can no longer trust our message," he told delegates at the World Meeting of Families, the event that is bringing Francis to Dublin.

"Perhaps because they have been directly hurt and betrayed in their families by their experience of Church, or because the revelations of such heinous crimes have shocked them to the core."

The head of the Irish Church, Archbishop Eamon Martin, acknowledged this week that many Catholics no longer trust the leaders of their faith. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)
Silent protests against the Pope's visit have already begun, with people using black mourning ribbons to tie baby shoes to gates and fences outside churches and other public places, as a visible reminder of child victims.

A Facebook group called "Nope to the Pope" has been active for months, encouraging members of the public to snap up tickets to an open-air mass scheduled for Sunday at Dublin's Croke Park and then throw them away. One poster to the forum claimed to have obtained 1,312 tickets by using aliases like "Jesus Christ," and making requests on behalf of purported bus tour groups from outside the city.

An LGBTI choir sings during a protest outside the Pastoral Congress at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin on Thursday ahead of the Pope's visit. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
In 1981, 93 per cent of people in Ireland described themselves as Catholic. By 2016 the percentage had fallen to 78.

And recent referendums that legalized same sex marriage in 2015, and abortion this past May, suggest that the Irish public is quickly drifting away from the traditional message of the Church.

The Pope's itinerary for the 36-hour tour includes a parade in Dublin on Saturday, and a visit to a shrine at Knock in County Mayo. He will also hold a private meeting with survivors of sexual abuse by clergy, as has become his custom on foreign visits.

The forecast calls for heavy rain.

A few words on …

The real "leg work" of journalism.

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Today in history

Aug. 23, 1958: Building a better egg beater

It feels like an SCTV parody, but it's not. Just three minutes of tape of Canada's Design Index Panel — made up of an architect, manufacturer, retailer, designer, and "a housewife" — debating the merits of a new egg beater. Things build to a climax when "housewife" beats an egg. "It seems to work very well," she proclaims.

Building a better egg beater

Digital Archives

2 years ago
In this 1958 examination of Canadian design, consumers critique the design of a common household tool. 3:23

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.