BURMA Shrieks for Change
Remarks by Hon. David Kilgour, M.P. Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumont
Annual General Meeting - Burma Watch International
International Center, University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA
5:00 pm, Friday, April 22nd, 2005
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this dialogue; congratulations to Burma Watch
International for its relentless commitment to raising awareness about the ongoing crisis in
Burma. Your work doesn't just reach out to and support those struggling in Burma, but it also
enriches and educates our own community on the importance of supporting human rights issues
at home and across the globe.
My own personal interest in Burma dates back to the early 1990s, when my wife Laura and I
welcomed a Burmese refugee into our home in Edmonton, while he waited for his family to arrive.
He helped open our eyes to the true nature of the ongoing tragedy in Burma.
I would have liked to have been able to start on a happy note, but the tragic reality is that
life is not getting any better for most Burmese citizens.
The March 18th  report
by the Human Right's Watch and the US State Department
made it clear that the situation in Burma has worsened. As you know, Aung San Suu Kyi
remains under house arrest, along with over 1300 political prisoners that waste away under
terrible conditions in Burma's prisons. Though the government has released a few in the last year,
it has in fact arrested even more.
The report goes on to say that the Burmese government has, "ended its cooperation with
the International Labour Organization on forced labour and that the Burmese military continues
its campaign of ethnic cleansing in isolated areas of the country, a campaign that merits
international investigation to determine if prosecutable war crimes and crimes against humanity
are occurring as well as responsibility for those crimes."
Furthermore, after decades of mismanagement, the country's main export industries, namely rice,
minerals, and even oil, have withered, causing continued food and fuel shortages, and devastating
It's no wonder that all of us -- NGOs, citizens, activists, Canadians of Burmese descent and
friends of Burma -- have become utterly frustrated with the lack of significant change and
Perhaps the only hopeful news in regards to Burma, which I'll discuss later, comes from some of
Burma's neighbours, such as the Philippines and Malaysia, who, in the context of recent ASEAN
negotiations, have openly expressed concern and frustration with the Burmese government.
Canada's Response to Burma
Canada's response to Burma has, in the past, been in some ways quite commendable and certainly
Canadians have consistently responded in a strong manner to the regime's actions. We were one of
the first countries to suspend bilateral aid and official commercial relations in 1988. We were
also one of the first countries to implement export controls, to disqualify them from Canada's
Market Access Initiative for Least Developed Countries and, post-1997, call on Canadian companies
to suspend further investment. Senior officials of the government and military are still banned
from entering Canada and travel restrictions are still imposed on Burmese diplomats in Canada.
This may not seem like much, but when we see that Canada has not taken these steps in so many
other countries with horrendous human rights records, such as Sudan, Iran and even China, we
have to recognize these policies as being significant and meaningful.
On the other hand, imports from Burma are significant and continue to grow, despite our
knowledge of widespread forced labour in the country. Burma also remains the world's second
largest producer of opium after Afghanistan, and the largest source of heroin entering Canada.
We have to reiterate to Canadian companies NOT to engage in further investment agreements or
commercial ventures in Burma until there is marked improvment in the political situation.
Some observers argue that Canada should go further, banning trade and investment altogether
through the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA). I recall that this possibility was examined
two years ago, but it was determined by officials that acting without the rest of the international
community would be fruitless. Is it not time to revisit that initiative?
We have to continue to make every effort to have the regime's conduct raised in international fora,
including working with other concerned countries at the UN to make clear
that the regime's continued failure to engage in democratic dialogue is not acceptable to the
international community. From 2000-2003, Canada co-sponsored strong resolutions on the human
rights situation in Burma ad the UNCHR and the General Assembly and showed its support for measures
passed by the International Labor Organization to eradicate forced labour. Current officials should
be encouraged to rejuvenate our former efforts and once again exert Canada's voice on Burma.
Over two years ago, [then] Minister Graham delivered a clear message against the military regime at
the ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia. We should be asking current Minister Pettigrew if, and how,
Canada has both supported and pressured ASEAN members to engage in a more vocal and critical
A Crucial Opportunity for ASEAN
As you may know, on April 11th, South East Asian foreign ministers, meeting in the Philippines,
failed to reach a consensus on the issue of Burma's ASEAN chairmanship next year. In fact, they
decided to defer any decision until an ASEAN ministerial meeting in Laos in July.
Reports had officials saying that there were "frank and open" discussions about Burma's
human rights abuses and the Philippine Minister Alberto Romulo said he would reiterate calls for
Burma to free pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other tangible political reforms.
However, despite the fact that a number of ministers suggested to Burma's foreign minister,
Nyam Win, that he find a way to gracefully relinquish the role and show progress on democratic
reforms, Singapore's Minister George Yeo maintained that ASEAN ministers are reluctant to
strip Burma of the chairmanship.
Burma's military junta will undoubtedly do everything to defy international calls for the
denial of its chairmanship for 2006 unless, perhaps, there is enough regional criticism.
We should utilize the fact that this issue is becoming a heated one for the regional group and
use it as a leverage point in diplomatic negotiations. Canadian politicians, officials and NGOs
should be in dialoge with those in Indonesia, Sinagpore, Malaysia and the Philippines who have
called for Burma to either proceed on political reform or to step aside in 2006. These
politicians have dared to criticize and to speak out on a difficult issue in order to express
the desires of many in the region to see genuine change in Burma, and thus, their efforts should
be recognized and rewarded.
Burma should only
be given the chairmanship when Aung San Suu Kyi is free from house arrest, when opposition parties
are allowed to participate in the drafting of a new constitution, and when a U.N. envoy is
allowed access to gauge the progress of reforms.
The United States and the European Union have indicated they would boycott ASEAN gatherings if
Burma is at the helm. Canada should also consider this "stick" measure, but also
pursue possible incentives and encouragements for our ASEAN trading partners.
In 1997, when Burma joined ASEAN, the group's members backed the move despite concerns about
its human-rights performance, saying constructive engagement would edge Rangoon toward political
change. Clearly, it has not yet and more creative and intensive measures are needed.
There are few places in Asia where "human security" is more lacking than in Burma.
As we all know, the situtation is not the result of a humanitarian crisis born out of ongoing
war or natural disasters. Rather, it is almost entirely attributable to the regime's economic
mismanagement and complete lack of respect for human rights. Burma's hopes for the future rest
on the regime's ability to open the politcial process, commit to democratic change, and end the
cycle of political repression and economic stagnation that has cursed Burma for almost 40 years.
Our job then, is to continue to support civil society groups in Burma and to encourage our
government to renew our commitments to promoting human rights and revitalise previous efforts
to pressure the Burmese regime into change.
David Kilgour was the Member of Parliament for Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumont in 2005.