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‘Myanmar wants to drive out all Muslims’: Q&A with Kyaw Hla Aung | News

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Doha, Qatar – U Kyaw Hla Aung is a well-known lawyer and activist who has been fighting for the rights of the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar for decades.

The 78-year Rohingya man was awarded this year’s Aurora Prize by the Armenia-based Aurora Humanitarian Initiative for his advocacy of rights for the persecuted mostly Muslim minority.

He donated the $1m he received in prize money to humanitarian organisations providing medical aid and assistance to Rohingya refugees.

Nearly a million Rohingya were forced to take shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh after Myanmar’s army, responding to attacks by an armed group, launched a brutal campaign against the minority in the country’s western Rakhine state last year. 

The Rohingya have faced persecution in Myanmar for decades. The military government, which took power following a coup in 1962, stripped the Rohingya of citizenship in 1982.

Since 2012, following deadly riots between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya, tens of thousands of people from the minority have been forced to live in squalid internment camps.

Hla Aung, who was born in the city of Sittwe in Rakhine state, spent more than 12 years in jail for his political work on behalf of the Rohingya people. 

Al Jazeera caught up with the veteran activist in November in the Qatari capital, Doha, where he was invited to attend a global health conference.

Al Jazeera: Why have Rohingya been denied citizenship in Myanmar? What are the criteria for citizenship?

Hla Aung: According to the 1948 citizenship law, a person who lived in Myanmar for 10 years and eight years continuously was eligible for citizenship. They are denying us citizenship since 1982. 

A person who shows he owns land, should be accepted as citizen. But that’s not happening.

In 1964, Myanmar’s ruler General Ne Win nationalised all the shops, farms and companies owned by Indians, Pakistanis and the Chinese. He drove all the foreigners from Myanmar. At that time they didn’t drive out the Rohingya people.

Rohingya belong to this land, they were recognised by the previous democratic governments, including under Prime Minister U Nu. But after the military coup [of 1982], they said Muslims were not a people of Myanmar.

My father owned land and I have documents but they [government] do not recognise it. In 1959, the government issued National Registration Cards to all the people, including Muslims. I also got my National Registration Card.

After driving all the Rohingya out they will go after all Muslims from across Burma [Myanmar]. They have a plan to drive out all the Muslims from this land.

Al Jazeera: What do you think about the planned repatriation of Rohingya? 

Hla Aung: I do not trust Myanmar officials on the repatriation issue because they have not taken action against people who looted Rohingya property and cattle. So how can these people go back? Also, there is no protection [for the returnees] by law or by the government.

Al Jazeera: Can you tell us about the situation on the ground for the Rohingya in Myanmar?

Hla Aung: The government is biased against Muslims. Earlier, Rohingya people were represented in government departments such as the police, military, administration, education etc.

But this has changed over the years.

Successive governments have gradually denied Muslims jobs. I worked for a government company for over 20 years. I was jailed for writing a petition to General Ne Win against forced confiscation of lands belonging to Muslims in 1986.

Al Jazeera: You have lived in Rakhine state for more than 70 years. How were relations between Muslims and Buddhists when you were young?

Hla Aung: Before 1960, we lived together, we had very good relations. We could apply for jobs and that’s how I was appointed as a stenographer. I got a promotion and faced little discrimination because of being a Muslim. Now, even judges discriminate between Muslims and Buddhists.

Al Jazeera: Why do you think there is so much anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar?

Hla Aung: They say that they are afraid of Muslims because they believe Muslims are spreading in the country.

The anti-Rohingya campaign has high-level political backing. But very few people are friendly. Buddhist people hate Muslims. The majority are against Muslims, only a tiny minority want to live together.

Al Jazeera: What are the issues facing the Rohingya community?

Hla Aung: Our people are not well educated. I want to give them education so they can know about their rights. I organise our people to be educated so that they will have courage to fight for their rights. In my opinion, education is the first priority for me.

Due to the lack of health facilities 500 to 1,000 will die but without education, the whole community will die within 10 years. 

Al Jazeera: Tell us about the education initiatives you have undertaken in Rakhine state?

Hla Aung: We have opened schools and appointed nearly 121 teachers since 2012. We are reaching more than 10,000 students in villages.

Rakhine teachers do not come to Muslim villages. We collect some donations from our people to run the schools. I also approached Nobel laureate Shirin Abadi to help get funds.

I was arrested for my education initiatives. President Thein Sein granted me a pardon after one and a half years in prison. I was released on October 7, 2014.

Al Jazeera: Tell us about the democratic transition project pushed by Thein Sein?

Hla Aung: Thein Sein started the process of driving out Muslims from their land. He is the man behind the anti-Muslim policies.

Al Jazeera: You contested elections in 1990. Why didn’t you win?

Hla Aung: I could have won but they didn’t allow me. I was a candidate in 1990 parliamentary election. I was the vice president for National Democratic for Human Rights party.

Before the election, the western commander arrested me. I was imprisoned by a court-martial.

Al Jazeera: Tell us about your family.

Hla Aung: My parents were from Mrauk U but I was born in Sittwe during World War II. We fled from one village to the other as the fighting raged. At that time my father was head clerk of the state court. Our house was destroyed by the Japanese army.

In 2012, my house was destroyed by Rakhine terrorists. I have not been able to go back to my own house since then.

I worked for MSF for 14 years until 2012. MSF was kicked out by Rakhine terrorists and the government because the medical charity did not discriminate between Rakhine, Hindu and Muslims. 

Al Jazeera: You spent more than a decade in jail. Why?

Hla Aung: I was in jail from 1986 to 1988, another eight years between 1989 and 1997. I was imprisoned for two months in June 2012. My last stint in jail was from July 2013 to October 2014.

The first one was for writing a petition in support of Rohingya farmers. Then I was accused of organising people to set fire to houses. In the 2013 case, I was blamed for stone-throwing incident against government officials.

Al Jazeera: Do you think Myanmar will accept the Rohingya?

Hla Aung: They will never accept us. They deny our existence, they consider us as illegal immigrants.

Al Jazeera: What is the future of the Rohingya people? What are your hopes from the international community?

Hla Aung: The future is dependent on the international community, including the UN. We have to organise the international community to back the Rohingya cause at the UN.

When I went to Armenia to receive the Aurora award, their government assured me that they will help us. I asked them to stand behind Rohingya at the UN.

Al Jazeera: Are the Rohingya facing genocide? 

Hla Aung: It is indeed genocide because government does not accept the word Rohingya.

The government is not allowing the investigations of cases from the scene of the crimes. The International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar formed by the UN has not been allowed to enter Myanmar.

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Ottawa transit commission hopes to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for OC Transpo workers

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Ottawa’s transit commission is pushing local and provincial health officials to recognize the role OC Transpo operators have played in keeping the city running during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to bump train and bus drivers in the vaccination queue amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections affecting transit workers.

More than 100 OC Transpo staff across the entire organization have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to an update at Wednesday morning’s transit commission meeting.

Of those cases, 26 employees are currently recovering from the disease in self-isolation.

OC Transpo has seen a recent jump in COVID-19 cases, with Ottawa city council receiving reports of eight operators testing positive for the virus over a recent eight-day period.

Transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert attempted to find out how many of the total cases are traced to workplace transmission, but OC Transpo boss John Manconi said he’s been advised by medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches that he can’t share that information for privacy reasons.

Transit operators are listed in the second priority group of essential workers as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine sequencing plans, but several commissioners speaking Wednesday wanted to get the city’s bus and train drivers bumped higher in the order.

Councillors Riley Brockington and Glen Gower both put forward motions looking to get front-line OC Transpo employees prioritization in vaccine sequencing, but others pointed out that the much-debated public health topic of who gets the vaccine and when is well beyond the scope of the transit commission.

“We are not in a position in transit commission to be decreeing, or making an edict, about what group of essential workers is more at risk than others and should be prioritized. That should be left up to public health experts,” Wright-Gilbert said.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, who also chairs the Ottawa Board of Health, reflected on the board’s four-plus-hour meeting on Monday evening, during which vaccine sequencing and prioritizing essential workers dominated the conversation.

“Vaccine sequencing is obviously a very difficult maze to get through,” he said.

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COVID-19: Ottawa police announce end of 24-7 presence at Ontario-Quebec border

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Less than two days after the Ontario government’s latest COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, calling for non-essential traffic to be stopped at the province’s borders with Quebec and Manitoba, the Ottawa Police Service has announced it is stopping its 24-hour checkpoints.

According to a statement issued by the service Tuesday evening, the around-the-clock border checkpoints were set to end as of 8 p.m. on Tuesday in favour of rotating checkpoints across the city throughout the day until Ontario’s temporary regulations end.

“Since the onset of the border operations, the OPS has been working closely with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) along with local stakeholders and interprovincial stakeholders (the City of Ottawa, the City of Gatineau, the Ontario Provincial Police etc.) to assess any local public health, traffic and safety impacts. The assessment resulted in today’s operational changes,” the statement said.

“The operational changes announced today are designed to better ensure the health and safety of all, to minimize delays and/or hazards for travellers and to ensure essential workers can get to their places of employment on time.”

The statement also said the police service, while working to comply with the provincial order, was focused on education and enforcement actions that “support improved public health outcomes and respect the concerns of our most marginalized and racialized communities”

Officers said they will be conducting daily assessments on border crossings and that there could be further changes.

In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said that the border closures are ultimately subject to the discretion of local police enforcing the regulations.

“Local police services are best positioned to determine the operational deployments necessary to ensure the continued safety of their communities,” the spokesperson said, noting that the order’s regulations still apply to individuals entering the province.

The temporary order restricts Quebec residents from entering Ontario. If prompted, individuals must stop when directed by an enforcement officials and provide their reason for entering the province.

The main exemptions to the restrictions include if the person’s main home is in the province, if they work in Ontario, if they’re transporting goods, if they’re exercising Indigenous or treaty rights, if they need health care or if there’s a basis on compassionate grounds.

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COVID-19 vaccines in Ottawa: Nearly half of all residents in their 60s have at least one dose

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Public Health’s latest COVID-19 vaccination update shows that nearly half of all residents 60 to 69 years old have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a figure that has all but doubled in the past week.

OPH’s COVID-19 vaccination dashboard shows 58,000 residents 60 to 69 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, accounting for 49.3 per cent of that age group’s population in Ottawa. Last Wednesday, OPH reported 30,000 residents 60 to 69 had had at least one dose, which was 25.4 per cent.

As age demographics get younger, the population grows larger and the coverage by percentage may appear to grow more slowly, even if clinics are vaccinating greater numbers of people. For example, the latest figures show that 83 per cent of people aged 70 to 79 have had at least one dose. By raw population that’s 60,000 people, only slightly higher than half of all people in their 60s.

Vaccinations are open through the Ontario portal to anyone 60 and older and, this week, the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for administration at pharmacies and primary care clinics to anyone in Ontario 40 and older.

OPH reported a new shipment this week of 25,740 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. To date, Ottawa has received 305,130 doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the provincial government.

The number of eligible residents (i.e. 16 and older) with at least one dose of a vaccine is now up to 28 per cent.

Tuesday was Ottawa’s second-busiest day for vaccinations overall, with the OPH reporting 9,729 shots administered. Last Friday saw 9,887 shots administered in a single day.

QUICK STATS

  • Ottawa residents with at least one dose: 248,668
  • Ottawa residents with two doses: 26,722
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with at least one dose: 28 per cent
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with two doses: 3 per cent
  • Percent of total population with at least one dose: 24 per cent
  • Percent of total population with two doses: 3 per cent

VACCINATION COVERAGE BY AGE FOR OTTAWA RESIDENTS WITH AT LEAST ONE DOSE

  • 10-19: 1.6 per cent (1,804 people)
  • 20-29: 8.3 per cent (13,452 people)
  • 30-39: 9.5 per cent (14,999 people)
  • 40-49: 12.9 per cent (17,350 people)
  • 50-59: 28.8 per cent (40,320 people)
  • 60-69: 49.3 per cent (58,627 people)
  • 70-79: 82.9 per cent (62,808 people)
  • 80-89: 87.5 per cent (29,358 people)
  • 90+: 89.2 per cent (7,893 people)
  • Unknown age: 2,057 people 

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