‘This looks a lot like eth­nic cleans­ing,’ Free­land says

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE - FA­TIMA SYED STAFF REPORTER

The ac­tions of the Burmese govern­ment against the Ro­hingya “looks a lot like eth­nic cleans­ing,” For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land told a Toronto rally, vow­ing to ap­ply pres­sure on the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity at the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly next week.

“This is an is­sue that mat­ters to me very much. It mat­ters very much to our prime min­is­ter,” Free­land said Saturday, ad­dress­ing a crowd of about 100 peo­ple gath­ered in Matt Co­hen Park for a protest or­ga­nized by the Burma Task Force and sev­eral Cana­dian Mus­lim or­ga­ni­za­tions.

More than 400,000 Ro­hingya refugees have fled the mil­i­tary crack­down in Burma, a cri­sis the United Na­tions hu­man rights chief has called “a text­book ex­am­ple of eth­nic cleans­ing.” The Burmese govern­ment has re­ported that 176 out of 471Ro­hingya vil­lages are now aban­doned, with satel­lite im­ages show­ing stretches of vil­lages burned to the ground.

Free­land told the crowd that she had spo­ken to the for­eign min­is­ter of Bangladesh, as well as for­mer UN gen­eral sec­re­tary Kofi An­nan.

“Our am­bas­sador is seek­ing ac­cess to the Rakhine State (in western) Burma, so that Cana­di­ans can see first hand what is hap­pen­ing,” Free­land said.

An­war Arkani, pres­i­dent of the Ro­hingya As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada, was in the crowd, rep­re­sent­ing one of 34 Ro­hingya fam­i­lies who have set­tled in Kitch­ener-Water­loo in the last two decades. There are 25 Ro­hingya fam­i­lies in Quebec City, and 20 more in Van­cou­ver. All of them are refugees; most have moved here from refugee camps in Bangladesh.

“We want to mo­bi­lize the Cana­dian govern­ment,” Arkani told the Star. “I’ve been scream­ing this for many, many years. Peo­ple only woke up . . . when they saw mas­sive num­bers of peo­ple cross­ing the bor­der in just a day.”

Arkani has called his rel­a­tives in Burma, also known as Myan­mar, every day for the past 20 years, since he first moved to Canada as a govern­ment-as­sisted refugee. In July 2016 his youngest sis­ter and her hus­band were killed by mil­i­tary forces. Three years be­fore that, his neph­ews were taken by the same forces — never to be heard from again. Arkani thinks they were buried alive in a mass grave or drowned in a river.

“You as­sume ev­ery­one you know there is dead,” he said. “You’re lucky if you only know who’s alive.”

Eth­nic Ro­hingya have long faced dis­crim­i­na­tion in Burma and are de­nied cit­i­zen­ship, even though many fam­i­lies have lived there for gen­er­a­tions.

Habibur Rah­man, a teacher who has served one of the refugee camps in Bangladesh for more than 20 years, told the Star in a phone in­ter­view from over­seas that he has never wit­nessed so many peo­ple at the camp be­fore.

“There are more peo­ple here than there is room to walk,” he said through a trans­la­tor.

Peo­ple are sleep­ing in his class­rooms, not study­ing.

Speak­ing from Bangladesh, Rah­man said he is wor­ried be­cause of the se­vere rainy sea­son in the re­gion, with cold tem­per­a­tures around the cor­ner. “There’s not enough food or clothes, peo­ple are starv­ing,” he said. “Peo­ple are weak, chil­dren are very weak. We don’t have med­i­cal sup­plies.”

“Peo­ple are com­ing here with noth­ing but a hor­ror (story) of their houses burned down,” he added.

One of those peo­ple was Sayed Ahmed’s un­cle, who fled from Maung­daw in Burma to Bangladesh a week ago with thou­sands of peo­ple. He called Ahmed with Rah­man’s phone.

“He told me that they don’t feel safe any­more in his own coun­try,” said Ahmed, a long­time res­i­dent of Kitch­ener-Water­loo, who hasn’t seen his Burmese rel­a­tives since he moved to Canada in 2006.

“He said that peo­ple are run­ning for their lives. Who­ever is left be­hind are burned in fire.”

In the crowd were sev­eral other politi­cians, in­clud­ing MPs Rob Oliphant (Don Val­ley West), Salma Zahid (Scar­bor­ough Cen­tre), Michael Le­vitt (York Cen­tre) and Ali Eh­sassi (Wil­low­dale); and city coun­cil­lors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Neethan Shan.

“This is a Cana­dian is­sue,” Oliphant said, to strong ap­plause from the crowd.

Oliphant promised that the Ro­hingya cri­sis would be the first is­sue that par­lia­ment would tackle when it goes back into ses­sion next week.

An­other grass­roots rally gath­ered at the grounds at Queen’s Park to also call for the end of the “geno­cide” of the Ro­hingya. Protests are also set to take place in Ottawa and Edmonton on Sun­day.

RICK MADONIK/TORONTO STAR

Chrys­tia Free­land told a Toronto rally the Ro­hingya cri­sis “is an is­sue that mat­ters very much to me.”

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