Journey from Myanmar to Canada to advocate for rights and democracy
John Jonaid is a Rohingya whose journey as a refugee through India, China, and Indonesia fueled his appreciation for diversity and sparked a commitment to advocate for marginalized populations globally. Now residing in Canada, Jonaid recently completed an internship program on parliamentary democracy through the Parliamentary Centre.
The internship is supported by the Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar (K4DM) initiative. It is part of K4DM’s broader program of online courses, fellowships and small research grants aiming to provide a safety net for Myanmar scholars and activists and to nurture public- policy discussions among representatives of Myanmar’s civil society for a gender- equal and ethnically diverse democracy in the country.
Through the internship and his work with the Parliamentary Centre, Jonaid has been keen to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to become a more effective leader and advocate for the Rohingya community.
Journey from Rakhine to Ontario
The Rohingya are an ethnic-minority group in Myanmar’s Rakhine (or Arakan) State. Despite having lived in Myanmar for generations, they have been denied citizenship since 1982 and currently constitute the largest group of stateless persons in the world. Within Myanmar, they have suffered discrimination and persecution, including armed attacks, massive scale violence and serious human rights violations. More than one million Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar in successive waves of displacement since the 1990s.
Jonaid fled in 2013, following escalating incidents of violence against Rohingya in Rakhine. While in Indonesia, he began to speak to journalists and media outlets to advocate for fellow Rohingya refugees. Eventually, he learned to write in English about his perspective and experiences and began to submit stories to Al Jazeera, BBC and CBC. A seasoned journalist with expertise in advocacy, negotiation and communication, Jonaid co-founded the archipelago, a pioneering online publication written for and by refugees that publishes accounts of refugees from across the world.
He eventually came to Ottawa, Ontario, in 2021 under Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program. Since then, he has continued to advocate for refugee rights, working as a consultant, translator and settlement assistant for Northern Lights Canada.
Raising awareness about the Rohingya in the Canadian parliament
Jonaid is one of several Canada-based K4DM fellows dedicated to advancing principles of democracy, inclusion, gender equality and diversity in Myanmar. This commitment has gained renewed significance following the military overthrow of Myanmar's democratically elected government on February 1, 2021.
During his internship in the office of Sameer Zuberi, parliamentary secretary to Canada’s Minister of Diversity, Inclusion, and Persons with Disabilities, Jonaid helped to organize Myanmar-related meetings on Parliament Hill, including a June 2023 panel discussion with the Parliamentary Friends of Democratic Burma. Moved by the panel discussion, several Canadian lawmakers tabled a petition in the House of Commons in September 2023. The petition includes a call for the Government of Canada to promote ongoing dialogue among pro-democracy and diaspora groups and support the development of a federal democratic system in Myanmar.
Jonaid has praised the internship as incredibly rewarding, not only because of the valuable skills and experienced he gained in civic affairs and parliamentary operations, but also as it afforded him the opportunity to continue to speak up on behalf of Rohingya refugees.
“I had the opportunity to make a difference by sharing my personal story,” he said, “raising awareness about the struggles faced by the Rohingya community and inspiring action in Parliament.”
Jonaid has passionately advocated for Canada to support the fledging pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, even in the face of the military coup.
Supporting a more democratic future for Myanmar
Since 2017, K4DM has been working to bolster capacity for Myanmar civil society to advance inclusion, gender equality, respect for diversity and prosperity for all. Renewed in 2022, this joint initiative between IDRC and Global Affairs Canada continues to support, primarily outside of Myanmar’s borders, capacity building within civil society to inform evidence-based public policy.
K4DM also fosters active engagement and collaboration across different actors to enhance the number of voices that feed into discussions around a more democratic future for Myanmar. Engaging with Canadian policy actors, as Jonaid has done, represents a pivotal strategy for members of the Canada-based diaspora to expand their civic space and contribute meaningfully to their home societies.
More than 51 mid-career Myanmar scholars and activists of different ethnic backgrounds hold K4DM fellowships and scholarships to pursue research and capacity building in diaspora-hosting countries such as Canada, India and Thailand. In addition to the Parliamentary Centre, other Canadian universities, such as the University of British Colombia and the University of Toronto, are also supporting Myanmar scholars and activists. For example, three young researchers — Aye Lei Tun, Ngu Wah Win and Saktum Wonti — are tackling crucial issues in women’s rights, economic empowerment and climate change in Myanmar.
In Asia, K4DM support includes scholarships for Myanmar nationals to complete a master's program in public policy at Chiang Mai University and fellowships for graduate-level training in gender and democratic justice at the Asian Institute of Technology, both in Thailand, among other programs.
Expanding educational access and civic participation with a focus on the Rohingya is also a priority. IDRC partner Parami University leads an effort to use online training to facilitate the journey from high school to university for motivated young Rohingya individuals in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Strengthening civil societies in conflict-affected areas
The K4DM model exemplifies how IDRC and Canada can preserve gains and contribute to the Sustainable Development Goal on peace, justice and strong institutions, despite ongoing situations of conflict and persecution. Myanmar is not the only place where IDRC is currently pursuing such efforts. IDRC is also supporting Afghan and Haitian communities of scholars, empowering them to advocate for a freer, more democratic future in spite of the challenges in their homelands.
To contribute to building a future vision for Afghanistan, IDRC supports a research initiative led by the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan and a project to host Afghan at-risk scholars in Canadian universities, led by Carleton University.
Support in Haiti focuses on developing a political roadmap for democratic consultations in the country and strengthening the role of a Haitian think tank.
“Canada can make a difference,” Jonaid said. “Besides providing humanitarian assistance, Canada can help prepare Rohingya and other ethnic minorities with civil knowledge and practical experiences necessary for integration into the new Myanmar.”
Having completed his fellowship and work with the Parliamentary Centre, Jonaid plans to pursue a master's in international affairs at Carleton University. He is also continuing his advocacy through initiatives such as Humans in Flight, an online magazine showcasing pictures and first-hand stories from refugees, highlighting their resourcefulness and talents, to raise awareness about the global refugee crisis and encourage more Canadians to make a difference in the lives of displaced people.
Contributors: Anne-Lise Bloch, knowledge-sharing officer, and Edgard Rodriguez, senior program specialist, IDRC.