Human-rights groups are sounding the alarm over a diplomatic trip the Canadian ambassador to Myanmar took part in because security for the delegation was provided by a police force accused of atrocities against Rohingya Muslims, including sexually assaulting them and burning their villages.
Earlier this week, Karen MacArthur, Canadian ambassador to Myanmar, joined 19 diplomats for a trip to the remote northern area of Rakhine state, the scene of violence that has forced more than half a million Rohinyga to flee over the past month. Myanmar's Border Guard Police provided security for the diplomats during the visit, which was organized by the Government of Myanmar.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern the Myanmar government could use the trip as a "propaganda tool" to cover up human-rights abuses in Rakhine, which Canada and the UN have called ethnic cleansing.
"That is something that is really very troubling because the border security police have serious allegations of involvement in a number of abuses that we've seen taking place," said Farida Deif, Canada director at Human Rights Watch.
Last month, Amnesty International said the Border Guard Police and military personnel were seen planting land mines close to the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Rohingya news agencies have also reported that border guards were involved in the burning of villages in Rakhine, where the Rohingya suffer from serious restrictions on their basic rights. And the Border Guard Police took part in rape, invasive body searches and sexual assault in Rakhine in late 2016, according to Human Rights Watch.
Under the 2008 constitution, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi does not have any control over security matters. The Border Guard Police report to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is controlled by the military.
Access to Rakhine is extremely limited for diplomats, journalists and humanitarian groups. Speaking on background, a Canadian government official said the only way in was to accept a trip organized by Myanmar's government, with security provided by the Border Guard Police.
Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, said that while his organization would never rely on government security forces for a mission, it's not unusual for diplomats to do so.
"Diplomats always, necessarily, work through government channels and so it's not at all unusual for them to take these kinds of trips," Mr. Neve said.
The government official said the diplomats closely considered the pros and cons of accepting the trip. The diplomats, which also included the U.S., French and German ambassadors to Myanmar, negotiated a number of conditions with the Myanmar government and Border Police Guard: that they visit an isolated Rohingya village, that police stay back when they speak with villagers and the people they speak with be protected from reprisals.
Despite meeting Rohingya on the mission, the diplomats issued a statement that made no direct reference to them – a glaring omission compared with Canada's recent statements on the situation in Myanmar, which have directly mentioned the minority group.
"The differences between those statements can leave the impression that the government in Ottawa is willing to condemn abuses in very, very strong language mainly for domestic consumption, while it's still business as usual with Burma on the ground in terms of the embassy interaction," Ms. Deif said, using the former name for Myanmar.
"That sends a very dangerous message."
The Canadian government official said diplomats on the ground are sensitive to any reference to the Rohingya because they need to maintain relations with Myanmar's government.
The recent violence began at the end of August, after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base in Rakhine. Myanmar's military responded by killing hundreds of people, triggering an exodus of more than 500,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh.
With a report from the Associated Press