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World Freeland expected to travel to Bangladesh, visit Rohingya refugee camp in May

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is expected to travel to Bangladesh at the beginning of May, where she is hoping to visit a Rohingya refugee camp and witness firsthand the effects of the displacement of nearly 700,000 members of the Muslim minority from Myanmar.

The Globe and Mail confirmed that Canada’s Special Envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae, is scheduled to join Ms. Freeland in Bangladesh, where she plans to attend the Organization of Islamic Co-operation meeting of foreign ministers on May 5 and 6. Although the trip is still in the planning stages, senior government officials confirmed that Ms. Freeland will not visit neighbouring Myanmar.

The minister’s current itinerary, therefore, does not include a meeting with the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, an honorary Canadian citizen and Nobel laureate who has come under fire for her handling of the Rohingya crisis. Ms. Freeland, along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mr. Rae, met with Ms. Suu Kyi last November at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Vietnam.

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Ms. Freeland is aiming to visit a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh during her visit, the official said. The hilly, sprawling and crowded camps – some of the largest in the world − are located near the Myanmar border, mostly in Cox’s Bazaar. The region is currently in its cyclone season, creating fears that heavy rains could wash away parts of the camps at any moment, worsening the already dire situation.

Pools of water cover part of a refugee camp for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh last week.

DAPHNEE COOK/Getty Images

John Kirton, a University of Toronto international-relations professor and expert on the Group of Seven, said Ms. Freeland has made the Rohingya crisis one of her personal foreign-policy priorities. He said he was not surprised to hear that the minister would not be visiting Myanmar, since the optics of meeting with the country’s military – which led the crackdown on Rohingya in Rakhine state – would not be good.

“It would be difficult to go there and not go to the local areas, where the Rohingya still live, and there you would be totally controlled by the Myanmar military. So it would be either a sanitized … version of what you’d see, and you would be implicitly condoning the Myanmar generals’ side of the story,” Prof. Kirton said.

News of the minister’s expected trip comes after Mr. Rae, a former Ontario premier and Liberal MP, published a report on the Rohingya crisis earlier this month. The report called on Canada to lead an international effort to investigate “clear evidence” that crimes against humanity were committed against the minority group − a crisis Mr. Rae says bears the hallmarks of a genocide. He said that the investigation should not exclude any Myanmar officials – even Ms. Suu Kyi.

Mr. Rae also urged the Canadian government to push for the Rohingya crisis to be addressed at multiple international forums, including the Organization of Islamic Co-operation foreign ministers’ meeting in Dhaka in May and during Canada’s presidency of the G7.

Canada is playing host to G7 foreign affairs and security ministers in Toronto until Tuesday, ahead of the leaders’ summit in Charlevoix, Que., this June.

The most recent violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state began in August, 2017, after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base. 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 she has little or no control over the military under the constitution.

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In response to the crackdown, Canada targeted Major-General Maung Maung Soe – the former head of the Myanmar army’s Western Command who allegedly led a clearance effort in Rakhine state – under its new “Magnitsky” sanctions law aimed at human-rights abusers. Canada has also provided more than $45-million in humanitarian assistance for Myanmar and Bangladesh since the beginning of 2017.

The Rohingya crisis is one of many topics up for discussion at the G7 summit under way in Toronto; Ms. Freeland discussed the matter with her counterparts on Sunday afternoon.

The minister kicked off the day by holding a working brunch with her counterparts, plus Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, at her Toronto townhouse on Sunday morning, where they discussed the situation in Ukraine.

Ms. Freeland then chaired a meeting of non-G7 female foreign ministers at the University of Toronto, where she announced that Canada will co-host, along with the European Union, a meeting of all female foreign ministers in September. She also held closed-door meetings at the U of T with her counterparts on Russia, the Middle East, North Korea, Venezuela and China.

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