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International news briefs: September 11-15

Violence escalates in Myanmar and Yemen

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Roughly 150,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar over the past two weeks, as state security forces continue to carry out ethnic cleansing operations in the country’s Rakhine province.

This wave of violence began August 25 after an attack by Rohingya militants against government forces, and is nominally aimed at stamping out terrorist activity in the region. However, it appears that civilians are being targeted on a massive scale. The international press has largely been barred from the region, but the refugees who continue to pour into neighbouring Bangladesh have reported massacres and the destruction of entire villages. While Myanmar’s government has claimed that only 400 people have been killed in Rakhine province so far, the U.N. estimates the actual death toll to be at least 1000.

For decades, the Rohingya have faced intense systemic discrimination in the Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship and access to many basic amenities. They are widely known as “the world’s most persecuted minority.” The current ethnic cleansing campaign is not without precedent; a year ago, over 80,000 Rohingya fled the country after nine police officers were killed by alleged Muslim militants, prompting another violent crackdown in the Rakhine province.

While not unprecedented, this latest outbreak of violence seems to be drawing significantly more criticism from the international community than previous conflicts. In particular, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, has been sharply criticized for her refusal to condemn the violence and take steps to end the persecution of the Rohingya. In recent weeks, many around the world have argued that her Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1991 for upholding non-violence and human rights, should be revoked.

Bangladesh, the biggest country of origin for refugees seeking safety in Europe, has struggled with the recent wave of refugees from Myanmar. In some regions, border controls have been tightened, leaving many Rohingya stranded with nowhere to run, while those who make it into the country face desperately overcrowded refugee camps. On September 6, the Bangladeshi government accused Myanmar of laying landmines along the border between the two countries, further exacerbating the plight of the Rohingya. Officials from Myanmar have denied these allegations, though several injuries from landmines have been reported in recent days.

With material from The Guardian and Al Jazeera.


A U.N. report released on September 6 suggests that the war that has engulfed Yemen since March 2015 is even more devastating than international observers previously believed. The latest figures suggest that at least 3,200 civilians have been killed in airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition; out of these, at least 1,100 have reportedly been children. The report notes, however, that these figures are probably conservative estimates of the death toll.

In essence, the war in the Yemen conflict consists of two main belligerents: the Houthi movement, which overthrew the Yemeni government in 2015, and the Saudi-led coalition, which is trying to reinstall that government. The Houthis, a predominantly Shi’a group, are backed by Iran; the coalition, which includes Egypt, Qatar, and Jordan, receives US support, often in the form of covert drone strikes against alleged “terrorists.” Despite the vast military arsenals at their disposal, the coalition has achieved little strategic success so far, as the Houthis remain in control of the capital and much of the western half of the country.

Now, roughly two and a half years into the conflict, Yemen is home to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Roughly 17 million people – one in five Yemenis – face food insecurity, and seven million are at the brink of famine. Infrastructure has broken down in many areas, and a lack of functioning hospitals, medical personnel, and clean water is having a catastrophic impact on the health of the population. In recent months, a deadly cholera epidemic has struck the country, spreading through polluted water. Between April and August, the U.N. reports, at least 2000 people have died from the disease.

Additionally, Yemenis have suffered direct violence over the course of the war. The targeting of civilians by coalition forces is well documented, with the U.N., activists and eyewitnesses on the ground reporting that houses, hospitals, and schools have been destroyed in addition to more conventional military targets. Houthi forces have harmed civilians as well, albeit on a lesser scale than the coalition.

This kind of violence constitutes a breach of international law, and as the conflict has intensified in recent months, international condemnation of the coalition’s tactics has become more and more widespread. On August 30, 62 NGOs called on the U.N.’s Human Rights Council to launch an enquiry into human rights abuses committed by both sides in Yemen. Earlier this year, the Trudeau government faced criticism when it emerged that Canada too had lent its support to the Saudi-led coalition, albeit indirectly, by selling arms to Saudi Arabia that have been turned against Yemeni civilians. Trudeau’s administration approved the sale of $15 billion worth of armoured vehicles, making Canada the second-largest supplier of arms to the Middle East.

With material from The Guardian and The Globe and Mail.