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 [2005] 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 inflation.

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 improvement.

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 peer review.

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.

[in concusion]

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.

Date last changed: 2010 March 20

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