The Sunday Edition

'It's not about pity': Canada's envoy to Myanmar on the resilience of the Rohingya people

Former Ontario premier Bob Rae, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, describes the suffering he witnessed, his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, and why he remains optimistic for the future of the Rohingya.
The Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to Myanmar says the return of Rohingya refugees will not be easy. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Any day now, cyclone season will begin in southern Bangladesh.

Last spring, Cyclone Mora tore through makeshift settlements containing more than two hundred thousand refugees. Six people were killed, and shelters, wells, sanitation systems and roads were destroyed.

This year, much more catastrophic damage is expected, because the camps have grown exponentially. Over nine hundred thousand people are now huddled in hillside shelters, right in the path of the violent weather to come.

The refugees are Rohingya Muslims, who have fled their homes in the Buddhist state of Myanmar. 

Their living conditions are appalling. 

An outbreak of diphtheria has already taken lives. The monsoon rains could bring cholera. The camps are also breeding grounds for radicalism, criminal gangs, drugs and human trafficking.

Despite an agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar to return the Rohingya to their villages, few, if any, are willing to risk it.

It is the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world. Yet, the political situation is in stasis.

The world community has so far failed to move Myanmar's military government, or its civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to act.

Lawyer and former Ontario Premier Bob Rae is the Prime Minister's special envoy to Myanmar. He recently returned from his second trip to the region, to assess the grim situation.

He will be delivering his final report and recommendations to the Prime Minister at the end of this month.

Below are excerpts from his conversation with The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright.
Bob Rae will deliver his final report and recommendations as the Prime Minister's Special Envoy to Myanmar at the end of this month. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The rest of the world thinks of Buddhism as a religion of tolerance and peace. Where does the bigotry towards the Rohingya Muslim population come from?

I think every religion is a religion of tolerance and peace. The problem is that I think the Buddhist population in Myanmar, feels besieged by the large population of India, which is a Hindu nation … plus now the additional factor of the relationship with Islam, which since 9/11 has become much more complicated and difficult.

I have to say it, most people would agree with me, there's also a racial factor. The Rohingya are dark-skinned people and the stuff that's said about them is racist, as well as being based on Islamophobia.

For the Rohingya, it's a feeling that they're strangers in their own land. They're stateless. It's the largest stateless population in the world. And that is a terrible situation to be in, because it means you have nowhere that you can safely call your home.

Tell me about the refugee camps in Bangladesh and what you've seen.

First, it's a huge population — close to a million people. Second thing is, people are all crammed together. They've come into the space in a very short time, several weeks, and they're living in ramshackle bamboo and tarpaulin spaces.

It's very hilly. And the hills have all been denuded of any trees or anything like that. That's one of the reasons people are really worried about the rain. The rain will gather at the bottom of the hills, where there are a lot of common thoroughfares, so there's a lot of fear about waterborne disease.

I've seen a lot of refugee camps. I've never seen anything like this.

Rohingya refugees stretch their hands to receive aid distributed by local organisations at a makeshift camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh in Sep. 2017. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)
It's a truly difficult, difficult situation, because you can't quite tell which way it's going to go.  Are we going to get to stability, or are we going to go the other way? I think that's the challenge that we face right now. And that's why I think it's really important, as well as analyzing the history of what's happened, for us to understand the stuff that needs to happen now.

That's been my message to the government: you've got to focus on the situation now and the focus has to be on how do we protect lives?

Do the families you speak to say they want to go back?

I think in an ideal world, people do want to return… but they want to make sure they're protected. And the fact is their villages have been destroyed, for the most part. Some are still standing, but a great many of the villages have been completely wiped out.

Is there any viable way these people could get back to Rakhine without some kind of United Nations or world community force of arms to protect them?

The harsh reality is that the Myanmar military has made it very clear that any attempt by the international community to militarily engage would lead to what it calls a 'second Vietnam War.' So we all need to get a little bit real about what actually can be done and how it can be done.

On the other hand, the Myanmar government says, "we're willing to take people back". They've signed this agreement with the government of Bangladesh. And the current debate in the international community is, unless we can have much greater assurances than we have at the moment of how people are going to be protected — and unless we have some greater degree of international observation, participation, engagement — it would be unconscionable to send them back.

In fact, it's against international law to send people back into a situation where their lives are in danger.

You've described the treatment of the Rohingya by the government of Myanmar as apartheid.

Yes. Right now in Myanmar, the Rohingya population is kept apart from the rest of the population — physically. There is an IDP camp, which has over 120,000 people, that's just outside the town of Sittwe, which is a coastal town in central Rakhine. And they're physically kept separate. They've been kept separate for six years.

In Sep. 2017, Buddhist villagers and Myanmar troops killed 10 men in Myanmar's restive Rakhine state. Bound together, the 10 captives watched their Buddhist neighbours dug a shallow grave. Soon afterwards, all lay dead. (Reuters)
It's a camp which is massive in size, in terms of the geography. But one of them told me, 'we're living in a cage.' They are not allowed to go out.

I talk to young people — they can't go to university. They want to learn. I had an amazing conversation with a young guy who was talking to me and I said, 'Where did you learn English?' He said, 'on my cell phone.' He watched movies on his cellphone.

I think one of the things that's happened that's really regrettable is that we've deprived the Rohingya people of their voice. And once you turn people into victims, you say 'oh, it's a source of pity.'

It's not about pity; it's about justice. And it's about understanding that this is a very resilient and inventive community that wants to find its place.

There's a suggestion that the Myanmar government is trying to cover up mass graves or evidence of atrocities by bulldozing villages.

It's entirely possible. Nothing's impossible. I've heard firsthand from people in the camp, horrific stories of the use of rape as a weapon of war.

But without being heartless, the lawyer in me says, 'we've got to get the evidence.' We've got to collect evidence. And, with great respect to the media, not do it in a way that's simply intended to create a headline. It's got to be intended to get to a point where we can actually hold people responsible.

Accountability is a very important test for the international community. We can't let this moment pass without doing a much better job of systematically gathering evidence and then taking that evidence to wherever we can in an attempt to establish greater degrees of responsibility.

You met with senior ministers of the government. What did they tell you about what's going on?

Well, not much. When actually confronted, they'll say, yes, bad things have happened and we're going to deal with it. And the argument that one has to have with the government of Myanmar is to say that, unless there's any degree of confidence about how people are going to be treated inside Rakhine state in Myanmar, they won't come back.

[Aung San Suu Kyi] is prepared to say, yes, we want them back. She's given a speech in October saying that the Buddhist values are our values of fellowship and tolerance and understanding. The challenge is that the ground is so poisoned with hate. How can there be any any assurance that people are going to be safe?

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi was recently accused by three Nobel Laureates of being directly responsible for the crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)
It has been suggested that perhaps she doesn't really know what's going on. Do you think she does?

I think the hard part for her is that she's not in charge of what's actually happening on the ground, because who's in charge in Rakhine state? The military. So it's a challenging situation. She doesn't have an enormous staff that's feeding her information. She doesn't get the reports from the home affairs ministry saying, there's this incident here, and this incident there.

But I don't underestimate her. I don't make excuses for her. When I meet with her, it's polite, but we don't always agree at all.

But I don't think we gain anything by saying 'well, you know, she really doesn't have a clue what's going on.' I'm not so sure. I don't believe that she's authorized a bunch of bad stuff.

If it were found that, in the phrase of Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, there is ethnic cleansing going on and Aung San Suu Kyi was abetting in that endeavour, would you recommend to the government that it revoke her honorary citizenship?

That's a decision that the government and parliament would have to make. But you've got to recognize that she's led a life in which she's fought for a greater degree of democracy in her country. She's paid a very heavy personal price for that. And she's now in this situation which I honestly believe is not something that she ever wanted to see.

A Rohingya refugee man pulls a child to the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)
More Rohingya are still fleeing, trying to get out of Myanmar. Did you find any hopeful signs in your travels?

I always find hope in the resilience of the Rohingya people — in their dignity in the face of incredible abuse.

I'm conscious of the possibilities. I'm also conscious of the terrible, terrible risks. This situation could go sideways in a number of very difficult ways.

Bob Rae's comments have been edited and condensed. Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.