Fozia Alvi is a family physician in Calgary and volunteers with ICNA Relief Canada in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
"Hatred must be taught,” said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela – a pitiful truth that has held true in Myanmar for generations. In the past, members of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority were treated as second-class citizens. Now they’re not even considered human. I have seen the aftermath of that genocidal program firsthand.
Last year marked the start of a brutal push by the authorities to decisively cleanse Myanmar of the Rohingya. As a result, about 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, adding to the 200,000 already there. As a doctor who was raised in a third-world country, Pakistan, I knew how difficult it would be for the Rohingya to survive in Bangladesh, where a third of the population lives below the poverty line. So, along with friends, I made my way there to assist in providing medical care.
Conditions on the ground shook me. Rolling hills of relief tents housed a million people; a city of bamboo and tarp, pummelled by relentless rainstorms and temperatures up to 40 C. Most of the inhabitants were victims of assault or sexual violence, unsure if they’d been the lucky ones to still be breathing. As a woman, as a doctor and as a mother, I was horrified.
One account in particular haunts me. I sat in a refugee tent, and a woman told me how her baby was snatched from her arms and tossed into a burning homestead. She told me how her husband's throat was slit in front of her. She told me how she had been raped for 15 days. It was all too much to bear, but then I saw the woman's daughter, sobbing silently in the back of the room. The girl was about 12 – the same age as my daughter – barefoot, and wearing a filthy red dress. As I looked at her, my heart sank. Her mother's account was too much for me to handle, let alone this girl.
My daughter is worried about volleyball tryouts and what to get for her friend’s birthday. She bristles over the injustice of the lack of a girl’s rugby team. But that girl in the red dress will forever be haunted by her father’s murder, will have to survive with a PTSD-ridden mother, in a community of hundreds of thousands of other traumatized survivors, in a makeshift refugee camp, trapped by geography and political deadlock. I never got the girl's name, but her eyes are seared on my memory.
When you create government policy, over generations, that is designed to systematically isolate a population, deny them secondary education, deny them their own crops, deny them access to hospitals, deny them the ability to get middle-class jobs, deny them marriage licences, even deny them the ability to turn on lights after sunset, the intent is clear. The Myanmarese authorities had hoped the Rohingya would leave of their own accord. When that didn’t happen, their resilience was met with a full-blown campaign of ethnic cleansing – murder, rape, torture, sexual slavery, persecution and enslavement.
In an attempt to try to maintain her image as a so-called darling of democracy, Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has maintained that the army is free of blame, that there is no ethnic cleansing and that accusations to the contrary are completely false. If they are so false, why did she bar UN investigators from entering Myanmar at the start of the Rohingya exodus? Why did her government recently imprison two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were investigating killings conducted by the army in a Rohingya village?
A UN fact-finding mission recently concluded that prosecution of the country’s top generals is warranted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The question is not whether genocide is happening again, as it did in the 1990s in Rwanda and Bosnia, but what Canada – with our reputation for generally being on the right side of history – will do about it. With lives on the line, we need to formally declare what is happening in Myanmar as a genocide, enabling us to take measures to isolate the Myanmarese government and army, and put pressure on our allies to do the same.
My daughter will learn about the Rwandan genocide at school this year. Unless we act now, our children will soon read about the Rohingya in the same chapter.
Fozia Alvi is a guest at the Women in the World Summit, which The Globe and Mail sponsors, held in Toronto on Monday.