Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar relates brutal stories of violence, calls assignment ‘gruelling’
The United Nations and Myanmar signed a landmark agreement to repatriate thousands of Rohingya Muslims today, but Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar says many victims of rape and oppression don’t want to go home.
Bob Rae, testifying before the Senate human rights committee Wednesday, broke down in tears as he recounted the horrific personal stories he heard during visits to refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.
“This has been a very gruelling, emotional experience. I can’t quite describe adequately to you the extent of the humanitarian crisis and the sense that we are in a desperate race against time to make sure people are safe,” he said.
“I fear that we will lose lives and it’s not something I can take easily.”
Rae lamented the fact that there are no rules of engagement or boundaries on behaviour in modern warfare — that civilians are targeted routinely and rape is used as a weapon. Many women shared with him their stories of what happened to them in their villages.
“These are wars that affect civilians and are directly impacting civilian populations in the most brutal, brutal ways. That is something I will carry with me forever,” Rae said.
‘Tell them we’re human’
The former Liberal MP and interim party leader told the committee of a “significant bubble” of babies being born as a result of mass rapes. While that could yield genetic evidence of criminal acts, he acknowledged it is an extremely sensitive issue. A recent UN report said about 60 babies are being born each day in the refugee camps.
One articulate, educated man in the camps told Rae about the discrimination and the struggles he’s faced. Rae told him he would be reporting back to the prime minister, and asked what message he would like to send.
Special Envoy of the Prime Minister to Myanmar Bob Rae breaks down while describing his meetings with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to the Senate Human Rights Committee 4:40
“He grabbed me and he started to cry and he held me for a long time and he said, ‘Tell him we’re human,'” he said. “One of the things about hatred and the process of crimes against humanity and of genocide is it’s about dehumanizing people and pretending that they’re not people so it’s okay to kill them, you can wipe them out.”
Young people fill camps
Rae broke down when he recalled the ages of some of the people he saw in the camps.
“The camps are full of young people, and the thing that I felt as a father and a grandfather is, these are just kids.”
Rae’s testimony came on the day the UN and Myanmar signed a pact on the “safe and voluntary” return of more than 700,000 Rohinga who have fled western Myanmar’s Rakhine state and are now living in squalid camps in Bangladesh.
It will be up to the refugees to decide if they want to go home, but Rae said men who have faced persecution and lost land and livestock, and women who have been raped, are not eager to go back.
“The people that have to be persuaded that it’s a good idea to go back are the Rohingya themselves,” he said. “This is why I say you have to listen to them. They’re not going back. They’re not moving.”
The world community has condemned Myanmar’s military government and criticized its civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, for her failure to act.
Diplomatic leadership required
In his final report, Rae recommended the government provide $600 million over four years to help those affected by the violence. He also said Canada should work with international partners to launch an investigation into crimes against humanity and genocide in Myanmar, boost development assistance and form a working group to ensure a “whole of government” approach.
The government responded with a pledge of $300 million over the next three years for emergency assistance, education and reproductive health programs, but also promised diplomatic leadership on international efforts to stop the campaign of ethnic violence and ease the refugee crisis.
Rae, whose tenure as special envoy ends at the end of June, said he hopes the Liberal government will continue to engage with like-minded countries to respond to the crisis. Myanmar has been added to the G7 agenda when leaders gather in Charlevoix, Que. this week.
A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said the Rohingya file is a top priority for her and the government. Canada will continue to push for increased international assistance and accountability for the crimes committed against the Rohingya, the spokesperson said.
Today, Freeland spoke with her counterpart in Bangladesh and will hold further discussions with the Bangladeshi delegation at the G7.
Meanwhile, the rainy season has begun in the region, worsening the already terrible conditions in the makeshift camps in Bangladesh.
“It’s a deeply, deeply troubling humanitarian situation in Myanmar,” Rae said.
Canadian special envoy Bob Rae said it is difficult to convey the severity of the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya people. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)