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Politics Bob Rae presses Myanmar for safe return of Rohingya Muslims

Detained Myanmar journalist Kyaw Soe Oo kisses his daughter as he is escorted by police to a court in Yangon to face trial on Wednesday.

YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

Bob Rae, Canada's special envoy to Myanmar, says he has urged the country to allow the safe return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims displaced by violence, and pressed for the release of two jailed journalists who covered the refugee crisis.

Mr. Rae said he raised the imprisonment of two Reuters reporters with Lieutenant-General Kyaw Swe, the Home Affairs Minister, during a visit to Myanmar last week. He said the minister told him to take his concerns to Myanmar's chief justice – a response that did not make Mr. Rae happy. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested under the Official Secrets Act last December while working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya men who were buried in a mass grave in Rakhine state after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbours and soldiers.

"It's baffling to me that as the world begins to gather more evidence and as more evidence comes out of what can only be described as atrocities, that anybody would think that it's a good idea to charge and imprison the people who have simply been trying to find out information," Mr. Rae said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Thursday.

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Read more: More Rohingya lives will be lost if the world fails to act

Calls for the journalists' release intensified after Reuters published their report on Feb. 8. The reporters gained rare access to the remote Rakhine state, from which nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled since violence began last year.

Mr. Rae also met with Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, during his trip. Nearly six months after the Rohingya crisis began, he said Ms. Suu Kyi is still resisting calls for an international investigation into what has been described as ethnic cleansing against the minority group.

"She feels very much that it's the responsibility of the government of Myanmar to take charge of handling these issues, and I said, 'Well, it isn't just a domestic issue any more because these people have had to leave the country,'" Mr. Rae said.

"There are legal obligations that [other] governments have that have been building since the Nuremberg trials."

The violence in Rakhine began in August, 2017, after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base in the state. Myanmar's military responded with a violent crackdown, triggering an exodus of Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh. Ms. Suu Kyi and the country's military have come under international pressure to end the violence, but the leader does not have any control over the military under the 2008 constitution.

Mr. Rae said his hour-long meeting with Ms. Suu Kyi was "candid and respectful." He said she told him her government's efforts to respond to the crisis "are not appreciated enough by the rest of the world." Mr. Rae said he listened to Ms. Suu Kyi's concerns, but also noted the stories he heard from Rohingya refugees.

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Before travelling to Myanmar, Mr. Rae met with Rohingya refugees and aid workers in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. He said their immediate concern is the coming monsoon season, which could trigger devastating mudslides in the hilly camps.

Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a deal in January that would repatriate Rohingya refugees within two years. Mr. Rae said the Rohingya he spoke with want to return to Myanmar eventually, but not until the government guarantees a secure resettlement, including a path to citizenship. Rohingya have been denied citizenship in Myanmar, despite centuries-old roots in Rakhine.

Mr. Rae also saw the devastation faced by the Rohingya during a helicopter tour of Rakhine last week. The Myanmar government organized the tour.

"The flying over many, many burnt-out villages and destroyed villages and villages in which there's no sign of human activity whatsoever is – to put it mildly – sobering and … deeply chilling."

He also witnessed the construction of Rohingya reception and transition centres during the tour, but said refugees have not returned Rakhine yet.

As Mr. Rae prepares his final report as special envoy, he says governments, including Canada's, need to ask themselves if they are prepared to deal with the long-term nature of the Rohingya crisis.

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"Are we prepared to be persistent and patient?" he said.

"We have to make a decision at this point as to how seriously we're really prepared to work – not alone, with a number of other countries – in moving forward."

Mr. Rae said his report – to be delivered in the coming weeks – will include options for the Canadian government.

On Sept. 2, Buddhist villagers and Myanmar troops killed 10 Rohingya men in Myanmar's restive Rakhine state. Reuters uncovered the massacre and has pieced together how it unfolded. During the reporting of this article, two Reuters journalists were arrested by Myanmar police. Reuters
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