Interim Report of Special Envoy to Myanmar Bob Rae

Since my appointment as Special Envoy of the Prime Minister to Myanmar on October 23, 2017, I have travelled to Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam, and the UN in New York and have had numerous discussions with officials, leaders, and NGOs in those countries as well as in Ottawa, and at the UN, as well as with a number of groups and individuals with an interest in the region. These discussions will continue. I shall be travelling again to the region in the new year, and will issue a final report with recommendations after my return.

My initial findings can be divided into three parts: first, the humanitarian crisis in both Bangladesh and Myanmar as a result of the recent exodus of over 655,000 Rohingya refugees into neighbouring Bangladesh, adding to the hundreds of thousands of refugees already in Bangladesh and the 120,000 in camps under virtual lockdown in Rakhine State in Myanmar; second, the efforts required to ensure the secure return of  refugees to their homes with full political and social rights, as well as to ensure the implementation of the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State; third, the need to ensure that the substantial evidence of breaches of law and human rights is investigated and assessed in a credible fashion.

1. Humanitarian Crisis

It is hard to convey in words the extent of the humanitarian crisis currently being faced in Bangladesh. I was not permitted to travel to Rakhine State in Myanmar so I cannot add to the substantial written information already provided that speak to conditions inside Myanmar. The Rohingya exodus from Rakhine State in Myanmar has come in ebbs and flows over several decades, with the latest surge of 655,000 following an outbreak of fighting in northern Rakhine State on August 25, 2017. While makeshift shelters have been provided in hilly territory near Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh, a number of UN and other agencies have been doing everything possible to deal with the full impact of the crisis. It is important to stress that conditions are deplorably overcrowded and pose a threat to human health and life itself. The Rohingya walked for days to get to their eventual destination, and arrived malnourished and traumatized. In addition to accounts of shooting and military violence, I also heard directly from women of sexual violence and abuse at the hands of the Myanmar military, and the death of children and the elderly on the way to the camps. The international agencies which share a responsibility for the camps advised that they need a clear plan from international funders for the longer term, well past the current “end date” for funding of February 2018. They expressed great concern about the potential for “catastrophe” in the event of heavy rain and wind, as well as the potential for the outbreak of disease. Based on what I have seen, these concerns are well founded, and will require significant additional investments from the international community, including the government of Canada and concerned Canadian citizens and NGOs, in order to prevent serious loss of life.

The recent announcement by the government of Bangladesh of more land being assigned to camp construction must be matched by additional efforts by the international agencies to find more space for schools, hospitals, health care centers, and centers for women and young children. The absence of room for such places is marked in the overcrowded, hilly camp I visited, and needs to be addressed on an urgent basis. In my view the creation of new camps should not include a large (100,000 people) proposal for a facility on an isolated island off the coast in the Bay of Bengal. Rather, camps should be smaller, and reachable by road. At the same time it must be pointed out that the government of Bangladesh and the local communities surrounding the camp have made an enormous humanitarian contribution as a result of being prepared to host the Rohingya refugees. The entire international community is in their debt.

The condition of women and girls is of particular concern. There is clear evidence of sexual trauma, and a focused effort to deal with this issue is required. I discussed this issue with UNICEF, and saw and heard evidence of this myself on my visit. Canada’s attention to this issue has already been announced by the Minister of International Development, and we should encourage others to join in these initiatives.  Seeing these words in print makes me realize how inadequate words are to express the extent of the damage and trauma being suffered by women and girls among the Rohingya refugees.  My own interviews with a group of women were a detailed and graphic account of abuse and violence, including sexual violence as a weapon of war. These allegations of crimes against humanity need to be addressed directly by the international community, and there is a need for post-traumatic measures to help those who survived this ordeal.  Additional resources will need to be gathered to make sure the response is adequate to deal with the extent of the abuse and its consequences.  Canada’s focus on this issue is welcome and is vitally needed.

I also discussed with officials the need for new initiatives for schooling. Education in basic literacy skills is lacking, to say nothing of further education for young people who have either been prevented from attending school, or whose education has been disrupted by events in Rakhine State. Education is not a luxury item. It is a necessity. Those informal schools that are up and running in the camps are working on several shifts to accommodate the burgeoning population, but new schools (latest estimate is close to 300) are needed to meet the growing demand.

There is now a better sharing of information about the conditions in the camps, with regularly updated data on nourishment, sanitation, health, and education. There is a clear need for this information to be addressed by action from funding governments and organizations, and for clearer lines of authority on the management of all relief efforts. No one can now say “we didn’t know”. We do know, and the evidence is clear that funding now stands at about half of the amount required by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).

2. The condition of the Rohingya population in Myanmar, and conditions for successful re-integration of Rohingya refugees

To say that the “Rohingya issue” is highly contested is an understatement. There is a full debate about the name, the history, and the current position of the Muslim population of Rakhine State.

Some basic facts about the history of the region: what is now Rakhine State in western Myanmar was at one time the Kingdom of Arakan on the Bay of Bengal. Protected by mountains to the east, the Kingdom’s population was largely Buddhist with a minority Muslim presence dating back many hundreds of years. When first the British East India Company, and then the British government itself, absorbed Arakan, and then Burma, into the British Empire, in the nineteenth century, Burma was governed as an integral part of India, with no border limiting the flow of population. At the time of independence in 1948, citizenship was assured to all those who were resident in the country, and in the early years of civilian government, efforts were made to include the Rohingya population in the political life of the country.

In 1962, a military government led by General Ne Win took over the government. The military has dominated Myanmar politics since that time, with a change in the constitution in 2008 leading to a gradual increase in civilian participation in government, but with the military retaining control over three key Ministries – Defence, Border Affairs, and Home Affairs, together with a guaranteed bloc of 25% of the seats in the Parliament and the majority of the budget. In addition, the Home Affairs Ministry controls the powerful General Administration Department, which oversees the entire civil service at the regional, state, and township levels. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San who led the Burmese Liberation Army in the Second World War and negotiated independence from the British before his assassination, returned to the country from Britain in 1990 and quickly assumed the leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD). She spent much of the next twenty years under house arrest,  and when she gained her freedom in 2010, she returned to active politics and led her party to a landmark electoral victory in 2015, gaining strong support across the country.

Burma/Myanmar has faced significant internal conflict since independence. Subnational conflict in Myanmar has affected large areas of the country, in which a large number of mostly ethnic minority non-state armed groups have sought increased autonomy from the central state. In effect, there has been an ongoing civil war since the early 1950’s, geographically concentrated in the states bordering Bangladesh, India, China, and Thailand, all involving a significant degree of ongoing fighting, loss of life, military occupation, and the dispersal of communities both internally and in neighbouring countries. There is still a large internally displaced population, living in camps, as well as a substantial refugee population in Thailand. Since the return of Aung Sang Suu Kyi to a key role in national politics, the peace process has been a major priority of her government and is still ongoing.

It is striking that the demands of the Rohingya do not appear to have substantial popular support amongst the general public in Myanmar. There are many different explanations for this attitude toward the Rohingya population - who many in Myanmar refer to as “Bengalis” as a term emphasizing their “foreignness”. The Pope was advised on his recent trip not to even use the term “Rohingya” because it is seen as a term that implies a connection to the land in Rakhine State, and because there is a demand from the Rohingya that they be recognized as an official nationality within the constitution.

It is important to understand that the process of discrimination against the Rohingya people has been persistent and cumulative over decades, and has led us to the present crisis. The process of legal exclusion from full citizenship has been going on for some considerable time. As a result, the Rohingya are now the world’s largest stateless population.  This has not been a bloodless process.  It has brought with it much loss of life, injury, pain, loss of property and loss of livelihood, to say nothing of the fear and humiliation that comes with this extent of discrimination. This also speaks to the issue of “genocide”, a word that is so full of historic meaning.  This report will not offer any direct views on that subject at this point, except to say that the lesson of history is that genocide is not an event like a bolt of lightning.  It is a process, that starts with hate speech and the politics of exclusion, then moves to legal discrimination, then policies of removal, and then finally to a sustained drive to physical extermination.  Myanmar authorities, the people of Myanmar, and the entire international community need to be mobilized to ensure that the Rohingya do not join the tragic list of those people who have died because they were singled out for their identity. Everyone needs to understand what is at risk here - which is why the issues of reconciliation and political leadership are so important, and why the issues of accountability and impunity must be addressed. 

This controversy affects current relationships in all of Rakhine State and Myanmar. The Rohingya population has made up the significant majority in the north of the state (the three townships that have now been largely evacuated), a large group in central Rakhine (who have not yet left in such large numbers, but face significant restrictions on their movements, and at least 120,000 in internal displacement camps) and a much smaller group in the south.

I was not, unfortunately, given permission by the Myanmar authorities to visit Rakhine State to see conditions first hand. I did, however, have a number of meetings in Yangon which allowed me to understand the nature of the crisis better, and also to hear competing views on the future course forward. I plan to return to Myanmar in January 2018.

In August 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi established the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State with Kofi Annan as Chair to make recommendations on improving the conditions in Rakhine. However a series of attacks in October 2016 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (known as ARSA) triggered a military response, leading to violent fighting, the burning of many villages, allegations of rape and violence by the army against civilians, and the forced departure of tens of thousands of refugees. The Annan Report was published on August 24, 2017, the day before another series of attacks by ARSA on police posts and a military base that has been criticized by the UN General Assembly resolution as well as by the UN Security Council statement. Following that attack, a heavy-handed military campaign was launched, leading to the destruction of more than 300 villages, according to reliable sources. It was at this point that the exodus of the 655,000 began, although this number is challenged by the military in Myanmar. In addition, there were further restrictions on movement by those who stayed behind in north and central Rakhine.

The full extent of the military operations, and the conditions facing those Rohingya still left in Rakhine State have few outside witnesses. Estimates of numbers killed or wounded vary, as do the fate of those left behind. International observers present, notably the International Red Cross and the World Food Programme are few and far between, and their freedom of movement is severely restricted. However, what reliable information is available points to a crisis in both human rights and human security.

It is important to appreciate the depth of the challenge facing the Rohingya community. They do not have the protection or presence of an international force, or even outside observers. Because much of northern Rakhine State is a conflict zone, international humanitarian assistance has been actively discouraged, and is only now resuming in parts of the state. The army asserts the right to enter any home at any time in the search of ARSA militants, or others opposed to the current regime, and there are serious allegations of breaches of basic civil rights, as well as beatings and torture, that to this point have not met with credible investigation or consideration.

The conflict is not just between the Myanmar Army and ARSA - it also involves both the Rohingya and local Rakhine communities where there are allegations of violence on the ground between the two groups. Again, the absence of neutral observers makes fact finding difficult. The departure of such a large number of people can only have been created by a climate of fear and intimidation, whatever its source.  It is also important to point out that much of the population in Rakhine is deeply impoverished.  The competition for land and resources is so intense precisely because so many are poor. One of the reasons the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Rohingya population has been met with such fierce local opposition is that “aid” is something the local Rakhine community feels is for others, and not for them. That is something that has to change.

The Annan Commission made a number of recommendations which the civilian government has indicated a willingness to accept. The implementation of the report is now in the hands of a committee under the leadership of Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Dr. Win Myat Aye. In addition, the Government of Myanmar has established a Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, with whom I met on November 8 in Yangon.  This mechanism is meant to operate like a public private partnership, led by government and driven by the private sector within the framework of the implementation of the Annan Commission Recommendations. Its focus is on physically rebuilding the region so badly affected by the violence, and creating the conditions that will allow for the voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya population currently outside the country.

In an encouraging development, the government of Myanmar has announced the appointment of an international advisory board on the implementation of the Annan report. The announcement of such a board with clear assurances on its independence and access to the region is welcome.

The real roadblocks to re-settlement are about more than housing. They have to do with deep-rooted intercommunal tensions that have led to the most recent fighting, which at its heart is about the ability of the Rohingya to be welcomed inside Myanmar as a legitimate partner in the Myanmar nation. The long standing disputes about identity cards, land, economic livelihoods, and citizenship have grown worse in the last several years, and have led to the further marginalization and forced exodus of the Rohingya population, to say nothing of conflict, violence, and loss of life.

This is not a short term problem with a quick fix. The fact that an agreement has been signed between the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar is a first step in a possible process of repatriation but there are several additional assurances and guarantees that have to be provided before such an agreement could be implemented. There is also the challenge of resources at the border assessing re-admittance, as well as the conditions that await the returnees in Rakhine State. And the issues of political participation and citizenship loom large over the whole picture.

The notion that these are all issues of sovereignty, to be settled exclusively between the government of Myanmar and Bangladesh, misses the point that the United Nations General Assembly has recognized that the duty to protect the security of individuals is initially the duty of states but failing that becomes a wider regional, and ultimately international obligation. It would be unconscionable for the member states of the UN to sanction a repatriation that was forced, or that did not include basic protections of human security and human rights.

3. The question of impunity

Since the end of the Second World War and the founding of the United Nations, the world has been involved in the establishment of basic standards of international law that are intended to ensure that crimes involving threats to human life and security do not go unassessed and unpunished. Those who are responsible for breaches of international law and crimes against humanity should be brought to justice. This applies to all those involved, state actors and non-state actors, armies, and individuals.

The UN Human Rights Council has appointed a fact-finding mission to address the issue of the treatment of the Rohingya, but the mission has not been permitted to visit Myanmar, or to interview officials in the Army and government, as well as representatives of ARSA, who could respond to the serious allegations that have been made about what has been happening, particularly since 2012. The mission has been permitted to interview members of the Rohingya community living in the camps near Cox’s Bazar, and will be producing a report based on these interviews. The Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict has also been gathering important information.

Eye witness accounts that I have heard have been both chilling and graphic. The gathering of evidence about particular events has to be thorough and systematic and relate to specific events, in particular places, at particular times. This work needs to look at events over the last several years, and efforts must be made to link them to those responsible for such violence and abuses of human rights and security.

Canada must remain involved in this legitimate and important international work. There are already a number of NGOs, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Holocaust Foundation, that are making compelling legal arguments about the nature of the threats and treatment that people have received, and given our experiences with mass crimes in the past several decades it is critical that this work be supported.  I have been impressed by the degree of engagement and commitment that has been shown by so many groups and individuals in Canada.  The full range of responses - humanitarian, on the ground volunteer work, fundraising, as well as detailed policy representation - has been remarkable, and has greatly assisted me in my work.  I remain open to meeting people in the time ahead, and I know these meetings will have a direct effect on my work. 

There is a difference between information, intelligence, allegations, and reliable evidence that can be used to prosecute individuals. We are at the point where it is the gathering of actual evidence that is crucial. It is also important that Canadians remain aware of the necessary tension between the need to engage with the people and government of Myanmar and our ongoing advocacy for human rights.  We have been publicly associated with the peace process, with the dialogue on governance and pluralism, and with a number of other critical issues, and this engagement needs to continue. This requires that we be respectful of the full range of opinions in Myanmar, and within Myanmar civil society, but it should never mean that we abandon our commitment to the truth about what has happened. 

Conclusion

The Prime Minister has given me a challenging assignment, which I have been asked to continue for a few more weeks so that I can complete my analysis and recommendations. I hope that I shall be able to see Rakhine State first hand, and return to Cox’s Bazar to see how conditions are evolving, as well as talk further with officials in Myanmar, Bangladesh and international organizations.

Date Modified: