May 24 2013 03:45PM
COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Columbus Blue Jackets have signed goaltender Curtis McElhinney and defenceman Ilari Melart to one-year contracts.
McElhinney, who turned 30 on Thursday, has appeared in 69 career NHL games with the Calgary Flames, Anaheim...
May 24 2013 09:27AM
CALGARY, AB -- Highly-touted 2013 NHL Draft prospect Valeri Nichushkin has publicly stated he wants to play in North America in the 2013-14 season.
Questions swirled around the right winger's future plans due to his contract with Traktor Chelya...
May 24 2013 09:15AM
Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley has heard a lot in the last few days that former superstar players don't become great NHL coaches and that it's been a long time since a goalie has succeeded as a coach in the League.
Hartley, who coached Patri...
May 24 2013 06:26AM
CALGARY, AB -- The Saskatoon Blades fell to the London Knights 6-1 on Thursday evening and have been eliminated from the 2013 Mastercard Memorial Cup.
The Knights now advance to Friday's semi-final match-up against Tyler Wotherspoon and the Por...
May 24 2013 04:00AM
OTTAWA—The Senate asked external auditors examining the travel expenses of Sen. Pamela Wallin to broaden their investigation over concerns she was claiming refunds for activity unrelated to Senate business, the Star has learned.
The Senate subcommittee that had ordered external reviews of the expenses of four senators — Wallin, Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau — met on April 16 to hear an oral report from auditors at the forensic accounting firm Deloitte on what they had found.
Senators on the subcommittee believed what they heard from the auditors about Wallin was inconclusive, but the travel expenses displayed a pattern they found concerning enough to recommend lengthening the time frame by one year to get a clearer picture, according to sources.
Those initial findings suggested “a pattern of claiming Senate expenses on personal or other business unrelated to the Senate, including boards she sits on,” said one source who spoke on the condition of anonymity in the absence of authorization to discuss the Wallin matter.
The revelation comes as the attention on Parliament Hill is focused on the news that the RCMP is now also probing the Senate spending scandal, which has already led to resignations from both the Conservative and Liberal caucus and claimed Nigel Wright, who stepped down as chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week over his decision to personally cover the $90,172 in living expenses improperly claimed by Duffy.
Deloitte agreed on April 23 to continue its investigation into Wallin, who announced last Friday she was leaving the Conservative caucus while the auditors completed their probe.
Wallin declined to answer a series of questions the Star sent by email this week about the scope of the audit or whether she had ever claim she was on Senate time — therefore having her travel expenses covered by taxpayers — while she was on personal business or doing work for the Conservative party.
“As I am sure you can understand, I cannot answer questions at this time. I am co-operating fully and willingly with the external auditors and I look forward to an objective review of my expenses. When that review is complete, I will willingly answer any and all questions,” Wallin wrote in an email Wednesday.
Senate quarterly expense reports for the period from Sept. 1, 2010, to Feb. 28 this year show Wallin claimed just $30,238 for “regular” travel between Ottawa and Saskatchewan, while billing $321,842 for “other” travel to elsewhere in Canada and around the world.
The former broadcast journalist sits on a number of corporate boards, which her personal website lists as including Porter Airlines and Gluskin Sheff & Associates Inc., a wealth management firm with offices in Toronto and Calgary.
She has also been a popular guest at Conservative fundraisers and other events since her Senate appointment in 2008.
Conservative Party of Canada spokesman Fred DeLorey said in an email Thursday that local electoral distraction associations would have covered her expenses if she was appearing at events on their behalf.
Elections Canada documents show Wallin billed the campaign of Conservative MP Ray Boughen $347.57 to cover her hotel, car rental and a per diem associated with her appearance with the candidate in Moose Jaw, Sask., on April 13, 2011.
Elections Canada rules stipulate that a senator appearing on behalf of a candidate must be reimbursed by the campaign for any related expenses, or else their accommodation, travel and other costs count as non-monetary contributions.
But according to an email in the Elections Canada file on Boughen, the campaign did not decide to ask Wallin for an invoice until April 22 this year, as a way to balance the books and avoid having to go through the cumbersome process of issuing receipts for the small amounts they received from supporters at a rally featuring the senator.
Campaigns do not have to disclose details of contributions if they are less than $20 and collected at an event such as the one in Moose Jaw.
Dean Klippenstine, official agent for that campaign, confirmed those details. “I told her submit expenses and an honorarium and we’d pay it, because I didn’t want to have to issue a whole bunch of pain-in-the-ass receipts,” Klippenstine said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
In an email to the Star sent on Tuesday, Wallin confirmed she attended the event with Boughen and said she had “no knowledge of the issue referred to” in the email in the Elections Canada file.
Wallin did not say whether she had planned to submit an invoice for her expenses before the campaign requested she do so.
May 23 2013 10:31PM
Jarome Iginla, who is adjusting to a new role after being acquired from the Flames at the trade deadline, scored two goals in Game 4 against the Senators.
May 23 2013 01:18PM
The debtholders of struggling wireless carrier Mobilicity have approved a plan to sell the company to Telus Corp. for $380 million, the first of several hurdles the deal faces before it can close.
If the acquisition is approved, there will be continuing service for Mobilicity’s 250,000 cellphone customers and jobs for its 150 employees, Mobilicity president and chief operating officer Stewart Lyons said Thursday.
“This is a significant step towards final approval of the plan through which the business, combined with the financial strength of Telus, can be continued in a way that will benefit our customers and employees,” Lyons said in a news release.
A court hearing will be held next Tuesday to approve the plan and the acquisition by Telus will also need regulatory approval.
Industry Minister Christian Paradis has said he will take the time required to review the proposal carefully.
Under the current rules, Mobilicity’s spectrum license cannot be sold to established carriers before 2014, however Telus has urged the deal be approved because Mobility is in dire financial straits.
Mobilicity also said Thursday that a vote on a recapitalization plan was postponed and that will be pursued only in the event the acquisition by Telus doesn’t go ahead.
Telus said it welcomed the approval by Mobilicity’s debtholders.
Mobilicity provides no-contract cellphone service in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.
New carrier Wind Mobile, with its just more than 600,000 subscribers and no-contract service, faces an uncertain future.
Dutch owner VimpelCom has put Wind Mobile up for sale, opening up the possibility that one of the big three could swoop in and pick it up.
It has also been reported that Pubic Mobile, the third company that launched after the last spectrum auction, has hired an investment banker to find a buyer.
May 20 2013 05:07PM
OTTAWA—Calls for Stephen Harper to come clean about the Mike Duffy affair are zeroing in on what the prime minister knew about the secret $90,000 payment that has touched off the worst scandal faced by his seven-year-old government.
The NDP urged the RCMP Monday to investigate the circumstances around the $90,000 cheque that Nigel Wright, the former chief of staff in Harper’s office, gave Duffy.
And NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said Harper owes Canadians a full explanation of his role in the effort to secretly help Duffy pay back improperly claimed expenses.
“Canadians deserve the truth — something they have not gotten yet from the prime minister or the Conservatives,” he said Monday.
Angus seized on the wording of Wright’s resignation statement, in which the former official said he “did not advise the prime minister of the means by which Sen. Duffy’s expenses were repaid, either before or after the fact.”
At an Ottawa news conference, Angus said the statement appears deliberately vague.
“The language around Mr. Wright’s resignation is very disturbing. It suggests a prevarication on both the part of the prime minister and Mr. Wright,” Angus said.
Noting that Wright said only that the prime minister was not told how the payment was made, Angus asked, “What was Mr. Harper aware of?
“Does it mean he wasn’t aware of whether they were $20, $50 or $100 bills that were being paid out,” Angus said.
However, the Prime Minister’s Office insisted Monday that Harper was in the dark about the payment.
“The PM had no knowledge whatsoever of Mr. Wright’s intent to use his personal funds. Full stop,” Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s director of communications, told the Star.
“He wasn’t aware that Nigel had made the payment.”
Angus also called on the Prime Minister’s Office to release the reported written deal at the heart of Wright’s deal with Duffy, made earlier this year.
CTV News has reported that Wright had a PMO lawyer prepare a letter of understanding with Duffy’s lawyer. That agreement would see Duffy reimburse taxpayers with Wright’s help and included a pledge that the spending investigation, then ongoing, would go easy on him, CTV said.
“Where is the paper trail? Who was involved,” Angus said.
“If there is a signed agreement between Mr. Duffy and Mr. Wright or Mr. Duffy and the Prime Minister’s Office, we need to see that documentation,” he said.
However, a source told the Star that the only stipulation Wright put on the cheque, delivered to Duffy’s lawyer, was that Duffy write a cheque for an equivalent amount to the Receiver General of Canada for the expense money he owed.
Yet once the repayment was made, Duffy stopped cooperating with independent auditors examining his expense claims. When a Senate committee met behind closed doors in early May to write the final report on the results of the audit, Conservatives used their majority to soften the conclusions about Duffy’s misuse of taxpayers’ money.
Angus released a letter he wrote Monday to RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson asking the Mounties to look into possible illegal actions arising from the payment from the Prime Minister’s Office to Duffy. “I request that the RCMP take these concerns into account, investigate promptly and take all appropriate action.”
The Liberals have also asked the RCMP to dig into the Senate misspending for potential criminal wrongdoing.
The RCMP is believed to be assessing the results of the Senate reviews of the living expenses of Duffy, former Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau and former Liberal Sen. Mac Harb. Brazeau and Harb were ordered to repay thousands of dollars in improper expense claims, which they are challenging.
However, the Mounties have not said whether they will launch an investigation.
The Senate also said earlier this month it would expand an audit of the travel expenses of Sen. Pamela Wallin, who stepped down from the Tory caucus on Friday.
Meanwhile, the prime minister could make his first public comments since the controversy broke when he meets with the Conservative caucus Tuesday morning before flying to South America on a trade mission.
The media may be invited into the beginning of the meeting to hear Harper speak to an audience of MPs and senators, many of whom have gotten an earful from constituents about Wright’s payoff to Duffy.
“My office received calls and emails from taxpayers and I also heard directly from many constituents while at home on the recess week,” said New Brunswick Conservative MP John Williamson. “Duffy’s misuse of tax dollars is indefensible and a police investigation is warranted.”
Revenue Minister Gail Shea also acknowledged the questions that are swirling.
“Of course there are lots of questions because people do expect accountability and you know, that is something our government has stood for, accountability, and we think it is very important,” Shea said Monday.
Yet other Tories were doing damage control over the weekend, trying to spin the rash of resignations as proof of the Tories ethical standards.
“Our govt has the highest ethical standards demonstrated by 3 resignations: 2 from Senate caucus & the PM chief of staff,” Calgary Conservative MP Joan Crockatt wrote on Twitter.
Etobicoke Conservative MP Ted Opitz was defending Wright soon after the chief of staff stepped aside.
“Nigel Wright is a patriot. A man with honour. If he made a mistake, it was a gentleman’s mistake. One made with the truest of intentions,” Opitz wrote on Twitter.
Tuesday’s caucus will kick off what promises to be a tumultuous day on the issue. The opposition parties are expected to go after the Conservatives in afternoon question period. And Tuesday night, the Senate meets to consider its next steps.
With files from The Canadian Press
May 20 2013 04:10PM
MONTREAL—A philosophy professor who famously wore a panda costume to lighten the mood throughout last year’s Quebec student protests has found a new cause.
Anarchopanda, the unofficial mascot of the Quebec student strikes, has completed a fundraising campaign to contest fines levied against protesters in recent months.
More than $31,000 has been raised according to Anarchopanda — whose real identity is Julien Villeneuve, a philosophy professor at the Collège de Maisonneuve.
He became a local celebrity during the student strikes where, clad as the bamboo-munching bear, he peacefully marched with students, offered hugs to police, and spread the authority-resisting gospel of anarchism.
Although the strikes ended last year, the most committed core of protesters carried on this spring. First they fought the smaller tuition hikes introduced by the Parti Québécois and, lately, have been contesting an alleged crackdown on civil liberties.
Villeneuve was detained last month and fined $637 for not respecting a Montreal bylaw that has become the focus of the civil-liberties dispute.
He is now fighting that local bylaw, P-6 — which bans masks at protests, and requires that an itinerary be submitted before any demonstration in Montreal.
The case challenging the constitutionality of the bylaw is set to resume in October before Quebec Superior Court.
Villeneuve says he has been pleasantly surprised by the amount collected in less than a month. That offers him some hope that he might be able to cover the legal bills if the case persists.
“Initially, I expected (to raise) $10,000,” he said. “But we will need more than that, especially if the city appeals.”
Both of Villeneuve’s lawyers are working as volunteers on the constitutional case.
The money will help pay for assorted court costs such as service and interrogation fees, in that case, as well as the lawyer fees in the cases fighting the more than 1,000 tickets handed out.
“We will need to pay the lawyers’ salaries because these trials are going to last for a very long time,” Villeneuve said.
The most controversial provisions of P-6 came into existence in May 2012, at the height of the student strikes.
However, the Montreal police started applying them systematically only this spring. A motion to strike down the bylaw, introduced last month by an opposition party at city hall, failed.
Villeneuve said the bylaw gives too much arbitrary power to the police. That suspicion of power is consistent with the anarchist credo that inspired the name of Villeneuve’s mascot alter-ego.
“The executive (municipal body) and the (police) can declare any gathering of three or more people illegal,” he said.
“They apply it like they want — and that’s a problem.”
He said masks provide protection for people who, for whatever reason, might fear reprisals. The bylaw takes away their ability to demonstrate anonymously, he said.
Villeneuve also criticized the fines, which range from $500 to $1,000 for a first offence.
“How fast do you have to speed on the road to get that kind of fine?” Villeneuve asked, rhetorically.
He also criticized the police methods and the long hours protesters have had to wait before being processed, handcuffed and without access to water, food, or bathrooms.
The practice known as kettling — where police encircle protesters to limit their movement — has been widely used by the Montreal police.
“They could just take our addresses and mail us the fines,” he said. “Essentially, it’s repression to take away people’s desire to demonstrate.”
The bylaw was passed at a time that Montreal was on edge, with daily demonstrations occasionally devolving into street scuffles, blocked downtown traffic, smashed commercial windows, and transit interruptions.
Marvin Rotrand, a city councillor who voted in favour of the bylaw said he believes the public generally supports the bylaw and only a minority are fighting it.
“The people who are contesting are really taking an extreme position,” Rotrand said. “They (want to) have absolute rights and they don’t care how those absolute rights affect the rest of society.”
For Montreal councillor Alan DeSousa, one of the goals of the local bylaw was to leave police with an alternative to applying the Criminal Code and leaving people with a permanent record.
In the federal Parliament, the Senate is one vote away from passing Bill C-309 which would make it a criminal offence to wear a mask while taking part in a riot or an unlawful assembly while wearing a mask. The law would carry a maximum 10-year prison term in the case of a riot.
“In the absence of P-6, young people who wish to demonstrate would likely be subject to the Criminal Code, and as a result we would be criminalizing our youth,” he said.
Rotrand says other Canadian cities have similar bylaws. Police from Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto told The Canadian Press, however, that to the best of their knowledge they were unaware of any bylaw requiring a demonstration itinerary to be submitted beforehand.
A city spokesman later clarified that cities elsewhere in the world have similar bylaws.
May 19 2013 11:56AM
CALGARY, AB -- Switzerland's run at the 2013 IIHF World Championships came to an end in the gold medal game as they fell to Sweden 5-1.
Heading into the game, Switzerland won nine straight games and secured themselves the country's first silver...
May 18 2013 06:57PM
OTTAWA—Senators Nation? Uh-oh Canada.
It takes more than last-hosers-standing status to earn a place in the heart from coast to coast.
The Ottawa Senators may be the only franchise of seven from north of the 49th Parallel still alive and kicking — feebly, to be sure — in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Yet they remain very much a parochial, narrowly embraced entity, a team utterly yoked to one city and one city alone. Further, it’s a city that only civil servants and governance geeks could love.
Our national capital is less loathed than smug Toronto and less parodied than slacker Vancouver but also lesser envied than either. Nor does it possess the small-market virtues of Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. And it made no friends in at least one of our two Canadian solitudes by handily dispatching Montreal in the first round.
This is not a town that will spiritually stitch together the country’s diverse parts through the unifying force of hockey. Anyway, emotional investment in the Senators feels like little more than a faint hope clause, down two-games-to-zip against the formidable Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinal.
It’s kind of weird, actually, that the Sens haven’t spawned greater affection or even default temporary fealty in the post-season as the last surviving Canadian franchise contending. They’re certainly a club that has earned on-ice respect, if only for persevering through immense adversity. No other team absorbed as many long-absence injuries to its luminaries during this truncated season, steered nicely to a seventh seeding by the affable Paul MacLean, he and his porn star moustache nominated for coach-of-the-year kudos. (I’d take MacLean’s walrus over John Tortorella’s Just For Men playoff beard any day.)
But they’re not Canada’s darlings and they pretty much know it. As winger Colin Greening — hailing from The Rock — acknowledged to a local scribe the other day: “You think about the Montreal and Toronto fans, we’re not going to get them. We understand that.” Greening remains hopeful, nevertheless, about growing on seduce-able. “Like, when Edmonton went to the Cup. I wasn’t exactly a big Oilers fan but they’re a Canadian team and you want to support them. I was cheering for them. Hopefully we can get those kinds of people that will cheer for us.”
In fact, more of a fuss has been made about Ottawa as vanguard of Cup yearnings south of the border than north of it. Americans seems more bemused by their ownership of the hockey trophy than proprietary. It’s hardly the reverse of Toronto copping back-to-back World Series. Now that was an audacious sports and cultural invasion.
We don’t need reminding that it’s been two decades since the tall silver tchotchke was hoisted aloft by a Canadian team. There are both grand and sad memories associated with 1993 from a Toronto perspective — does any other matter? — the Leafs just one Game 7 win short of a final showdown with Montreal. Those Canadiens, led by Patrick Roy — 11 OT victories in the playoffs — made quick work of Los Angeles. Yay Canada and all but if Leaf devotees held their noses and abruptly shifted allegiance to the Habs, I suspect it had more to do with bitterness towards Wayne Gretzky and his damn Kings.
Since then, Canadian teams have had their kick at the Stanley can: Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and, yes, Ottawa, have each gone to the final, all but the Senators losing in a deciding Game 7.
Perhaps the game has simply matured beyond patriotic chauvinism. After all, if we really must count native-born heads, there are more Canadians in the Penguins lineup than there are in the Senators dressing room: 17 to 16. One of the most iconic is Olympic golden gold hero Sidney Crosby. Only on that stage, really, does wearing a maple leaf (not to be confused with Maple Leaf) on the chest matter.
Facing a crucial Game 3 here Sunday, Ottawa at least was buoyed by good roster news. While the lower-case upper-house senators are playing with a shortened bench — Pamela Wallin out of caucus for delay-of-game audit and Mike Duffy for, well, let’s call it expense claims obstruction — the upper-case Senators have just lengthened theirs.
Jason Spezza, who hasn’t played since Jan. 27 after undergoing back surgery for a herniated disc, will be in the lineup.
“There’s the obvious challenge — the speed of the game and hopping right into the playoffs isn’t easy,” said Spezza. “It’s been a long time coming. But I’ve put in the work. It’s not like I’m just expecting to play out of the blue.”
The offensively struggling Sens — 1-for-7 on the power play — can surely use the oomph boost from a skill guy, even if he’s layoff rusty and probably rushing things. “When you come back after a long time, you can give some jolt to the team and that’s what I’m hoping to provide.”
Observing from the sidelines has been agonizing, especially since the post-season began. “It’s one of the worst things you can do as an athlete, watch your teammates battle.”
In half a dozen NHL Canadian cities, they’re all playoff voyeurs now.
MORE:The Star’s hockey page
May 18 2013 12:28PM
CALGARY, AB -- The Saskatoon Blades opened the scoring in the first game of the Memorial Cup tournament but fell 3-2 to the London Knights on Friday.
2013 NHL Draft prospect Nikita Zadorov scored the game-winner in the third period, jumping on ...
May 18 2013 11:35AM
CALGARY, AB -- After Martin Gerber stood tall against the Czech Republic on Thursday in the quarter-finals, Switzerland head coach Sean Simpson had a tough decision to make: go with Gerber in the semi-final or let Reto Berra take the reins.
May 18 2013 09:08AM
Three people have been sent to hospital with minor injuries after a residential fire in Hamilton Saturday morning.
Hamilton Fire said when they arrived at 47 London Street N., in the city’s east end around 3 a.m., the exterior of the building was engulfed in flames and the fire was starting to make its way into a home.
The fire then spread to two nearby buildings. Up to 40 firefighters were called in to fight the multiple-alarm fire and were able to extinguish the blaze around 6:30 a.m.
One house is completely destroyed and the damage is estimated at $750,000.
Hamilton Fire is currently doing an overhaul of the building looking for “hot spots” as well as pulling down ceilings and opening up walls.
The Ontario Fire Marshal has been called to investigate the cause of the fire.
May 18 2013 09:00AM
RAKHINE STATE, BURMA—As a mob of Arakanese Buddhists descended on their village, Ma Nu, 52, and her family pushed off in their fishing boat.
“The day before, we were given leaflets, telling us to leave,” says Ma Nu, a Rohingya Muslim. “We lived together for decades. We never thought anything like this could happen.”
From the water, they watched the violence unfold. Stragglers were attacked and houses were looted with the assistance of local police. Then, a hail of Molotov cocktails set Shwe Pya village ablaze. More than 800 houses were destroyed. At least three villagers had their throats slit, according to Ma Nu.
She lists the names of people she recognized in the mob. Most of the Buddhists, however, were strangers. As far as Ma Nu knows, no one has been arrested.
“We lost everything — our fishing equipment, our clothes, our identification cards . . . and afterward, they said we set fire to our own homes!”
Ma Nu has been living in the crowded Bawduba internally displaced persons (IDP) camp since July. She shares a two-by-two-metre room with her family of seven in a rickety, government-built longhouse. Nearby, stand canvas tents and makeshift shacks that front precarious mud flats, and beyond, the Bay of Bengal.
“I don’t know how long we’ll have to stay here. This is not a suitable place to live.”
Built atop dry rice paddies, the camp, like many others in the region, is at serious risk of being flooded with the arrival this month of the monsoon season. It will last until October. If inhabitants survive the deluge, they’ll face outbreaks of malaria and water-borne diseases as they wade through the effluvia oozing from their already taxed septic systems. The state already has one of the highest malaria mortality rates in Asia.
To make matters worse, a cyclone passed this week near the Bangladesh-Burma border — precisely where the camps are located. Until now, Muslim IDPs have been barred from leaving their camps, and government attempts to move them in advance of the cyclone were met with widespread distrust.
In desperation, Ma Nu’s son-in-law and son set out to sea in separate boats earlier in the year, hoping for a better life in Malaysia, trusting more, it seems, to the wind, tides and human smugglers than Burmese authorities.
“I don’t want to live with the Arakanese,” Ma Nu says. “If they try to attack us again, this time, even I will fight back.”
In June and October of 2012, communal violence erupted in western Burma’s Rakhine state between Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists.
The Arakanese (also known as the Rakhine) are the three-million-strong progeny of a Buddhist kingdom that thrived in the area from the dawn of the Common Era until 1785, when it was annexed by the Burmese. The stateless Rohingya, who number about one million, claim they have been part of the region’s ethnic tapestry for centuries. The Arakanese (as well as Burmese authorities) consider the Rohingya to be illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
Burma’s 1982 citizenship law denies the Rohingya official ethnic status, and thus citizenship rights. To be part of a legally recognized ethnic group, one’s people must have resided in the country prior to 1893. While Muslims have lived in the region since at least the 15th century, their numbers grew dramatically under British rule (1824-1948) when agricultural labourers were encouraged to migrate to Rakhine from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Under current legislation, third-generation Rohingya may become citizens, but it’s rarely awarded — proof of ancestry is often difficult to verify and the law is full of arbitrary loopholes (one clause, for example, states applicants must “be of good character” and “sound mind”).
Despite this identity dispute, the Arakanese and Rohingya for a time enjoyed a certain degree of economic and social integration.
The communal violence followed the May 28, 2012, rape and murder of an Arakanese woman by three Muslim men. On June 3, a gang of Arakanese killed 10 Muslims in retaliation, sparking a Rohingya reprisal on June 8 that descended the state into five hellish days of arson, attacks and murder as Arakanese mobs swarmed Rohingya neighbourhoods with swords, spears and torches — and vice-versa.
A second wave of violence occurred between Oct. 21 and 24. This time, Arakanese mobs staged co-ordinated attacks in nine townships. In one Rohingya village, 70 people (including 28 children) were slaughtered. As with the June riots, security forces were accused of either watching idly or participating.
Officially, 211 people have been killed in Rakhine state since June. Rohingya activists put the number closer to 1,000. More than 8,000 homes have also been razed, and at least 140,000 people have been displaced, the vast majority of whom — some 94 per cent — are Muslim.
Rohingya villages and quarters that were not evacuated or destroyed have been surrounded and contained by security forces, ostensibly to protect their inhabitants from further attacks, but essentially creating ethnic ghettos that lack access to food, water and medical supplies. This forced segregation is particularly pronounced in the state capital — Muslims once made up nearly half of Sittwe’s population of 180,000, but its once-bustling streets are now entirely Muslim-free.
Heading out of Sittwe, we pass shops, houses, tree-shaded boulevards and a glittering gold pagoda that was constructed in 1997 by the country’s last dictator, Gen. Than Shwe. Large bats, like shifting black fruit, dangle from nearly every tree. Most buildings fly the red, white and blue Rakhine state flag.
In town, a new deepwater port is being built with Indian money. Further south, an oil pipeline to China is under construction. After decades of isolation, Burma (also known as Myanmar) is now open for business. Many Arakanese, however, complain their homeland is being exploited by the central government. Despite its resource wealth, Rakhine state remains the second poorest in the country.
On the outskirts of Sittwe, the recent violence becomes more palpable. We pass entire neighbourhoods — both Buddhist and Muslim — that have been reduced to rubble. The few surviving mosques are guarded by police.
The world begins to take on a character of abandonment: the shell of a school, overgrown fields. Few people are seen. Reams of barbed wire stretch into the distance and line the road.
We come upon a checkpoint and my tuk tuk slows to a stop. A clutch of soldiers sit on plastic chairs, cradling new assault rifles and what look like Second World War carbines. They glance at me and I anticipate difficulty. My driver begins speaking to them in Arakanese.
The day before, while visiting the office of a humanitarian agency for a briefing, I was surprised when a foreign aid worker (who was not authorized to speak with the media) asked me to describe camp conditions.
“We can’t go where we want,” she said. “They see our white license plates and stop us at the checkpoints.” Vehicles registered to international agencies all sport these white plates. Camp visits, she said, need to be preapproved and are then curated by the authorities.
Another aid worker complained that their staff are routinely harassed and threatened. Their capacity to deliver humanitarian aid is limited, she said, because the government is constantly trying to placate the Arakanese.
Turkey’s development agency, for example, was blocked from building 5,000 permanent homes for the Rohingya after demonstrations in March. Since June, at least 14 Muslim humanitarian workers have been arrested in the state. Human Rights Watch says five of them remain in custody.
The soldiers just wave us through and we enter a dust-cloaked world, one of destitution and despair, where men sport beards or topi caps and women cover their hair with scarves.
I pay my Arakanese driver and he beats a retreat out of the ghetto that was once Bu May village. It’s not long before my Rohingya fixer, 57-year-old Aung Win, finds me standing near the barricaded crossroads. A retired consular interpreter turned poultry farmer, he says an Arakanese mob mutilated his livestock in the riots. He now styles himself a fixer/activist. He was imprisoned briefly in February, he says, for trying to contact a visiting United Nations rapporteur.
“Buddhists are supposed to be peace-loving people, so why are they attacking the Rohingya?” he asks rhetorically. “The government was capable of suppressing pro-democracy demonstrations in the past, so why not suppress the Arakanese now?”
We step into a battered jeep and follow a narrow, hole-riddled dirt road. Aung Win points out the new multi-storey Sittwe University. A Rohingya village once stood on the site, he says. The university’s Arakanese students are now escorted to its guarded entrance by armed police officers.
The first camp we see is composed of tight rows of squalid huts constructed from bamboo, thatch and frayed bits of tarpaulin. One hut’s door is made from a piece of a World Food Program (WFP) sack: “50 kg chickpeas / gift of Canada.” The irony: As an “unregistered” camp, this settlement receives neither international nor government aid, only the occasional bit of food from Muslims in Yangon. Such camps have sprung up around the tents and longhouses of “registered” IDP camps. Registered IDPs either lost their homes or were forcefully moved by the Burmese authorities. As such, they receive small rations of oil, rice, salt and chickpeas. Unregistered IDPs are people who fled their communities after October, fearing more violence.
Rabiya Khatu, 45, has been living in the unregistered section since January. She claims that police opened fire on their houses in June. Her brother was killed in the riots.
“I had to sell my daughter’s earrings to bring her here,” she says. “Bribing authorities is the only way to leave Aung Mingalar.” She is referring to the last Muslim quarter in Sittwe — a tightly guarded ghetto of 7,000 people that I was barred from entering.
“Everything depends on the government,” she says. “If they supported us and gave us security, we could live together again with the Arakanese. . . . But I think the government is against the Rohingya people.”
She shares her small hut with her family of eight, sleeping on thin mats. Like thousands of others, her hut sits atop a soon-to-be-flooded rice paddy.
“We are very worried about the rainy season,” she says. “We have no idea what to do.”
The area we tour is several kilometres square. Within it, camps have been placed in the fields of existing Muslim villages. Nearly half of the state’s Rohingya IDPs live within this sprawling, guarded prison.
Everywhere one looks, one sees expansive fields peppered with neat clusters of blue, green or white tents, rows of longhouses, the odd wooden house on stilts, stagnant ponds, swaying palms, and haphazardly placed makeshift huts that, from a distance, look like swollen bumps of earth. A few small markets line the area’s earthen roads, selling rice, eggs, watermelons, tea. Supplies mostly come via bribed soldiers or sympathetic (as well as enterprising) Arakanese. For them, doing business with the Rohingya can be dangerous: there have been reports of attacks against “traitorous” Arakanese.
I’m taken to the house of U Kyaw Hla Aung, 73, an activist lawyer who has spent 10 of the past 27 years in prison. Until June, he worked as an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Kyaw Hla Aung was also one of the NGO workers arrested after the riots. He spent 14 days in prison.
“They searched my house, then accused me of having a letter from Al Qaeda!” he says indignantly. “Yet township by township, the Arakanese are destroying mosques and Muslim houses, and the government takes no action against these terrorists.”
Kyaw Hla Aung talks at length about the NaSaKa: the state’s notorious frontier police. He describes extortion, arrests, torture, rape, killings and mass graves. The situation in Rakhine state, he says, is a “hidden genocide.”
He shows me videos on a laptop. He says they are from June. In one, young women futilely try to douse the flames engulfing a thatch house. In another, people with bundles on their heads and shoulders are being marched out of Sittwe at gunpoint by what looks to be the military.
“We can forgive,” he says, “but future peace depends on the government and the Arakanese. But why would they seek peace while they’re winning?”
We visit a tiny clinic where waiting patients cower from the blazing sun under a cement awning or a lone banyan tree, swatting flies if they are conscious, if they have the energy. Tuberculosis, diarrhea and malaria are the most common ailments. The clinic, Aung Win says, receives funding from Yangon Muslims.
The clinic’s lone doctor refuses to waste time speaking with me.
Out back, a Rohingya nurse from Save the Children hands out nutritional supplements to a group of pregnant women and young mothers. She is the only NGO worker I will see within the camps.
“The UN and MSF are afraid to work here,” Aung Win says. Both organizations have been targeted by Arakanese activists.
At a crumbling schoolhouse, I’m swarmed by smiling children. Two-thirds of the school’s 1,400 children are IDPs. Lacking outside funding, the community pools together money to pay the school’s teachers paltry $40-per-month salaries.
“My people are poor and illiterate,” Aung Win says. He tells me that Muslim extremism is borne of poverty, discrimination and a lack of knowledge of the outside world. “If my people do not receive education, they will become radicals in the future. We cannot let this happen.”
We tour several more camps. Nearly everyone complains about inadequate provisions, their uncertain future, how the violence was unwarranted, unexpected and perpetuated by both state security forces and the Arakanese. Conditions range from rudimentary to deplorable. Unable to leave, few people can work. Nearly every camp reeks of overflowing latrines.
The conditions in remote ghettos and camps are supposedly much worse. My attempts to access such areas were blocked by state authorities.
“This is not a religious conflict between two communities,” U Shwe Mawng, 56, says. “This is about one community trying to appropriate the others’ land.” A landowner himself, his large wooden house sits amid a sea of camps. There have been allegations of Arakanese appropriating Rohingya houses, farmland and livestock following evictions.
“We never had this kind of violence during the military dictatorship,” he says. “I don’t think Myanmar is ready for democracy.”
Before arriving in Sittwe, I was warned that the Arakanese can be incredibly hostile to foreigners, who, in their eyes, are too sympathetic toward their enemy. My Arakanese fixer, who had asked about my background when we met, suggested that his people would be warm, hospitable and unabashedly candid if I made them aware of my Jewish ancestry.
“Finally, a foreigner who understands!” says Khin Maung Gree, a central committee member of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), when we meet. “But your people have their own country. For us, that is still a dream.”
The ultra-nationalist RNDP has been incredibly influential in Rakhine state since winning 35 seats in the country’s 2010 election. Abetted by Burma’s government and several monastic associations, it is believed the RNDP is driving Rakhine state’s anti-Rohingya campaign.
“We could let them stay here if they wanted to live in peace,” he says, “but they are trying to invade our territory.” He claims the state’s Muslims are illegal Bangladeshi immigrants masquerading under an artificial ethnicity, religious extremists intent on conquering the Arakanese homeland through violence and their “alarmingly high birth rate.”
There is a historical precedent for this ethnic antipathy. Following fierce sectarian clashes in 1942, a Mujahedeen movement developed in the region in 1947 with the aim of creating an Islamic state along the Bangladeshi frontier. The Burmese military has been combating such militants ever since, with particularly fierce (and even genocidal) campaigns being waged against both Rohingya combatants and civilians in the 1960s and ’70s.
While this Islamic insurgency has waned in recent years, there is evidence that Bangladesh-based Rohingya militants have been receiving at least some training from Al Qaeda since 2000. The Arakanese, meanwhile, have been waging their own guerrilla war against the Rohingya and the Burmese, starting with the 1968 formation of the independence-seeking Arakan Liberation Party. Its armed wing still operates in remote parts of the state, albeit nominally.
The RNDP’s solution to the Rohingya question is simple: “We want the government to take them to a third country,”
The few, like Aung Win, who have citizenship papers can stay, Khin Maung Gree says, but “they need to be given their own, separate places to live.”
Across town, U Sa King Da, the severe 38-year-old leader of Sittwe’s 200-strong Young Monks’ Association, spends nearly half an hour detailing the moral degeneracy of the “so-called” Rohingya.
“They’re polygamous . . . and incestuous,” he says. He talks about Muslims setting fire to their own houses, deliberately contracting tuberculosis, and starving their children to garner international aid and sympathy.
Like the RNDP, the Young Monks’ Association disseminates its views in pamphlets. It also pays regular visits to the offices of international humanitarian agencies in Sittwe. To avoid further violence, Sa King Da says that NGOs should avoid “playing favourites.” Aid, he says, must be distributed equally between the two communities.
The state’s 7,300 Arakanese IDPs receive regular rations and were given one-time payments of $120 — half was provided by the United Nations, the other half was given by the government. These people, whose houses were destroyed in the June riots, will be moved from their government longhouses to new, permanent housing before the monsoon season begins. In the meantime, they are able to come and go from their camps as they please.
“In a way, we’re fortunate that Muslims raped and murdered that girl last May,” says U Tun Sein, 37, the head of a small Arakanese IDP camp. “Now we know that they have been conspiring to conquer Arakanese territory.”
While there are moderate Arakanese, their voices have been lost in the nationalistic clamour sweeping through the state.
U Tun Hla Aung, 74, was Aung Win’s high-school English teacher.
“We can live together in the future, but not now,” he says — tensions remain too high. Still, he thinks that by asserting their false “Rohingya” identity, “Muslim leaders are instigating this problem.”
If events of 2012 and 2013 are any indication, growing Islamophobia appears to be a caveat of Burma’s courtship with democracy and freedom of speech. Non-Rohingya Muslims are now being targeted as well, with pogroms occurring in March, April and May of this year. Muslims make up approximately 5 per cent of Burma’s population of 55 million.
Perhaps with the 2015 election in mind, even Aung San Suu Kyi, traditionally the voice of Burma’s disenfranchised, has been decidedly silent about the Rohingya. Other members of the National League for Democracy, however, have been more forthright. “Citizenship for them is possible, but being defined as a distinct ethnic group is not,” political prisoner turned parliamentarian, Phyo Min Thein, said when I sat down with him in April. Bengali immigrants, he says, should be granted citizenship papers if they can prove that their families have been in the country for at least three generations. “But they should understand themselves . . . Historically, there is no such thing as ‘Rohingya.’”
International pressure on Burma’s government for its alleged complicity in the anti-Rohingya campaign has been minimal. To the contrary, the European Union lifted trade and investment sanctions last month. In 2012, Australia, Canada and the United States did much the same. With its first embassy to the country opening this year, Canada, if it chooses, is better placed than ever to ensure that attention is being paid to the impending humanitarian disaster in Rakhine state — a disaster that threatens to become ethnic cleansing.
With her longhouse raised 30 centimetres above the ground, Ma Nu may be able to avoid the rising water — for now. Still, she is one of at least 69,000 Muslim IDPs that the United Nations estimates to be living in flood-prone areas.
In advance of Cyclone Mahasen, temporary weatherproof shelters are being constructed, but this is a Band-Aid. According to one humanitarian worker, “Engineering is not the solution. These people need to be moved to other sites.” But many Muslim IDPs don’t trust the government to move them.
“I want to go to a third country — if the government allows us,” Ma Nu says. “Any Muslim country would do.”
Of the 13,000 Rohingyas to set sail from Rakhine state in 2012, the United Nations believes as many as 500 have died at sea. If they manage to land on the region’s shores, they are again placed in camps. Bangladeshi and Thai authorities have turned boats back, and in February, the Thai navy even opened fire on one. Reports differ: two or 15 were killed. Fleeing in advance of Cyclone Mahasen, moreover, a boat carrying 100 Rohingya as part of a government evacuation plan capsized late Monday night, killing at least 50.
Ma Nu’s son-in-law is one of the fortunate ones to make it Malaysia. Her son’s boat drifted off-course to India’s Andaman Islands. She’s received messages that they’re alive. She can tell me nothing, however, about their conditions.
“Our future,” Ma Nu says, “depends on Allah’s decisions.”