October 18, 2017

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Rohingyas need help, not gestures

As heads of government meet this week in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, one UN member state, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), is brutally punishing its Muslim minority, burning their villages, rounding them up in camps and driving them into neighbouring Bangladesh. Canada should use the UN gathering to focus attention on this ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Rohingya minority and support practical measures to stop it.

Some observers, horrified by the Myanmar army’s cruel maltreatment of the Rohingyas, have proposed symbolic gestures of protest. Former Liberal cabinet ministers Lloyd Axworthy and Allan Rock want Canada to ask the Norwegian authorities to take away the 1991 Nobel peace prize from Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then a peaceful protester against Burmese military rule and is now Myanmar’s unofficial head of government. Others have suggested cancelling the honorary Canadian citizenship that was granted to her in 2012 by John Baird, foreign minister at the time. In those days, her non-violent resistance to the military dictatorship was widely admired.

These symbolic gestures, akin to pulling down the statue of an ex-hero who has fallen out of fashion, would forcefully express disapproval of the Myanmar government’s conduct. They would not, however, do any good for the Rohingyas. The Myanmar army does not care in the least whether Ms. Suu Kyi keeps her Nobel prize and her honorary Canadian citizenship.

The Myanmar government last year appointed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to head a commission of inquiry on Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The commission’s report, published in August, proposed citizenship rights for Rohingyas and social development measures to alleviate their poverty.

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As heads of government meet this week in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, one UN member state, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), is brutally punishing its Muslim minority, burning their villages, rounding them up in camps and driving them into neighbouring Bangladesh. Canada should use the UN gathering to focus attention on this ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Rohingya minority and support practical measures to stop it.

Some observers, horrified by the Myanmar army’s cruel maltreatment of the Rohingyas, have proposed symbolic gestures of protest. Former Liberal cabinet ministers Lloyd Axworthy and Allan Rock want Canada to ask the Norwegian authorities to take away the 1991 Nobel peace prize from Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then a peaceful protester against Burmese military rule and is now Myanmar’s unofficial head of government. Others have suggested cancelling the honorary Canadian citizenship that was granted to her in 2012 by John Baird, foreign minister at the time. In those days, her non-violent resistance to the military dictatorship was widely admired.

Associated Press Photo</p><p>Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi</p>

Associated Press Photo

Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi

These symbolic gestures, akin to pulling down the statue of an ex-hero who has fallen out of fashion, would forcefully express disapproval of the Myanmar government’s conduct. They would not, however, do any good for the Rohingyas. The Myanmar army does not care in the least whether Ms. Suu Kyi keeps her Nobel prize and her honorary Canadian citizenship.

The Myanmar government last year appointed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to head a commission of inquiry on Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The commission’s report, published in August, proposed citizenship rights for Rohingyas and social development measures to alleviate their poverty.

The government ignored the report, responded fiercely to attacks of a self-appointed Rohingya defence force and continues severe repression against the civil population. The army says it is merely resisting terrorists. Ms. Suu Kyi parrots the army line, perhaps because she believes it or perhaps because she is the army’s puppet.

Canada is now campaigning for election to the UN Security Council. The ethnic cleansing in Myanmar might be stopped if Canada and other governments used the machinery of the United Nations to assemble a coalition and prepare a plan. This is a chance for the United Nations to show that it is still useful. It is also a chance for Canada to show that it has the diplomatic skills — and enjoys the international esteem — to be a player once again in the corridors of world power.

The appointment of the Kofi Annan commission showed that the Myanmar government wants a way out of the Rohingya problem. The content of the commission report provides a starting point for a discussion with neighbouring Buddhist-majority and Muslim-majority states.

Canada has done enough ethnic cleansing of its own over the years that it cannot go around lecturing other countries about their maltreatment of ethnic minorities. But Canada can, in all modesty, trade on its reputation as a helpful fixer, free of ulterior motives. We are not trying to boss anyone around or steal anyone’s natural resources. We will stand up for maltreated Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or Christians. We’re just trying to get people to stop killing each other.

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