Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Issue No. 20 - Evidence - October 2, 2017
OTTAWA, Monday, October 2, 2017
The Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights met this day at 4:02 p.m. to study the issues relating to human rights and, inter alia, to review the machinery of government dealing with Canada’s international and national human rights obligations (topic: the human rights situation of the Rohingya).
Senator Jim Munson (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Good afternoon, everyone. We are continuing our special hearing dealing with the situation with the Rohingya and what is taking place in that part of the world. We had compelling testimony earlier last week, but today we are continuing our hearings.
Before we start, I would like to ask all the senators to introduce themselves.
We will start with the deputy chair.
Senator Ataullahjan: Salma Ataullahjan, Ontario.
Senator Martin: Yonah Martin, British Columbia.
Senator Ngo: Thanh Hai Ngo, Ontario.
Senator Omidvar: Ratna Omidvar, Ontario.
The Chair: On our panel, we are welcoming the representatives from the Canadian Burma Ethnic Nationalities Organization, Zaw Wai Kyaw, Founding President and Coordinator, and Pri Lwan, Secretary. It is a pleasure to have you with us.
I understand, Mr. Kyaw, you have opening comments. Welcome to our committee.
Zaw Wai Kyaw, Founding President and Coordinator, Canadian Burma Ethnic Nationalities Organization: Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman and honourable senators. Thank you for giving us an opportunity to present the facts and hard evidence of this crisis in Arakan state in Myanmar.
First, it is very crucial to know the context to understand this crisis. We need to know that Myanmar was under military governments for over 50 years. Many communities of many ethnic groups have suffered over time. Myanmar has also become the poorest country in Asia and the world.
We need to know that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi formed a government only 18 months ago. Many issues were inherited and there are many challenges to overcome. They are responsible for all people living in Myanmar.
We need to note that the location of this crisis belongs to the poorest state of Myanmar, which also borders with Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries and most populous nations on earth.
The population in Arakan state, the location of the crisis, is over 90 per cent Muslim and less than 10 per cent others, Buddhist and Hindus.
The conflict has existed for centuries, dating back to British colonial times, and is very complex.
We also need to know that the growth of the Muslim population in Arakan state was over 150 per cent between 1973 and 2014, while overall population growth is only 56 per cent in the same period.
Today’s Muslims represent over 90 per cent of the population in northern Arakan state, from 34 per cent in 1911.
We need to know that the 1982 Citizenship Law did not strip anyone of their citizenship. Article 6 makes it absolutely clear that anyone who was a citizen under the 1948 act remains a citizen under the 1982 act.
We also need to know that rights come with the responsibility to respect the rule of law of the country.
Second, we also need to know about the actions of the Myanmar government for the people in the Arakan state.
In late August 2016, just five months after forming a government, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi formed the Rakhine Advisory Commission led by Dr. Kofi Annan. Just one month after the formation of the Kofi Annan commission, terrorists staged coordinated attacks against the security forces including the headquarters of the border guards.
A year later, on August 23, 2017, Dr. Kofi Annan released a final report. On August 24, 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi issued a statement welcoming the report and promising to carrying out recommendations to the fullest extent and within the shortest time frame possible. So far she is the only one who strongly welcomed and promised to implement the recommendations of the commission.
Understanding these contexts is very important.
Now, I want to explain the crisis. The black Friday, August 25, 2017, less than 48 hours after Dr. Kofi Annan released that final report, the terrorist group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, ARSA, coordinated attacks on security forces, 30 police posts, an army base, which is the battalion’s headquarters, and also non-Muslim communities. There were innocent civilian casualties. In recent days, they found 45 bodies of brutally killed Hindu minorities. We need to know who are the ARSA. They are formally known as the Aqua Mul Mujahidin group, led by Pakistani citizen Abdul Qudus. They were reconstituted to become the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on March 15, 2017. ARSA is led by militants who are not even based or born in Myanmar, but in Karachi, Pakistan. The leaders are ideologically motivated and maintain links with like-minded groups in the Middle East and Pakistan. Their goal is to launch a jihad, holy war, in the whole Arakan state. They designated Buthidaung Mandor in northern Rakhine State as their hardcore area. They banned Muslims from working on Rakhine-owned farms and the prawn farms. They built tunnels and terrorist training facilities on the Mayu mountain ranges.
Next, I would like to talk about the aftermath of the black Friday.
Proportions of the displaced people are tremendously huge. Over 40 per cent of non-Muslim ethnic communities and Hindu communities became internally displaced. Forty-four per cent of the Muslim community was also displaced, mostly externally.
There has been ongoing humanitarian assistance. The Union of States government in coordination with the Red Cross and ICRC provide humanitarian assistance to all affected Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Arakan state.The humanitarian mechanism includes the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, Humanitarian Assistance Centre. The government also started the process of implementing the recommendations of Dr. Kofi Annan’s commission report.
Finally, in conclusion, I would like to say that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been unfairly criticized under two extremist forms: by the nationalist hard-liners as too weak for national security and by the international community as too weak in her defence of human rights. We need to know that the terrorists and hard-liners both have been doing their best to undermine Ms. Suu Kyi and her government in the eyes of the international community.
We need to know that if we fall into the trap of the extremists, Myanmar could go back to the Dark Ages. In Myanmar, all walks of life stand with Aung San Suu Kyi and her government on this crisis. No one wants to go back to the Dark Ages.
I want to quote from the Singapore foreign minister when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in recent days. He referred to the crisis in Myanmar and said, “We must be very careful that we don’t fall into the trap of these extremists.”
Thank you so much, everyone.
Pri Lwan, Secretary, Canadian Burma Ethnic Nationalities Organization: Good evening, chairman and honourable senators. Thank you so much for having me here to be part of this human rights hearing.
Since Mr. Kyaw already covered the crisis in the Rakhine State, allow me to recall a little of the historical background about Burma or Myanmar now.
In Burma, before independence, each ethnic group had their own administration, and we ethnic groups were not under the king administration. After February 12, 1947, we, along with the other ethnic groups, signed what we call the Panglong Agreement. That was the time when the Union of Burma was formed. Practically, as a group, we are only a 70-year-old country. Since then, in 1962, the Burmese army took over the country. Since then, we have been living in a dictatorship.
Recently, in 2015, we have a partially civilian government. As much as the international community is excited, we are also very excited to move forward to democracy and federalism in which we can enjoy full rights, just like anybody else. However, we need to know that nowadays, the civilian government is only partial in the house of Parliament, and the army still holds an absolute power, including the defence service, interior and border security. They are still very powerful in the political arena as well.
This is something that a lot of international communities misunderstand. Myanmar, or Burma, as a country is moving forward to be a democratic country, but it is not 100 per cent true yet. We only have an 18-month-old partially civilian government that inherited a lot of issues, just like Mr. Kyaw mentioned.
Since we have been living with dictatorship governments for more than half a century, human rights violations happen not only in the west of the country. Right now we are addressing human rights issues in Rakhine State.
Human rights violations are still happening in the state that I come from. I belong to a tribe called Kachin. In my state, there is still a civil war going on, and there are people still running away from their homes, external and internal. We have over 100,000 internally displaced persons inside the country, and we also have a quarter of a million people who are still living outside the country because of the human rights violations and civil war, as well as communal violence.
I would like to express my sympathy to those who run away to Bangladesh and those refugees trapped inside the country. I know and understand your trouble. I know how it feels to run away from your own home and not know what is going to happen.
I would also like to address that all these refugees, regardless of their ethnicity or the group or religion they belong to, humanity and human rights should apply equally to all who are in need of protection.
The Chair: We’re going to run out of time. We only have 30 minutes. Are you wrapping up, please?
Ms. Lwan: All these human rights violations and communal violence are only the syndromes of the root cause. We have to address the root cause, which is that a partially civilian government under the 2008 Constitution cannot protect all people as it should be able to. We need to address that root cause. I request the international community, including the Canadian government, tackle the root cause and help us install a 100 per cent civilian government, and help us install an army that will stay under a civilian government.
Thank you very much.
Senator Ataullahjan: Thank you for your testimony.
You bring up a couple of interesting points. We keep hearing the words “fake news” or “myth.” If it’s true that this is fake news, why aren’t they letting independent observers into the country to see for themselves if it’s fake news? All the pictures that we are seeing, is that all fake?
You defend Aung San Suu Kyi and say that she’s a human rights activist. She says she’s not; she’s a political person. She’s seen on video making fun of the Rohingyas and their problems and them being killed. She’s on the record in India saying this is fake news.
I understand your problem. I understand it is a democracy, and we all want the democracy to work, but not at the expense of the lives of others.
The Rohingyas have been in Burma since the 20th century, and they have just as much right. Burma used to be part of India, and then it was divided and then there was Pakistan, India and Burma. People who stayed in Pakistan became Pakistanis; people who stayed in India became Indians; people who stayed in Burma are Burmese. They are different tribes, different ethnicities, but they all have a right to be there.
Mr. Kyaw: You are right; they all have the right under the Citizenship Act. In 1948, Burma gained independence from the British, and after Pakistan, India. The 1948 Citizenship Act mentioned that whoever lived in Burma at the time of independence, they all are citizens. Whoever lived there during that period became citizens.
Also, Burma was a very poor country, and then a lot of immigration happened. Like I just mentioned, between 1911 and 2014, it is about a 1,500 per cent increase in the Muslim population, and the British census and today’s census.
Citizenship comes with the rights that I mentioned, and the 1982 Citizenship Law also allowed that whoever came after 1948, after the second generation they can become a citizen. As far as I know, Burma doesn’t refuse or reject the citizenship of the people who live in Burma, regardless of their religion.
We are not saying all the photos are fake news, but most of the ones circulated internationally are fake or altered. For example, the one in Rwanda, they put it as happening in Burma or Myanmar. One happened in Aceh, Indonesia, and it was mentioned by the activists as happening in Rakhine State. And it was also mentioned that it happened in 2011 in Kachin State, and these are Kachin victims and they showed as Rohingya.
So there are a lot of sensational things that happened, but those are the people that we need to help. It doesn’t matter, race or religion. We feel that they need to be helped and also that this exodus is pre-planned. Also the sabotage of the recommendation — how can we, the Government of Myanmar, be able to implement in this kind of environment? But they already started the implementation stage.
Today, I think Global Affairs just released a joint statement. The UN and ambassadors from the diplomatic corps visited the conflict areas, and 19 countries issued a joint statement.
We believe this is a good step forward. Aung San Suu Kyi invited the international community to come and investigate themselves. I think this is the first step that the international community started. We also encouraged Canada and parliamentarians to take that invitation to visit and look with their own eyes. That would be helpful.
Senator Ataullahjan: The diplomats that went were taken into certain controlled areas. If I want to go tomorrow, and I want to go to a certain part, can you guarantee that I will be given permission by the Burmese government to go?
Mr. Kyaw: We do not represent the Myanmar authorities.
Senator Ataullahjan: You are here defending them. Basically, you have come out and said that most of the pictures that we have seen are fake pictures. The pictures of the bodies floating in the river, and we heard testimony last week, the refugees that escaped, that those areas are all mined.
Mr. Kyaw: The bodies that are floating. They are showing Cyclone Nargis victims.
Senator Ataullahjan: That was fake also?
Mr. Kyaw: Yes. Also the mass burials that they put on the Internet website, those are the China Sichuan earthquake, and that is the time that the Buddhist monks are doing the Buddhist — to the mass burial.
Senator Ataullahjan: Basically everything we have seen so far is fake news? Is that what you are saying? All the photographs we are seeing are fake? When we had pictures of the villages being burned, that’s fake?
Mr. Kyaw: No. The government also admitted that many villages were burned. That’s why today they brought the diplomatic corps to those villages, so they will see with their own eyes. As I mentioned, many villages were completely burned down. That is why I think that this is a very good step towards inviting the international community to visit the area. I also agree that the international media should visit to see it with their own eyes.
Senator Ataullahjan: But they are controlled. They’re not allowed into every area. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have all said that the burning of villages is taking place, the killing of the Rohingyas is taking place. So I find it hard to believe when you tell me that all the photographic proof that has come out is fake.
Mr. Kyaw: I am not saying every photograph is fake.
Senator Ataullahjan: All the ones I mentioned you say are fake.
Mr. Kyaw: Those were fake. But the exodus crossing the borders, I believe those are the real ones.
Senator Ataullahjan: So just the refugees crossing, those are okay, but the ones where they show the killing and where the bodies are lined up, those are fake?
Mr. Kyaw: Yes.
Senator Ataullahjan: Are you denying that any killing of the Rohingyas is taking place?
Mr. Kyaw: I’m not in a position to deny or accept.
Senator Ataullahjan: You are in a position to sit here in front of me and say all those pictures that we have seen are fake.
Mr. Kyaw: That is what we know. Those are the pictures that we know.
Senator Ataullahjan: How do we know they are killed? The world is watching. We have people on the ground who are reporting. Is everybody not telling the truth?
Mr. Kyaw: Those are the ones who interviewed, and those are the ones who should be interviewed inside Myanmar also.
Senator Ataullahjan: You know that we gave the government representatives a chance to come and appear before us and tell us their side of the story and that they refused. In the Senate committees we are very fair; we like to hear both sides of the story.
The Chair: Thank you very much, senator. We will have Global Affairs here and other witnesses.
Senator Ngo: I have a few questions for you. I’m very surprised that the event happened in August and that Aung San Suu Kyi did not stand up and condemn the action of the military at that particular moment, or one day or two days after, and instead waited two weeks or until sometime in September. Could you tell me why?
Ms. Lwan: Senator, I am just as disappointed as anyone else. The state counsellor kept silent not only on this issue; she kept silent on the civil war in my state as well. We cannot say and we don’t know the real reason that she kept silent.
What we can guess is that with military control fully responsible for defence, interior and border security, she has been very cautious about when the time comes for national security. This is why we need a 100 per cent civilian government inside the country, so that we can move forward as a democratic country.
Mr. Kyaw: Can I add to that? Aung San Suu Kyi, when they formed the government, their first priority was peace and national reconciliation. National reconciliation doesn’t only mean to reconcile with the armed ethnic groups, peace among the fighting with the military and the armed groups, but also the reconciliation with the military. So we cannot answer why she kept quiet until September 19, but we think that her first priority is national reconciliation.
Senator Ngo: Just one more thing. Ask the leader of the government, the prime minister or president or whatever you call it — she has the responsibility to stand up and say it. The world blames her for not standing up, and it was too late, after two, three weeks, and we don’t accept that.
Could you tell us why again? Because of the control of the military? Because she’s afraid of the military?
Mr. Kyaw: I don’t think she’s afraid of anyone. She’s just calculated and looked after the national reconciliation and also under the current 2008 Constitution. Those are the constraints. She will look out for the whole country, the peaceful country and not only for the western part of the country but also for the whole country.
Senator Ngo: Does the 1982 Citizenship Act recognize the Rohingya as citizens?
Mr. Kyaw: The 1982 Citizenship Act did not mention that Rohingya are not citizens. The 1982 Citizenship Act didn’t mention any ethnic nationality, specific names, and also the 1982 act mentioned when they became citizens. For those people who lived in Myanmar on January 4, 1948, they are citizens. After that, the second generation, if they can prove that, they can apply for citizenship. In my opinion, the 1982 Citizenship Law didn’t discriminate the race or the religion.
Senator McPhedran: I wanted to ask a two-part question related to your organization and the representation here today. First of all, for your organization, as I understand it, part of your mission is to promote advocacy for Burma ethnic nationalities and to promote more cooperation among the different nationalities. Am I correct in understanding that?
Mr. Kyaw: That’s correct.
Senator McPhedran: Do you have any Rohingya members in your organization?
Mr. Kyaw: In our country, Rohingya is not an ethnic nationality. If you look at all the censuses during the British colonial time, the Rohingyas’ name never existed.In Rakhine State we have the Rakhine Muslim Association, which was founded in 1913. In 1949 the mujahedeen movement came up fighting to separate the Islamic state. I think in 1957, around that time, people lived in the Bhuthitaung, Maungtaw, northern Rakhine State. They came up with the solution that Rohingya should be the name. Actually, Rohan in the Chittagong Bengali dialect means Rakhine.
Senator McPhedran: I’m sorry for interrupting but I’m concerned the chair will tell us to move on. If understand your position — and I don’t know whether it’s your position, Ms. Lwan, but I’m referring to Mr. Kyaw and his presentation — the description of what the military did, regarding the most recent events, particularly the August 25 attack on a military station, is fake news. For example, we heard testimony of satellite confirmation of villages burning and an informed estimate that more than half of the Rohingya homes and villages had been destroyed in one way or the other since the August 25 “attack.”
Can I ask you a two-part question? First, does your organization acknowledge that reprisals are taking place and have been taking place ever since that attack? Second, even if you don’t agree with the figures, do you think the reprisals are proportionate, are reasonable in light of what happened on August 25? The response has been huge.
Mr. Kyaw: As soon as the August crisis happened, we issued a statement and we wrote a letter to Minister Freeland and expressed concern for the loss of lives and people leaving home, including the non-Muslim population. We expressed our concerns and we condemned the terrorist attack. That’s our organization’s stance, and we still stand by it. At the same time, however, we’re not in a position to confirm or deny any proportionate or disproportionate responses.
Looking at this logically, this is the rainy season in Myanmar. That part of the country has a heavy monsoon season. Why can half a million people cross borders that are heavily monitored by government forces with the Bangladeshi also looking for them? That means about 40,000 or 50,000 people must cross the border every day. But definitely the crisis happened. A lot of villages were burned down. We look at it from the State Counsellor Office Information Committee. They said about half the villages were burned down and that 44 per cent of the population fled. In her speech on September 19, the state counsellor said please come and see that over 50 per cent of the Muslim population are living peacefully with the local people. So where are the rest of the “almost 50 per cent of the people?”
You asked me about whether we knew, but we don’t know. I also spoke to people in the Rakhine State yesterday by phone. People are still moving away from their homes even though the attacks stopped, the military operations stopped, on September 5. Some of the people in the villages are selling their property and leaving. They were told that if they moved to the Bangladesh UN camps they could go to third countries like the U.S. or to Europe. After the violence stopped, people stopped moving as well. We need to work with the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as with the international governments, to figure that out. Right now, the government is working with the Red Cross. ASEAN is in a good position to help.
The Chair: We’ll continue for five minutes. The next panel will be reduced from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.
Senator Omidvar: I will be brief. I’m having a hard time reconciling what I heard last time from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and InterPares — respected international NGOs — with what you are saying.
What process have you used to determine that your news is the real news and not the fake news? You’re putting numbers on the table. We have other numbers on the table. What are we to make of this?
Mr. Kyaw: I put numbers on the table about real population growth. I didn’t give numbers on how many refugees left the country.
With respect to the Muslim population in that part of the country, the conflict area, that part of the area has grown 150 per cent between 1973 and 2014. Also, there are religious schools. In 1962 there were only six schools in the Maungda township. There are now about 800 Madrasas schools there. Also, there are over 1,200 mosques in the northern states and only 120 Buddhist monasteries.
Senator Omidvar: Would you agree that to get the facts we need an independent UN mission in Myanmar, in Rakhine State, to do a fact-finding mission? There are your facts. I’ve seen the statements by the ambassadors from Global Affairs, but they are ambassadors. They are diplomats, so they will say things very carefully. A quick review of their statement tells me there’s a certain kind of diplomatic language being used.
Why do you think the government is not allowing a UN mission to go into Myanmar and determine the facts for the rest of the world?
Senator Martin: If I could interject, you keep talking about growth. I don’t understand how those numbers are relevant to the questions we’re asking. We’ve heard reputable facts from NGOs, so I don’t know why you’re mentioning growth. Groups have children and populations grow. How is that relevant to the questions we’re asking here?
Mr. Kyaw: The people are saying about ethnic cleansing and genocide. Those are directly linked to population growth and religion. Those are direct links. That’s what we believe.
Senator Ataullahjan: You’re saying there’s no ethnic cleansing or genocide going on because there are so many Muslims, so many Rohingyas living there; the population has grown? By the way, Rohingyas are not only Muslims. There is a small Hindu minority in the Rohingyas, also. I’m just trying to clarify that’s what you’re saying.
Mr. Kyaw: Actually, there are no Hindu Rohingya. As I mentioned, the Rohingya name was created in 1957. If you look at the UN records, we had a refugee crisis I believe in 1973 and also in the 1990s. If you look at the 1973 UN records, there is no mention about the Rohingya name there.
Senator Ataullahjan: In the Burmese encyclopedia, volume 9, pages 89 to 90, aren’t the Rohingya mentioned as “Burmese nationals?”
Mr. Kyaw: That’s why I’m saying in the late 1950s the Rohingya name was created. We have the Rakhine Muslim Association. In 1957 the name was changed to the Rohingya Muslim Association with two votes. When General Ne Win took over power, those associations also disbanded. Prior to that, there wasn’t a name. Prior to recent days there was no name like “Rohingya Hindu,” but when the 45 Hindu victims showed up they started calling them Rohingya Hindu.Yesterday the All Burma Hindu association released a statement saying they condemn the attack and also ask the government to protect them. Also they objected to the term “Rohingya Hindu” being used.
Senator Omidvar: Excuse me. We’re getting wrong answers. We need to —
The Chair: Thank you, sir. We’ll have four minutes of questions. We’ve gone beyond 15.
Senator Omidvar: Thank you, chair. I would like a precise answer to my question.
In your document, you refer always to the Rohingya in brackets and call them Bengalis first.
Mr. Kyaw: The Myanmar government and people in Myanmar, that’s what they call them. That’s what the government and people in Myanmar call them, these names. That’s why I try to put the two names in together.
Senator Omidvar: The world press, the NGOs who reported to us, the Rohingya community themselves, they refer to themselves —
Mr. Kyaw: They —
Senator Omidvar: May I please ask my question. They refer to themselves as Rohingyas, not Bengalis. It seems to me this is a strategy on your part to divest them of claims of nationality and ownership in Myanmar and put those claims into another nation.
The Chair: I’m awfully sorry but we have to wrap this up. Senator Ngo, do you have a statement? We have witness after witness after witness. We’ve gone beyond 15 minutes. Thirty seconds, please.
Senator Ngo: What you are telling us is before 1948. After 1948, the Rohingya name doesn’t exist. I’m asking you, then, the culprit of that particular time, you say that that’s because of the military. No answer?
Senator Ataullahjan: Can I ask my question and then maybe you can answer both questions? I’m looking at the notes prepared by the Library of Parliament. I understand everybody else is lying. I hope the Library of Parliament of Canada is not lying to us. It says that the Burmese government, in the 12th century, many migrated legally under the British rule as labourers. The Burmese government still considers this migration that took place during this period illegal, and specifically, the non-recognition of Rohingya in the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 has effectively rendered them stateless.
Sir, are you a Canadian citizen?
Mr. Kyaw: I am.
Senator Ataullahjan: How long have you been here?
Mr. Kyaw: Twenty-six years.
Senator Ataullahjan: How would you feel if tomorrow someone said that you’re not a Canadian citizen? Effectively that is what is happening.
Mr. Kyaw: The 1982 Citizenship Law didn’t revoke any citizens. I’m not sure where we get it. If you look at the Citizenship Law, Article 6 even guarantees even if you’re a citizen under the 1948 act, that’s when we became independent, and those ones are still citizens. Nobody asks to revoke the citizenship.
The Chair: We want to thank you for your point of view. There are many points of view expressed here. This is what Canada is about. There’s freedom of expression, and you’re allowed to have that. You’ve said your piece. I want to thank you for being here.
We will be discussing the Rohingya crisis with our second panel. I’m Senator Jim Munson here with seven inquisitive, passionate senators discussing the issues taking place in that part of the world.
Mr. Smith, I understand you have spoken to the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights Committee. Welcome to our committee.
Matthew Smith, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Fortify Rights: Thank you, Senator Munson. I’m honoured to be here. It’s an honour to speak with you today. It’s reassuring to see —
Our organization, Fortify Rights, documents human rights violations according to international practice. We employ a strict method to confirm allegations of human rights violations. We work closely with local communities to do the same work.
In the interest of time, I’ll get right into it. The human rights situation in Rakhine State that the Rohingya and others are facing is grave and horrific. We’re seeing the fastest outflow of refugees since the Rwandan genocide. We’re witnessing the commission of atrocity crimes with complete impunity so far.
Myanmar forces have forced the displacement of more than half a million civilians in a matter weeks. This is taking place through arson attacks on civilian homes and structures and on mosques, through destroying food stocks and other means of subsistence, and through severe human rights violations. Most of those displaced since August 25 have fled to Bangladesh.
I want to say a bit about the atrocity crimes perpetrated by state security forces. First, what we know and have documented about the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, also known as ARSA. We know that members of ARSA are responsible for killing Rohingya civilians in the days leading up to the government’s counterattack on August 25 and since. ARSA leadership has ordered the killings of suspected government informants, Rohingya, and foot soldiers have carried out those killings.
ARSA also attempted to restrict the freedom of movement of men and boys fleeing the violence since August 25, attempting to recruit them to join and fight with them against the authorities. We know that ARSA has enlisted young boys in their militant efforts.
Also, as we’ve all heard, in recent weeks the government has announced the discovery of Hindu mass graves, alleging that ARSA killed dozens of Hindu men, women and children. We cannot confirm who is responsible for these killings, but regardless, they do represent even more evidence that the government should cooperate with the UN fact-finding mission to establish the facts in Rakhine State. As has been discussed, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to allow that fact-finding mission to enter the country, let alone to work in Rakhine State.
With regard to Myanmar state security forces, clearance operations is the term the military and government use for what it’s doing in Rakhine State. Since these clearance operations began in October, we’ve documented more than 188 testimonies of survivors from the October and November operations. We’ve also spoken to 51 survivors and eye witnesses from 31 villages in northern Rakhine State since August 25. I’ve personally been involved in this documentation work.
Our findings are horrific. They confirm the worst allegations that we’ve all been hearing.
What we know is this: Myanmar army soldiers have slit throats; they’ve burned victims alive, including infants and children; and they’ve beaten people to death. The army and police have opened fire on men, women and children, from land and from helicopter gunships. These killings have taken place at close range, in execution-style settings as well as in other settings.
Survivors described most of the perpetrators as military soldiers in green or black uniforms, and some wearing red scarves, which are characteristic of state security forces. Other survivors recounted seeing Myanmar army soldiers and others burn their family members and neighbours to death. These types of killings have been perpetrated on a mass scale, not only since August 25 but actually since October 9.
I would like to stress — and I shared this with the previous committee — that we have documented several massacres by state security forces against Rohingya, including in the villages of Maung Nu and others, since August 25. We’ve also documented testimonial evidence of mass graves in October and November. Recently, survivors witnessed soldiers cutting up, burying and, in some cases, burning bodies of victims who were killed during the attacks.
With regard to rape and sexual violence, we’ve also documented it on a widespread scale. Rohingya women who were raped and gang-raped by Myanmar army soldiers have shared their testimony with Fortify Rights, as well as with medical professionals who treated horrific and significant injuries that resulted from sexual violence. We also spoke with eyewitnesses to rape, as well as medical professionals who are carrying out their medical activities with survivors of rape.
Most of the rape cases that we documented since October were gang rapes; the soldiers were gang-raping young women or girls. These often occurred in assembly settings; there were other people nearby. We have also documented mass arbitrary detention, soldiers rounding up men and boys in large numbers.
Overall, the available evidence, in our view, unassailably suggests that Myanmar state security forces have committed these violations in the context of a widespread and systemic attack on the civilian population. This would indicate to us, at least, the commission of crimes against humanity. What we’re seeing is certainly a campaign of ethnic cleansing. I would also say that there is mounting evidence that some perpetrators in Rakhine State may be liable for the crime of genocide.
I’m happy to answer questions and discuss these issues further with you. Thank you again for your time.
The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Smith.
Senator Ataullahjan: Thank you, Mr. Smith, for your testimony. Did you get a chance to hear the previous witnesses’ testimony?
Mr. Smith: Yes, senator, I did.
Senator Ataullahjan: What’s your reaction to their testimony? They denied that the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship. They said most of the photographs were fake. Basically, the Muslims are getting blamed. It seems that the Muslim terrorist organizations are running an alternative government in Rakhine State if they’re telling people not to go to work.
Have you seen proof of any of that? We’re hearing from you about gang rapes, and that is also what we’re hearing from other observers. We have heard from the Rohingyas who still have family in Burma; they’re telling us stories. They tell the stories deadpan; it seems they’ve heard so much that they can no longer hurt. We had witnesses who said, “Yes, my uncle was killed.” I was at a rally yesterday in Toronto, and we met people who were discussing, in a matter-of-fact way, how family members had been killed.
As senators, we have to be fair and listen to all the testimony and take it into consideration. What’s your reaction to the testimony we just heard?
Mr. Smith: I think some of the testimony from Mr. Zaw Wai Kyaw, sadly, is representative of many of the things we hear from certain segments of the Myanmar population, this allegation of fake news.
What I’ve been noting over the last several months — although this has been going on for quite some time — is that certain people from Myanmar are so caught up in the throes of confirmation bias that they’re even willing to defend the actions of the military that, for years, committed violations against them. This has been a profound aspect of what is going on in Rakhine State, and a very tragic aspect to it.
Some of the allegations are plainly false. The idea that the Rohingya population is exploding is not true. The Ash Center at Harvard University recently found that the population growth rate of Muslims in northern Rakhine State has grown over the years, so that part is correct; however, it has not grown at a rate that is any more significant than the rest of the population in Myanmar.
We hear these allegations. It’s worth noting as well that in past experience of mass atrocity crimes and genocide in other parts of the world, we’ve heard this allegation that the victims have uncontrollable birth rates. That’s a red flag. I think it’s unfortunate to hear that. Some of the other claims we heard with regard to the Citizenship Law are also problematic.
The proof of the problems with the 1982 Citizenship Law is in the fact that, at least up until August 25, more than 1 million Rohingyas were effectively denied citizenship under that law. We don’t have to look much further than the facts, but when we do take a closer look at the law, we can see that it has effectively been used to deprive an entire population of an ethnic and religious minority of citizenship rights.
Senator Ataullahjan: You’re referring to it as a genocide. You think there’s a genocide going on? I noticed you used the word “genocide.”
Mr. Smith: I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be talking about the crime of genocide right now. I think there needs to be an independent international investigation to help determine specifically what international crimes have been perpetrated.
I do believe, though, that the elements of the crime of genocide would be in place. I wouldn’t put the genocide blanket over all of Rakhine State, but I would say there would be perpetrators in Rakhine State right now who are intent on destroying at least part of the Rohingya population, and I think these individuals could and should be held liable for that crime. This is a grave situation like nothing we’ve seen.
Senator McPhedran: Thank you very much, Mr. Smith. I appreciate you addressing, essentially, the criteria in the genocide convention in part of your answer.
I want to ask two parts to a question following that. One is to ask you to go straight to your assessment of the most effective actions on the part of the international community in responding to the information that we now have.
The second part is to ask you to address the impunity that you’ve already mentioned, and, in particular, to ask whether it is your sense that it would be possible at this point to gather the evidence necessary to look at prosecutions for crimes against humanity by the commander-in-chief and those following the commands.
Mr. Smith: Right now, one of the most important things that need to happen in terms of the international community’s action would be to apply unprecedented pressure on the Government of Myanmar.
Senator McPhedran: Sanctions?
Mr. Smith: I think targeted sanctions would certainly be in order. I think an arms embargo would be in order.But also there could be other diplomatic pressure leveraged to ensure that the government will allow humanitarian aid workers into northern Rakhine State.
The World Food Programme actually hasn’t been able to deliver food to Rohingya populations in northern Rakhine State since July, a month and a half before these attacks began, and the World Food Programme mentioned to us at the time that there were more than 80,000 children under the age of five who were suffering from severe acute malnutrition. If these children and others in northern Rakhine State who are trapped don’t get the nutrition and food they need, there will be preventable death. Pressure on the authorities to allow access — I think sanctions are again in order.
We’ve seen the inability of the international community to effectively end and remedy atrocity crimes before. That’s why I say there needs to be unprecedented pressure put on the authorities.
In terms of addressing the impunity, I would say that domestic remedies have certainly been exhausted right now. The authorities had organized several commissions that were designed to take a closer look at human rights violations. They were all basically attempts to exonerate the Myanmar military. The authorities have demonstrated they’re not willing or able to properly investigate these crimes and hold perpetrators accountable, and this is where the international community should step in.
With respect to military commanders, Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief, could potentially be liable for crimes against humanity and atrocity crimes. I think a military operation of this magnitude requires a certain amount of planning. It requires a considerable amount of resources, both financial and material resources, in support. This is not something that happens spontaneously. Military commanders would have been aware.
Beyond that, as far as I understand it, liability for these particular international crimes is something that relies on whether or not the military commanders or in some cases even foot soldiers knew about the violations that were taking place and either failed to stop them or were somehow involved in them. I think at this point it would not be terribly difficult to mount a case against certain military leaders, including the commander-in-chief.
Senator McPhedran: The preventable deaths of children to which you refer become another criterion specified in the genocide convention.
Mr. Smith, when were you last in Myanmar?
Mr. Smith: I was on the border soon after the attacks took place. On August 25 I was on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh for a period of approximately 10 days. During that period I spoke with a number of people but collected in-depth testimony from 51 survivors and eyewitnesses, including Rohingya men and women, Rohingya aid workers who fled, and I also spoke to several members of ARSA, the Rohingya armed group.
Senator McPhedran: You may not be prepared to answer this, but have you, as an expert in this area, reached the conclusion that we’re looking at a genocide?
Mr. Smith: Well, again, I think that there does need to be an international investigation, and that investigation should help determine what specific international crimes have been perpetrated and by whom and also, beyond that, who may be responsible under theories of command responsibilities, for example, for those crimes.
Again, my view is that the elements of the crime of genocide do appear to be in place in Rakhine State. There was a study done by a team from Yale Law School two years ago that found even then the elements of the crime of genocide appeared to be in place. I think that’s indicative of just how bad the situation has been in Rakhine State for a period of time.
Senator Omidvar: I have two questions for you. They are quite unrelated, so the chair will forgive me for asking both of them.
Is it possible, Mr. Smith, in your opinion, that Canada is unintentionally funding the Burmese, the Myanmar police, through our international agreements and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations? Is it possible that we are unintentionally contributing?
Mr. Smith: Well, I’m not sure. I would have to learn more about the engagement on the part of the Canadian government. I will say that it’s advisable right now for governments to cut ties with —
Senator Omidvar: To suspend?
Mr. Smith: To suspend.
Senator Omidvar: Would you recommend that Canada, until these international investigations are carried out, suspend any funding directly or indirectly to Myanmar through these multilateral arrangements that we have?
Mr. Smith: I suppose I would want to learn more first about the multilateral arrangements. If there’s any question that any sort of relationship is potentially contributing in some way to these terrible human rights violations that are taking place, they certainly should face a high level of scrutiny, in my view.
Senator Omidvar: This is my unrelated question. I speak to a lot of people about the crisis, about refugees, and people ask me what is the essential difference between the crisis in Syria that saw half a million people displaced and this crisis. Not that we want to compare numbers because a life is a life, but I want to put it into context. From your expert opinion, what is the contextual difference here?
Mr. Smith: I’m certainly not an expert on the situation in Syria, but I will say that what is unique about what’s going on right now and what has been happening particularly since August 25 is the pace at which people have been displaced. More than half a million people fleeing across the border in a matter of weeks is highly unusual. We haven’t seen anything like this since the Rwandan genocide.
I was dismayed at the testimony from the previous witness, which seemed like it questioned the veracity of the number of people who have actually fled across the border in Bangladesh.
For those individuals who doubt that this many people have actually gone to Bangladesh, we would fully encourage them to actually go to the border and see for themselves a sea of humanity in desperate need of help.
That’s one aspect that would be different. And another side of this is also the fact that it has been going on for so long. Rohingya communities have been experiencing human rights violations for decades: restrictions on freedom of movement, restrictions on birth, on even repairing one’s home have been going on for quite some time.
Senator Ngo: Thank you, Mr. Smith. Just now you mentioned that the Government of Myanmar is trying to exonerate the military for being the main perpetrator. How do you evaluate and come to that decision? What could we do with the military? You don’t mention the military, but we know this is the military. What do we do with those people?
Mr. Smith: We’ve been very closely monitoring the government’s response to the situation in Rakhine State for some time. Even going back a few years, there were open discussions in Myanmar Parliament about increasing the restrictions on the Rohingya population of Rakhine State. These were statements that were made in some cases by Myanmar army officials, in other cases by other members of Parliament in Myanmar, speaking very openly about restrictions that effectively amounted to crimes against humanity, the prevention of births, things of that nature.
There was full transparency, actually, with regard to the government’s position on some of these issues over the years. More recently, there have been government-appointed commissions that have gone to take a closer look at the situation. One commission led by Vice President Myint Swe, a former military general himself, directly denied that genocide or ethnic cleansing was taking place because he said he saw rice paddies in mosques. So this was the level of methodology and scrutiny that the authorities were giving to the situation. We’ve seen a lot of evidence of that. Even Aung San Suu Kyi’s own offices have been denying any sort of wrongdoing by the state.
So with regard to what should happen to these individuals, there should certainly be a full investigation about who is responsible for these crimes. The international community should demand nothing less than this, and if there are people in Myanmar who want to establish the facts and they’re alleging fake news, I would think they would be the first ones to invite an investigation to take a closer look. That’s not what we’re seeing. So there does need to be more.
Senator Martin: Mr. Smith, thank you for your testimony. I am still struggling to make sense of these extreme statements we’re hearing even today, one of fake news and denial and one of genocide. We are dealing with such a crisis. I was trying to envisage this limited area of 500,000-plus people and growing, and the security issues around that area, because we also heard about land mines. Without the area being secured, how does aid get in to help the people?
In your travels there as well as the other facts that you have gathered, is aid getting to the people as it desperately needs to? What can we be doing to address this absolute crisis in terms of aid and making sure it gets to the people who need it?
Mr. Smith: Thank you, senator. This is a key issue. In terms of how aid gets in, in northern Rakhine State right now, unfortunately no aid is getting in. There were reports that the government work in northern —
In other parts of Rakhine State, there are now more than 120,000 Rohingyas who are actually confined to 38 interment camps in eight different townships. These are people who are affected by violence similar to what we were seeing back in 2012. The government keeps them confined in internment camps, and they’ve been there since 2012. There are some organizations that are delivering aid there. There are organizations that work with the government to deliver aid. They have a very difficult time. There are other organizations. Partners Relief & Development is an organization that is able to get aid to people who need it.
The needs right now are — so I think anything that Canada can do and anything that Canadian citizens can do to help organizations —
The Chair: Thank you. You are breaking up, Mr. Smith, but we have heard 30 minutes of clear testimony. We will take a chance with Skype for two more minutes before we have our next witnesses. Senator Martin, did you have a follow-up?
Senator Martin: Yes. In terms of any coordination under the circumstances, I can only imagine the challenges with your group and others.
On the ground, how is it being coordinated, and in what ways can Canada contribute to the overall coordination? Not taking a coordinating role per se, but how are things being coordinated? It must be very difficult under the circumstances for any group to be as effective as they could be.
Mr. Smith: Yes, that is true, senator. In Rakhine State, for some time, UNHCR has handled coordination.
I should say that there have been concerns with regard to the UN leadership in Myanmar. We have been hearing complaints about the UN leadership with regard to the situation in Rakhine State and in other parts of Myanmar, including the war up in Kachin State, which a previous witness mentioned, where there are severe human rights violations happening and problems with aid delivery there as well.
There have been a number of concerns with the leadership of the UN country team in Myanmar with regard to the issue of coordination and with regard to, in some cases, undermining the human rights agenda. That is reason for concern.
But certainly there does need to be some coordination. Right now I will say it’s extremely urgent. We’re hearing from some of our colleagues and members of the community who are not in northern Rakhine State but they’re confined to internment camps, and they’re telling us that not as much aid — so we fear that the government is instituting avoidable deprivation aid to further weaken the population.
Senator Ataullahjan: The previous witnesses said the mujahedeen are fighting. The mujahedeen were those fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. Who is arming these so-called mujahedeen? Do they have guns, bombs and missiles? Who is arming them? Have you seen evidence of mujahedeen operating in Burma?
Mr. Smith: Thank you, senator. That is a great question. It is an important one.
From what we understand, the new recruits for ARSA that were recruited into the organization within the recent months, some of them, but not all, were given a stick, a knife and 20,000 kyat, which is equal to about $20 U.S., to sign up.
I should also mention that there was a really concerted campaign of intimidation, so members of ARSA — there were small cells in various villages — were intimidating local Rohingya to participate with them. I spoke to a great number of people who wanted absolutely nothing to do with this armed group.
But beyond that, they have set out their own agenda. Fortify Rights, our organization, was actually one of the first to analyze and publish something with regard to ARSA’s propaganda videos they had put out soon after the October 9 attacks. What’s distinct and noteworthy is they’re appealing to social and political aims and objectives. They’re talking about human rights. There are a lot of accusations that this is some sort of hidden jihad and they have intentions for a full-on holy war.
We’re not hearing that from outsiders. We’re also not hearing that from the leadership of ARSA. I’m not defending this group in any way. The leadership has — and they should be held accountable. But we’re not seeing a particularly religiously motivated effort.
Senator Ataullahjan: It’s terrorists armed with sticks. Thank you for that clarification.
The Chair: Mr. Smith, thank you very much for your testimony and thank you for what Fortify Rights is doing to keep us and others informed in the world. We appreciate your testimony. Thank you again on behalf of the committee.
On our third panel today, appearing on behalf of Global Affairs Canada, we welcome Don Bobiash, Assistant Deputy Minister, Asia Pacific; Ian Burchett, Director General, Southeast Asia; Stephen Salewicz, Director General, International Humanitarian Assistance Operations; Robert McDougall, Executive Director, South Asia; and François Lafrenière, Director, Myanmar and Philippines Development Division.
We have a lot to talk about. We have 30 minutes, but I’m going to try to go 45. There are a lot of questions. You may have heard the previous testimony and the testimony before. There is certainly some urgency as to where Canada is at and Canada’s position.
Mr. Bobiash, welcome to our committee. You have the floor for seven minutes.
Don Bobiash, Assistant Deputy Minister, Asia Pacific, Global Affairs Canada: Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Chair, thank you for the opportunity to speak today about the ongoing crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and Canadian engagement in Myanmar and Bangladesh in response to this unacceptable tragedy. My colleagues and I are pleased to be here to discuss the situation and to respond to your inquiries.
Let me start by stressing that Global Affairs Canada remains deeply concerned by the current crisis in Rakhine. The violence and displacement since August 25, 2017, of more than 500,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh as of October 2 is the most critical security and humanitarian crisis in the region for many years.
As some of you are aware, as way of background, on August 25, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched coordinated attacks against three border guard, police and security posts in northern Rakhine State.
The heavy-handed response by Myanmar’s armed forces set off the worst outbreak of violence in Rakhine in recent years, resulting in more than half a million Rohingya fleeing their homes to seek safety in Bangladesh. The events that have unfolded since August 25 closely mirror a previous tragic episode on a smaller scale that took place over a few months starting in October 2016.
The most recent population influx into Bangladesh is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya that had already crossed the border in recent decades. The current situation for the displaced in Bangladesh is dire. Arrivals over the past few weeks have largely been comprised of women and children. As many as 1,500 children have been born within the last 20 days in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. According to Myanmar’s armed forces, the most recent violence in Rakhine has resulted in 500 deaths, but other estimates put this number much higher. This is a tragedy.
The timing of ARSA’s attacks was not accidental. The previous day, on August 24, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State had released its final report. This commission was established in August 2016 by the government of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to recommend measures to improve the conditions in Rakhine. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was appointed as the commission’s chair. Canada was pleased by the government of Myanmar’s endorsement of the commission’s recommendations.
The recent attacks should not be considered in a vacuum. The recent tragedy is part of a larger and complex history of violence in Rakhine State.
Approximately 3 million people live in Rakhine. About two thirds are Buddhist ethnic Rakhine; the rest of the population mostly consists of different Muslim communities, the Rohingya being the largest — there is also a small Hindu community. The Rohingya are not officially recognized as a national ethnic group in Myanmar. As such, they are not granted citizenship. They are the world’s largest stateless population, according to the UN.
In Myanmar they are largely seen as economic migrants from Bangladesh and considered to be illegal Bengalis. For decades, the Rohingya have suffered systemic widespread discrimination and human rights abuses. Relations between the Rohingya and the Rakhine have long been tense and have often turned violent.
I would like to speak for a few minutes about the Canadian response to the crisis.
Human rights have always been at the centre of Canadian engagement in Myanmar. Our efforts have particularly focused on promoting and protecting the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, especially the Rohingya.
Global Affairs Canada was quickly seized by the most recent crisis. Very early on, Canada strongly condemned the August 25 attacks. We repeatedly called on Myanmar’s Armed Forces to exercise restraint, to protect all civilians and to end the violence. Canada repeatedly urged the military and civilian authorities in Myanmar to work together and take measures to protect all civilians from ongoing violence.
The Prime Minister conveyed his deep concerns over the situation in Rakhine State during a phone call with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on September 13. During the call, the Prime Minister emphasized the urgent need for Myanmar’s military and civilian leaders to take a strong stand in ending the violence, protecting civilians and allowing unimpeded access for the UN and international humanitarian actors.
Following the call, the Prime Minister sent a letter to Aung San Suu Kyi on September 18. The Prime Minister stated that the responsibility for resolving this crisis fell squarely upon her and the military leadership in Myanmar, including the commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and urged the military and civilian authorities to do their utmost to end the violence immediately.
The Government of Canada has also been working closely with members of the international community. Over the last three weeks, the Minister of Foreign Affairs has spoken with many of her counterparts and key influencers in the region, including Norway, Sweden, Bangladesh, Germany, the European Union, the U.S., Turkey, Indonesia and Kuwait, as well as with Kofi Annan. In the call with her Bangladeshi counterpart, Minister Freeland thanked the Government of Bangladesh for hosting all arrivals seeking asylum.
On September 16, Minister Freeland addressed a rally organized by the Burma Task Force Canada in Toronto, highlighting the importance that the Government of Canada is placing on addressing the crisis in Myanmar. She echoed remarks made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that the situation in Rakhine State “seems [like] a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Canada was one of the first Western countries to describe the situation so unambiguously as ethnic cleansing.
There are many questions being asked by the international community as to whether the crisis in Myanmar amounts to genocide or crimes against humanity. The legal test in international law for crimes against humanity and, in particular, genocide is a high one. A legal determination of the matter would be made by a properly constituted court.
If a government wishes to call a situation genocide or crimes against humanity, that assessment should be based on information obtained from highly credible and impartial sources, such as a UN body, given the seriousness of the allegation.
On September 18, Minister Bibeau attended a U.K.-hosted event on the margins of UNGA and was able to convey Canada’s concerns to Myanmar’s national security adviser, who was in attendance.
Minister Freeland spoke to Myanmar’s commander-in-chief on September 30, Saturday, to underline Canada’s deep concerns over the situation and to emphasize that the perpetrators of human rights violations need to be held accountable.
In terms of emergency assistance in this crisis, Canada provided an initial allocation of $1 million in response to the rising humanitarian need stemming from the violence in Rakhine. As we were one of the first international donors to pledge support, our funds were critical in assessing our humanitarian partners to rapidly scale up their existing operations in response to the Rohingya exodus.
As the number of asylum seekers continued to outpace all expectations, we made an additional allocation of $2.55 million on September 15, bringing our total emergency contribution to the current crisis to $3.55 million.
Minister Bibeau also issued a statement on September 22 indicating Canada’s concerns about restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State and called on all military and civilian authorities in Myanmar to facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief.
Keeping our total aid contributions in perspective, according to UN financial reporting, Canada is currently the fifth-largest single donor country for humanitarian response in Bangladesh. Additionally, since its inception in 2006, Canada is the fifth-largest donor to the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund which allocated $7 million in response to the crisis in early September.
Earlier this year, Canada provided $5.63 million in humanitarian assistance to partners in Myanmar and Bangladesh, in large part to address the needs of the Rohingya. Overall, Canada’s total humanitarian assistance to crisis-affected people in Myanmar and Bangladesh is over $9 million so far this year.
Canada has been responding to the needs of crisis-affected people in Bangladesh and Myanmar, including the Rohingya, for several years through our annual humanitarian support. We stand ready to respond further, as appropriate and as possible, in light of conditions on the ground.
Canada’s current development efforts aim to support Myanmar in its democratic development, good governance and its ability to deliver prosperity and well-being to its people, including its many minority ethnic groups, women, the rural poor and young people. For example, Canada supports the Mennonite Economic Development Associates to increase access to credit, inputs, market linkages and new technologies for women, and works with over 25,000 poor rural women for them to become viable economic actors and leaders in their communities.
Canada also supports an NGO called Inter Pares who works with over 40 local partners to enhance inclusive democratic development by strengthening citizen engagement, deepening trust and understanding of democratic systems, and building the capacity of communities to participate in their own development. Later we can talk in more detail about our bilateral assistance programs in Myanmar, if you so wish.
The most immediate priorities right now are to end the violence and ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches those who need it. That is what Global Affairs Canada is actively working on. At the same time, it is essential not to lose sight of the medium term if we want the cycle of violence to end. This means looking at options for peace, stability, reconciliation and sustainable development in Rakhine State.
The recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led commission provide practical and insightful suggestions to address the root causes of the current violence. Canada fully supports these recommendations and looks forward to the implementation road map being developed by the Government of Myanmar.
In the interim, we are actively exploring ways to support vulnerable groups in Rakhine State, empower women and girls, who are particularly at risk, and promote gender equality in line with Canada’s feminist international assistance policy. We strongly support the need for an international, independent fact-finding mission on allegations of human rights violations in Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine, as mandated by the Human Rights Council. Canada has urged the Government of Myanmar to grant it full and unimpeded access. Rakhine remains largely closed off, and it is essential that the truth about the recent events be allowed to come out. This is a matter of the most essential justice and accountability.
Clearly, as the current crisis in Rakhine is testimony, much remains to be done to reverse more than 50 years of brutal military rule, to end decades of civil war, and to ensure the protection of human rights for all in Myanmar.
Given the situation in Rakhine, it is easy to forget that progress with regard to democratization has been achieved in Myanmar in many areas in recent years, not least the election of its first civilian government in more than five decades. We must remember that while the current civilian government was elected, the military continues to exercise independent powers under the country’s constitution. It is the army, not the civilian government, which ultimately holds responsibility for the current crisis.
At this critical junction, we must remember that it is in Canada’s interest, and indeed the world’s, that Myanmar’s democratic transition be maintained and strengthened. Today I’ve outlined the Government of Canada’s response to the crisis in Myanmar, and I would like to assure the committee we will continue to respond to this tragic international situation.
I would like to read a brief report on a visit by a number of Canadian diplomats, including the Canadian ambassador in Myanmar, who just returned from a trip to northern Rakhine. The statement is as follows:
At the invitation of the Myanmar government, we visited northern Rakhine today. We went to a number of villages in Maungdaw and Rathidaung districts and met a mixture of local communities. This initiative by the Government of Myanmar allowed us to show support for the many people of all communities in northern Rakhine who have suffered and still feel great insecurity. We reiterate our condemnation of the ARSA attacks of August 25 and our deep concern about violence and mass displacement since.
This was not an investigation mission and could not be in the circumstances. Investigation of allegations of human rights violations needs to be carried out by experts. We welcome the commitment of the state counsellor to address human rights violations in accordance with strict norms of justice and call again on the Myanmar authorities to fully investigate allegations of human rights violations and bring prosecutions against those responsible.
We also urge them to allow the UN fact-finding mission to visit Rakhine. We saw villages which had been burned to the ground and emptied of inhabitants. The violence must stop. The security forces have an obligation to protect all people in Rakhine without discrimination and to take measures to prevent acts of arson.
We welcome the state counsellor’s statement that the security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to a code of conduct, to exercise all due restraint and to take full measure to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians. We encourage the Myanmar government to move quickly to enable the voluntary, dignified and safe return to their places of origin of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled to Bangladesh.
We saw on our visit the dire humanitarian need. We call once more for unimpeded humanitarian access to northern Rakhine and resumption of lifesaving services without discrimination throughout this state.
We welcome the media access that has already been allowed but call once more for journalists to be allowed full, unimpeded access to northern Rakhine.
We have stressed to the union and state government and to local authorities in Rakhine that the people we saw during this visit must not be subject to and should be protected from any reprisals such as physical attacks or arbitrary arrest.
I will abridge my statement.
We sincerely hope that our visit is only the very first step in an urgently needed opening up of all access for all, including the media, to all parts of northern Rakhine.
This is signed by our ambassador, Karen MacArthur, and a group of other international diplomats.
The Chair: Thank you for that. We have about 25 minutes. Could somebody at Global Affairs provide a copy of that September 18 letter to Aung San Suu Kyi from the Prime Minister? We’ve seen it in the media, but is it possible to get a copy?
Mr. Bobiash: We can do that.
Senator Ataullahjan: Thank you for your testimony. You said that the Canadian government has asked the government in Myanmar to exercise restraint. Are they listening? Have you seen any proof that they’re listening?
Mr. Bobiash: Only time will tell, but these communications have been made numerous times at the highest levels by the Prime Minister and by the foreign minister. The most recent communication was this Saturday, when our Minister of Foreign Affairs had a telephone conversation with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in which they had an opportunity to discuss next steps in the situation. Our minister raised and discussed in some detail the Kofi Annan report and, more importantly, next steps in its implementation. She again reiterated to the senior general the need for accountability for human rights violations and the need for refugees to receive, on a timely basis, humanitarian assistance.
Senator Ataullahjan: Wasn’t the Kofi Annan report rejected by the government officials? Didn’t the spokesperson for the president’s office on July 10 say that the Annan commission was “a good shield for the government”?
It was to buy time to finish the complete wiping out of the Rohingya. That’s what we’re hearing. Isn’t it true that they didn’t want to implement anything and it was rejected by them?
Mr. Bobiash: It’s important not to generalize too much. Various people in the government, including the senior general and Aung San Suu Kyi, have endorsed the report and are looking at a follow-up program. I’m unable to comment on other individual comments made on that.
Senator Ataullahjan: When Aung San Suu Kyi visited Canada in early spring or summer, Zaw Htay, her political spokesperson on this issue — and I know because I asked during dinner to whom I should address my questions on the Rohingya and he was pointed out as a good person to respond to this.
Why the hesitancy? The Minister of Foreign Affairs said, “It looks like ethnic cleansing.” A lot of people have raised this question with me. I was at a rally yesterday. People asked, “Why are we saying, ‘It looks like?’ Why aren’t we calling a spade a spade?”
Mr. Bobiash: I think she has used the term “ethnic cleansing” quite directly in other contexts and communications, so I don’t think there’s any debate about “it looks like.”
Senator Ataullahjan: Since the rally she addressed in Toronto, she has used “ethnic cleansing?”
Mr. Bobiash: That’s my understanding, yes.
Senator Ngo: Thank you, Mr. Bobiash. In your presentation, one paragraph is very troubling to me. You say the timing of ARSA attacks was not accidental after the Government of Myanmar endorsed the commission’s recommendations.
Can you describe to us how the current events are different from the human rights abuses the Rohingya endured before the final report’s recommendations were released and before the August 25 attack?
Ian Burchett, Director General, Southeast Asia, Global Affairs Canada: Thank you very much for the question. The evidence shows that the group was extremely well organized in attacking police stations and other authorities following the presentation of the report. Subsequently, the military exercised their own decision to enforce the security in Rakhine State. This is of great concern to Canada and other countries in terms of the use of force and the amount of force following those attacks.
This is the issue that we are continuing to follow up on to ensure that the human rights abuses and violence come to an immediate end and that those who have been affected by this violence are receiving appropriate humanitarian assistance and are allowed to return to their homes in Rakhine State.
Senator Ngo: Thank you for your answer. The previous witness, Mr. Smith, said the attack was made with sticks, batons, knives, et cetera. How can this create heavy casualties to the various posts and the military command — that is, sticks and knives, and so on?
Mr. Burchett: Exactly. The degree of response by the military is of grave concern to Canada. Both our minister and our Prime Minister have indicated this to Aung San Suu Kyi. Most recently, over the weekend in the conversation with the military commander, the minister raised concerns about the human rights abuses and use of force and that it be brought to justice. That’s what she raised in her conversation with the military commander. Our Prime Minister also raised with Aung San Suu Kyi that the fact-finding mission must be allowed to go to Rakhine State to find out what happened and to understand better the human rights abuses and the overuse of violence against the Rohingya people.
Senator Ngo: At what point in the conflict will Canada start imposing sanctions on the military command and the military’s own enterprises who are perpetrating these atrocities?
Mr. Burchett: The sanctions related to Myanmar continue to this day. On December 13, 2007, the Special Economic Measures (Burma) Regulations came into force and are still in force. These measures include a freeze on assets in Canada of any designated Myanmar nationals connected with the Myanmar state, as well as an arms embargo, including a prohibition on the exporting and importing of arms to and from Myanmar. We have stringent export controls. Those are in place, and those regulations and sanctions have not changed since well before the attacks on August 25.
Senator McPhedran: Thank you very much, gentlemen, for being here. I want to pick up on Senator Ngo’s comment to you.Can you confirm for us that there are no arms going from Canada to Myanmar?
Mr. Bobiash: Yes, I can confirm that.
Senator McPhedran: Can you confirm for us that there is no money flowing from Canada to any of the corporations that are connected to the Myanmar army, in particular the Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited?
Mr. Bobiash: Yes, I can confirm that. We can provide you with the list of sanctioned companies and institutions, if you wish.
Senator McPhedran: Thank you.
Senator Omidvar: We’re all on the same line. Can you confirm for us that Canada is not — well, unintentionally, possibly — funding police training in Myanmar which could be used in ways that we would not imagine through our funding to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations?
Mr. Bobiash: Yes, we can confirm that.
Senator Pate: Continuing in this line, what are your recommendations to both the minister and the Canadian government in terms of priority of actions to be taken now to interrupt what is happening to the Rohingya?
Mr. Bobiash: Our most immediate priority is to ensure that the victims of this conflict are able to receive the humanitarian assistance which is urgently needed on both sides of the border, both in Bangladesh and in Myanmar. We need to have a continued dialogue and to put pressure on the leadership in the country that they must act responsibly. Our minister will continue to work closely with our allied governments, with the international community and the multilateral system to ensure that the above happens.
Senator Pate: As a supplementary to that, is one of your recommendations in keeping with some recommendations that have been made to revoke the leader’s honorary citizenship?
Mr. Bobiash: I don’t want to speculate on revocation of her citizenship, but in conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi, both the Prime Minister and the foreign minister have been direct in terms of personal accountability and leadership on this issue.
The Chair: Thank you very much. We’ll go to a second round. We have about 10 minutes.
Senator Ataullahjan: When Aung San Suu Kyi visited in early June, the Prime Minister announced $8.8 million in support for humanitarian assistance and advancement in peace and stability. These contributions were to help protect human rights and promote women’s participation in the national peace process. Has that money been given to them? Our Prime Minister was very, very clear. He spoke about encouraging “an inclusive peace process that respects human rights and meets the needs of all people in Myanmar, especially those of traditionally vulnerable populations, including ethnic and religious minorities, women and children.”
Considering everything that has happened since then, has anything changed?
Since 2013, Canada has contributed almost $95 million to the government in development assistance. Do you think it’s time for us to put a stop to giving them money until they start respecting the lives of all their citizens?
Mr. Bobiash: I will ask our expert on international and humanitarian assistance, Mr. Salewicz, to give a more detailed reply. To preface his remarks, the Government of Canada does not provide development assistance directly to the Government of Myanmar. We work almost exclusively through international agencies and NGOs.
Secondly, the development context is important. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries of the world, and Rakhine State is one of the poorest regions in this country. Because of that the assistance provided through the multilateral system is probably more important than it would be in most developing countries. That’s why a lot of our assistance, especially the emergency assistance, is provided through the UN system. I will ask Mr. Salewicz to give more background on that.
Stephen Salewicz, Director General, International Humanitarian Assistance Operations, Global Affairs Canada: I will speak to the humanitarian assistance part of your question. As Mr. Bobiash mentioned, we work with experienced partners — the Red Cross, international NGOs, the UN — that are active on the ground. Our funds don’t go through the Government of Myanmar. That assistance is provided based on the needs, and we focus on the most vulnerable populations in the country. Much of our assistance over the last few years, arising from the violence in 2012, has been directed to the Rakhine State and partners working in that context, including the World Food Programme, the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF and a number of NGOs as well as. They are responding to the basic needs of the population there, whether it’s shelter, food, water and sanitation.
The challenge right now in northern Rakhine is access, and we’re very concerned about the challenges faced by our organizations. As Mr. Bobiash has mentioned, we have been vocal about seeking access for our partners to work there.
Our assistance is also focused on the results of the movement of the population into Bangladesh. We had programming already in place before the current movement of the population, responding to previous violence and previous movements into Bangladesh. In that fashion, we were able to provide funding right away. Our assistance was already on the ground and responding in Bangladesh when the current round of violence happened.
Subsequent to that, we have made additional allocations to Bangladesh as well as to work in Rakhine, recognizing, of course, that northern Rakhine is very difficult, as we’ve heard from other witnesses, for partners to work. So very limited possibilities for action there.
The Chair: Am I missing something here? When these things happened, there was also the DART team to go in and do work with water and so on and so forth. Is there talk about using the DART team? Time is marching on.
Mr. Bobiash: Yes, that’s a very good question. In general, DART is used in response to natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, et cetera. Secondly, DART generally is only used when requested by a recipient government, and neither of those factors is at play here.
The Chair: Thank you very much.
Senator Ngo: Thank you very much. Mr. Bobiash, you mentioned that you wish for the leaders in Myanmar to have dialogue with the leadership of the country. We know that Aung San Suu Kyi usually does not control the military, and concerning the security, it’s absolutely the military that has the power. How can she have a dialogue with a military that does not answer to anyone?
Mr. Bobiash: Well, I think that’s obviously one of the challenges she faces. She obviously has to make a lot of difficult judgment calls and decisions as to how she’s represented, and an advocate obviously for a democratic Myanmar and her relationship with the military, which as you mentioned does have control over domestic security issues. That’s actually in the constitution. I can’t speak for her, but she has to make these very difficult judgment calls.
Senator Ngo: Is Canada pursuing diplomatic pressure to encourage the Myanmar government to modify its constitution so that the government or the so-called leadership in the government can have control over the military?
Mr. Bobiash: That’s a very interesting question. In fact, we actually have a development assistance project valued at about $5.1 million on the theme of governance, and we are trying to provide assistance to the government by training and exposing them to Canadian principles, such as federalism.
In fact there was a delegation that came from Myanmar to Canada a few months ago as part of this program. So we’re trying to influence the evolution of government through these development assistance projects, and we think we have good information to share with them.
Senator Ngo: Since you raised the visit of Myanmar to Canada in June, did the government bring up the issue of Rohingya refugees with the military presence?
Mr. Bobiash: I know that the Prime Minister brought that up with Aung San Suu Kyi, who came as part of that delegation.
Senator Ngo: Thank you.
Senator McPhedran: We’re all familiar with Canada’s leadership resulting in the Ottawa Treaty on the banning of anti-personnel mine bans. Can you confirm for us that land mines have been placed along the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh by the Myanmar military?
Mr. Bobiash: We are aware that this is the observation made by authorities in Bangladesh, that they do accuse the Myanmar government of using land mines, but we have no independent evidence of our own to corroborate one way or the other.
Senator Omidvar: I want to refer to a proposal, a solution put forward by the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when she called for the creation of safe zones in Myanmar under UN supervision. Is this idea being promoted by the Canadian government in its conversations with Myanmar?
Mr. Bobiash: Canada and most like-minded governments do not support the creation of safe zones. The reason is we don’t think they work in the interests of the people in the long term. The safe zones tend to become ghettos, and conditions in the safe zones tend to deteriorate over time. In a way, their creation is sort of a flight of responsibility.
The Chair: Thank you very much. We appreciate you gentlemen being here today. You’ve enlightened us with new information, which I think is extremely important.
Senator Ngo has something else to say.
Senator Ngo: Yes. Mr. Bobiash mentioned the visit of the diplomatic delegation to Rakhine and their report. Can we also have that report?
Mr. Bobiash: Yes.
The Chair: Thank you. I know this was done quickly, but you put together a very accomplished team. We want to thank them.
Senators, it is my pleasure to introduce our last panellist today, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, UNHCR Representative in Canada, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Mr. Beuze, I don’t know if you heard a lot of the testimony today. Some of it is incredibly heartbreaking and emotional. We are trying to digest all of this. We have heard everything from fake news to real news, and we have heard our bureaucrats give us a summation of what Canada is doing. We would certainly like to have your view. We have 30 minutes. Sorry it is going to be so short, but time is of the essence. You have the floor, sir. Thanks for being here.
Jean-Nicolas Beuze, UNHCR Representative in Canada, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I am very glad to be here with a number of well-known friendly faces among the senators.
I represent the High Commissioner for Refugees here in Canada, and I am trying to first give you an update on the situation in Bangladesh, which is our main priority as we speak.
As you know, since August 25, we have received half a million Rohingyas who have crossed into Bangladesh. Just to give a sense, it is, at the peak, 20,000 people crossing the border per day, in a single day.
We have heard that people have been trekking on foot for up to 10 days in the rain and the cold, which has a number of implications for children and the elderly in terms of the health situation when they arrived in Bangladesh. We heard that a number of them were smuggled through people helping them to cross the river. It cost up to $125 for them to cross into Bangladesh, which depleted their resources, which means they arrived with nothing in terms of capacity to survive in Bangladesh.
As you know, the half million refugees come on top of already 30,000 refugees who were mainly in two registered camps in Bangladesh, the camps of Kutupalong and Nayapara, which are both in Cox’s Bazar District. New arrivals have come on top of the 30,000 between those two camps, but the Bangladeshi authorities assessed that there were between 200,000 and 500,000 unregistered Rohingyas already in Bangladesh, which we have not been able to register and who are undocumented in Bangladesh.
You will also remember that in October 2016, there were already some military operations in Rakhine State, which had already moved 75,000 people into Bangladesh.
The high commissioner, Filippo Grandi, was in Bangladesh last weekend. I’m just going to use a few quotes from him to describe what you have heard from previous witnesses. The high commissioner stated that the people he met were deeply traumatized, and, despite having found refuge in Bangladesh, they were still exposed to enormous hardship.
This is not the purpose of this meeting, but we have asked UNHCR as the lead agency for the response in Bangladesh, because those people have to be considered as refugees, for $83 million up to February to cover the needs of all the population affected, and we have not received even 20 per cent of this amount. Those are efforts that are required from the international community in terms of helping us to help the Rohingya refugees.
The high commissioner spoke about unimaginable horrors that the Rohingya have described, villages being burned down, families being shot or hacked to death, women and girls being brutalized. We know there has been a lot of reports of sexual and gender-based violence. We have a number of unaccompanied children who were separated from their families while fleeing or during crossing, and this is all part of the life-saving intervention we are currently doing in Bangladesh.
We have been able to airlift four planes of emergency relief. In October, we are hoping to be able to get another three planes.
Just to mention a silver lining in this situation, before this new wave of displacement, we were not able to register Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The new situation has prompted the Bangladeshi authorities to request UNHCR to assist them in registering refugees through biometrics, which is incredibly important when you remember that the Rohingya are stateless and will have extreme difficulties of proving their link to Myanmar for the time they will want to return to their home, to their villages. We have heard already that refugees have the intention to return to Myanmar as soon as the conditions for safe and voluntary return will be in place.
Here it is important that we praise the Bangladeshi government for having kept the border open. We are looking at other countries in the region, in particular India and Thailand, who have already expressed the intention of closing their border in case Rohingya were coming to their shore.
We are very much praising Sheikh Hasina for taking the leadership of keeping the border open.
In terms of the issues that we see, it’s water, sanitation, food, but shelter is extremely important because people cannot be protected against the elements and that very much complicates their health situation. We have a major issue with respiratory problems, diarrhea and skin disease. As you have seen, we don’t know what’s really happening on the other side; so on the Myanmar side in terms of the number of people still coming towards Bangladesh who may be trapped and not be able to cross, we know there is a potential of another 250,000 Rohingya, which are in central Rakhine State, who will be at any time displaced if the military operation were going to separate from the north to the central part of the state.
In Myanmar itself, as it was stated earlier, Rakhine State was assessed as the second-poorest state in Myanmar, one of the poorest countries in the world, which has already a population of more than 130,000 internally displaced from 2012. The issue of access is critical and UNHCR is one of the few agencies which have been able to maintain constant access to the Rakhine State, even if it is extremely limited, and of course during military operations we cannot operate on the ground because that would put our own staff in danger.
We are very much emphasizing the right to return given the issues of the statelessness of the Rohingya. It’s very important that we ensure — and that was actually mentioned in the statement of Aung San Suu Kyi on September 19 — the pledge to allow Rohingya refugees to return from Bangladesh. Of course this has to be done in a dignified manner, and safe and voluntary, therefore the condition upon return must be established for people to be able to resume their lives, access to basic services, livelihoods, health, education and so on. But ultimately, we are also calling for the root causes of this situation to be addressed, meaning addressing the issue of statelessness of the Rohingya and providing under the law of Myanmar a situation for the Rohingya to be recognized as citizens of Myanmar.
There has been a lot of discussion about ensuring that the Rohingya who were there before the last wave be considered one single refugee population and that the assistance which is now provided by the international community and with the support of the Bangladeshi authorities is not limited to the half million which arrived but will incorporate all the groups I have described before, and that will also include their right of all of them to one day return to Myanmar.
I will stop at this point and welcome your questions or comments.
The Chair: Thank you very much, sir. We do have questions.
I would just ask if you would stay a little bit back from the microphone. You have a powerful voice and a strong message.
Senator Ataullahjan: Thank you for your compelling testimony. What I gather from you is the Rohingya crisis is real and it’s happening no matter what the deniers say.
What are the conditions like in the refugee camps? Sheikh Hasina has come out strongly in support of resolving the problem. They have taken in I think it’s close to half a million refugees now. My understanding is 60 per cent of those are children, but Bangladesh itself is dealing with a crisis. They have had floods. Are they getting enough aid? Is the world community sending enough aid to help them with this influx of refugees?
My other question is the great concern for the children especially. We heard that maybe the sex traffickers or child traffickers are moving in. We were reassured by the High Commission of Bangladesh that they’re very aware and they’re keeping an eye on this. Have you seen or heard anything?
It seems the world is carrying on business as usual with Burma. So far we’re just telling them to be good, listen to us, don’t do this, don’t do this. I think it’s time to move on beyond that, sanctions, why the hesitancy to call it a genocide?
The reason I ask that question is I was at a rally yesterday where I was approached by so many people asking why we’re not calling it a genocide.
Mr. Beuze: Thank you very much, senator.
The assistance that we have received up to now is insufficient, as I mentioned. If I take the example of UNHCR, which is the lead agency for the response in Bangladesh and which is the lead agency in Myanmar for the protection aspect of the internally displaced, we have received one fifth of the funding requirement based on an assessment of the needs of the people when they arrive. We do constant needs assessment and that’s how we can put a dollar figure to what is needed. We have received only one fifth, which basically means when we want to distribute five blankets, we can distribute only one. It is rather insufficient.
It is important, as you mentioned, to flag the fact that there’s a large proportion not only of children and women but also elderly, which have specific needs to address, which makes it even more complicated and more costly to provide the relevant assistance.
The issue of trafficking is of concern in all displacements, especially when smugglers are being used to cross into another country, into Bangladesh, because very rapidly we are seeing another situation where the smugglers turn into traffickers and start exploiting the people who cannot pay for the crossing into safety. That’s really very much on our radar, especially with the fact that we have a large number — we don’t have an estimate yet — of unaccompanied children who are at risk of being exploited because their survival depends on somebody helping them and then people with criminal intentions may step in if we, the humanitarians, are not provided with sufficient funding to do the direct assistance.
Another point I would like to flag in terms of the assistance is the risk of tension with the host communities, as you rightly flagged. Those people are arriving in communities that have been also deprived for a long time, who have been subjected to the elements, flooding, who didn’t benefit from a lot of development, and, therefore, when you assist refugees but you are not equally able to assist at the same level the host communities, you create tensions between the two communities, and that’s where you have the risk of limiting the protection space which then reinforces the authorities to close the border in order to maintain law and order.
It’s really important that the international community step up very rapidly with the funding made available to support both the host communities and also the refugees.
Senator Ngo: I have two questions, but I’m going to ask one question and then I will ask the second one after that.
Has Bangladesh recognized any Rohingya refugees who arrived at their borders after August 25?
Mr. Beuze: That’s what we are doing with the authorities because they came up to us to ask for registration of those who have arrived after August 25. It’s a sophisticated system where we use biometrics. We ensure every single person is registered only once and that will ensure that those people will be able to be recognized as coming from Myanmar and be able to return.
What we are asking is that this biometrics registration be extended to the population of Rohingya who were there before August 25 and who were not in the two registered camps. As mentioned before, there were two camps authorized by the Bangladeshi authorities where we had approximately 30,000 Rohingya refugees, but we didn’t have a good picture of the number outside of the camps, between 200,000 and 500,000.
Let me come back to the previous question. The formal camps have a very small capacity, which has been completely overwhelmed. Basically, people are leaving, as we have seen on television and in pictures, to makeshift camps that are very much hosted by Bangladeshi families and groups. These are located in schools, community centres, and so on. So the situation is rather dire in terms of just their shelter needs.
To return to the previous question, we know that shelter is the first element of protection. We are also seeing an increase in domestic violence and sexual abuse from members of the community if the family cannot have privacy within four walls. It is very important that we address not only the food, water and vaccination, but also the shelter needs, and this is critically underfunded.
Senator Ngo: Out of 450,000 or 500,000, how many Rohingya have been recognized as refugees by the UNHCR so that they are able to benefit and receive assistance from the UNHCR?
Mr. Beuze: For us, every person who crosses an international border because of persecution or because of ongoing conflict is a refugee. We do not declare the status of a person as in the case, for example, of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. We don’t have this function. It is very much for the host government to recognize and to qualify those people.
Up to now, the Bangladeshi authorities were referring to the Rohingya as undocumented Myanmar nationals, or undocumented Myanmar displaced nationals. This registration is the first step to the recognition that they are refugees. For us, they all fall within our mandate. The question is the extent to which we have access to them in order to provide assistance, and the extent of support we have to provide assistance to everybody on an equal footing.
Senator Ngo: Basically, you are saying that right now you have zero?
Mr. Beuze: By the Bangladeshi authorities?
Senator Ngo: By the Bangladesh or UNHCR.
Mr. Beuze: As soon as they are registered in our database, they are automatically considered as refugees. This is work that started over the last two weeks. I can’t give you the number of people who have already been put in the database, but I don’t think at this point there is discussion with the Bangladeshi authorities who will not recognize those people. They fully recognize them as refugees. They fully want the international community to assist them and to help them to return in a safe condition to Myanmar.
Senator Omidvar: I think there are always the same three solutions that can be applied to every refugee situation. Of course, the first is a peaceful return to the country of origin, assisting a peaceful return with safety and security. The second is support for the refugees while they are in camps, and to the host countries. The third — it is a very small third — is resettlement.
I want to know whether Canadian officials are on the ground in Bangladesh. Canadian officials have to work with the UN to register refugees for resettlement to Canada.
We have a Government-Assisted Refugees Program. We have a private sponsorship program. Can you tell me about the applications, the process and the speed with which we are addressing this most urgent crisis?
Mr. Beuze: For the time being, we are doing this registration. During the registration process, as mentioned by Senator Omidvar, we identified refugees with specific vulnerabilities whose survival would be at risk in the first country, in that case, Bangladesh. It can be a situation of rape survivors for whom, in Bangladesh, there is no medical or psychological treatment adequate to their case. It may be a person with disabilities or a person with medical conditions who cannot be treated in Bangladesh.
At this stage, we are just recording all those elements and vulnerabilities to be able, in a second phase, to eventually recommend a number of them for resettlement.
Before the crisis, we had some 50 staff on the ground for our regular operation in Bangladesh. We have doubled the number, and a 50-unit staff has been deployed since August 25. Unfortunately, our priority is very much on providing life-saving intervention at this stage. However, we are building the database so that, at a later stage, we will be able to make recommendations in terms of resettlement.
Senator Omidvar: So at this point, there are no Canadian officials in the camps in Bangladesh registering refugees for resettlement?
Mr. Beuze: Not that I’m aware of.
Senator McPhedran: Thank you so much for being here and for the information you have shared.
I have a question about observers and delegations. Some of us are on the brink of going to Bangladesh on what is probably a somewhat unrelated delegation. Have you, in your work, seen where parliamentary delegations have been able to make a positive difference to the work you are doing, particularly in two countries like this, which are under such enormous stress?
Mr. Beuze: From my 20 years of experience in the field — and I was in Lebanon before and received some Canadian senators and members of Parliament — it is critical that you go and that you are able to see for yourselves the situation. You assess the response, but you also assess the needs and get first-hand testimonies.
It is important to keep the information flowing in the media back home, because that’s part of the solution for getting sufficient funding. Here I must reiterate the importance of when a crisis that has attracted a lot of attention from the international community — I’m sorry to repeat this, but we have received only 20 per cent of the money, which really begs the question. We know it is the end of the fiscal year for a number of countries. We know we are in a tight situation and we have many competing emergencies. However, those missions by senators or members of Parliament are helping to keep the pressure on government, but also the Canadian public, who may be more sensitized in responding through donations. It is extremely important.
The second point that is important is keeping the border open and making sure that people who want to escape the violence are still able to do this under safe conditions. We come back to the issue of trafficking, but we also fear that at some point a country will close the border because they feel they cannot absorb the influx.
Those delegations, at a political level — especially if you meet your counterpart in Bangladesh who is a member of the Bangladeshi Parliament — are also extremely important to create the political conditions for the protection space to remain open. If I may, I would encourage you to go to Bangladesh.
Myanmar is a different issue. Having worked with different UN agencies, you have to set the conditions for you to have unintended access to the people you want to meet in order to have a fair and objective assessment. However, that’s a different type of mission.
Senator McPhedran: In terms of the border, is there any information you may be able to share vis-à-vis anti-personnel land mines being planted along the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar?
Mr. Beuze: We heard testimony from the refugees themselves indicating that land mines had been planted. We had some injured refugees. It was difficult for us to ascertain where the injuries had happened during the flight — whether it was at the time they were fleeing their village, during travel or at the border. However, we were not able to independently verify those allegations.
Senator Ataullahjan: I remember hearing that it takes 17 years for a refugee to resettle. Is that true? I know I’m putting you on the spot. Do you believe that the Rohingya will ever get their status back and live in peace in Myanmar?
Mr. Beuze: We certainly do hope that people will be able to return to Myanmar, not for the sake of proving a point that international law has to be respected, but because people are asking to be able to return as soon as possible, when conditions are ready for their safe return.
It’s not a question only of us looking at what international law and political dynamics require; it’s also respecting the choice of the victim. We certainly hope. I know there have been a lot of studies on the number of years spent in exile. As in every situation, it’s very different from one country to another. I would caution against making generalizations because fleeing conflict and fleeing individualized persecution are two different situations.
Ultimately, as we have mentioned several times, the root causes of those displacements have to be addressed, which are development, respect for rule of law and human rights but also providing them with a nationality.
Senator Ataullahjan: Thank you. It seems we heard the same thing in a Syrian refugee study, which is a great desire for them to return home, whether they are Syrian refugees or Rohingya refugees.
The Chair: Mr. Beuze, thank you very much. You have been very helpful. You’re a patient gentleman. You’ve seen all the other witnesses today, and they have certainly told a story. Hopefully as the Senate Committee on Human Rights we will have a story to tell as well.
(The committee adjourned.)