Thank you and good afternoon.
Inter Pares is a Canadian social justice organization. We began working with people from Burma in 1991. We have significant support from Global Affairs Canada for our Burma program.
My colleagues Nikki Richard and Samantha McGavin are here with me today, and all three of us have recently returned from Burma. We would be happy to answer your questions.
I'd like to start by reading from a report that documents the experiences of one family, a family of five. Burma's army was forcing their village to move, and the family had stopped for a rest when the soldiers came across them.
The troops tied up the father, suspended him to the beam of the hut with a rope and made a fire under him, roasting him over it. They then gang raped the teenage girl and eventually killed her. A few days later, her father died after suffering much from the pain of torture. Her mother suffered much from the agony of watching her husband being tortured and her daughter being raped and killed, and finally became mentally unbalanced.
I believe you've heard many similar horror stories over the past year. It is hard to hear them. The report that I just read from is called “License to Rape”, and it was published 16 years ago. It documents 173 incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence, involving 625 girls and women, committed by Burma's army in Shan State between 1996 and 2001.
I was reminded of this report recently by a Rohingya woman that we work with. She described reading this report with a mixture of horror and solidarity. “It was like reading about us,” she said.
Burma is a very diverse country, with just 60% of the people identifying as Burman and 40% identifying as “ethnic”. Burma's army has been on a nation-building project since the first coup in 1962, with a vision—one nation with one ethnicity and one religion.
I believe that you have heard from many people about the current situation of the Rohingya, so today we'd like to focus on two things: one, making very clear that what is happening to the Rohingya is part a nationwide and decades-old pattern; and two, offering some concrete action that Canada can take.
In terms of the larger context, I could have read to you from one of many similar reports documenting the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war by Burma's army. These are reports written by women of many different ethnicities. There are also reports on mega-development projects and the accompanying militarization and human rights abuses, reports on serious restrictions on the freedom of religion and freedom of the press, and reports on the forced relocation of people. The list goes on.
If we only focus on the Rohingya, we fail to see the patterns of militarized power, ethnic assimilation and centralized territorial control. We also run the risk of undermining our own good intentions. Burma's government and religious leaders have been promoting anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment for decades. One of our partners has recently mapped the reach of Ma Ba Tha. This is the group that mobilizes people, promoting Buddhist supremacy and anti-Muslim sentiment. This movement is in every part of the country and has built a propaganda machine of staggering proportions.
When international actors like the Canadian government focus their resources on the Rohingya, they risk undermining their own credibility in the country, further inflaming resentment against the Rohingya and not addressing the root causes of the problem. The treatment of the Rohingya has been extreme, but we also know that there is credible evidence of crimes against humanity in many other parts of the country. Canada must take a comprehensive approach to the Rohingya crisis.
We have some suggestions for action that Canada can take.
Canada is on the board of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and is also a major donor. The UNHCR needs to stop participating in the repatriation process in Bangladesh. UNHCR staff have been critical of the process and rightfully noted that the conditions for safe, voluntary and dignified return are not yet there. However, they have also agreed to assess the voluntary nature of potential returnees. This very process has caused intense anxiety. People have committed suicide and fled the camps in fear. Rohingya are calling for UN peacekeeping troops to protect them in Burma, but this requires UN Security Council approval and the agreement of the host country. We know that neither of these things will happen, but we wanted you to hear this request from the Rohingya as it illustrates both the intensity of their fear and their desire to return home. Rohingya need to see a guarantee of citizenship and respect for their rights, including freedom of movement, before beginning a process of return.
UNHCR has also decided that Chin State is now safe, despite well-documented human rights violations, particularly related to freedom of religion and ongoing conflict. The UNHCR has begun to revoke refugee protection for Chin refugees and this, too, must stop.
In terms of international accountability, we applaud Canada's support for a referral of Burma to the International Criminal Court. It is unclear if that is only focused on the Arakan state. We believe Canada should champion a referral to the ICC that explicitly looks at crimes committed in multiple states. We would also like to see Canada bring a case against Burma to the International Court of Justice for its breach of the Genocide convention.
We would like to see a full review of our relationship with Burma, similar to what the United Kingdom recently completed. The Global Affairs web page, “Canada and Myanmar relations”, includes a number of issues that warrant review. For example, Burma's peace process is in a shambles. The recent U.K. review noted, “We think it highly likely that the process is just window-dressing for the Burmese Army”. Global Affairs notes that Canada strongly supports the national peace process. Canada should review the appropriateness of investing in this process.
Canada has some individual sanctions in place and an arms embargo. While we are not sanctions experts, we believe that broader sanctions should be considered. The head of Burma's military should be added to the short list of individuals facing Canada's sanctions. The list should be expanded to include all other military and government officials implicated in crimes against humanity in Burma.
Natural resource development projects in Burma come hand in hand with the rights abuses and militarization. Many of our partners have called for a moratorium against these projects. Canada should explore how to support these calls. One way to do this would be to impose sanctions in this sector.
Global Affairs encourages trade with Burma on their website, noting that in 2015 Canada reinstated a general preferential tariff and least-developed-country tariff status for Burma. This should be reviewed.
The existing arms embargo does not appear to prohibit the training of Burma's military. Perhaps most alarming, under the heading of “Security cooperation”, Global Affairs notes that Burma receives capacity-building support for counterterrorism efforts and law enforcement. Aung San Suu Kyi's government and military officials have often referred to ethnic organizations as terrorists. For instance, the 2017 attack against Rohingya was framed as a counterterrorism effort. We do not mean to leap to conclusions about Canada's support, but we do think that this warrants consideration within a full review.