Mr. Chair, honourable members, thank you for your invitation to speak with you today.
I am responsible for the South and Southeast Asia and Oceania bureau at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, which includes the divisions responsible for Canada's bilateral relations with Burma.
Foreign Affairs Minister travelled to Burma on March 8, 2012. This was the first official visit to that country by a Canadian foreign minister. He conveyed Canada's hope that the progress made to date will continue and lead to further reforms. He also stated that, “We will be watching, in particular, the by-elections on April 1.”
On April 24, 2012, Minister Baird announced that Canada would suspend some sanctions against Burma, which were among the toughest in the world.
Let me begin with a short overview of the situation in Burma which has served to inform Canadian policy in the past decades.
Burma is a country of some 60 million people, located at the crossroads of Asia, bordering India, China, and Thailand. The Burman majority is predominantly Buddhist, but the government recognizes 135 national races, which generally fall under seven major ethnic groups. These ethnic groups predominate in Burma's rugged border areas and collectively constitute roughly 40% of the country's population, while occupying as much as 60% of its territory.
Burma is approximately the size of Alberta, but its territory includes almost 2,000 kilometres of coastline and numerous islands in the Andaman Sea. A British colony until the late 1940s, it is blessed with a wide range of natural resources, including timber, precious gems and minerals, and energy in the form of natural gas deposits and hydroelectricity potential.
Despite these riches, decades of conflict, mainly in the ethnic-dominated border regions, and oppressive military rule have left the Burmese people among the poorest in the region. According to the latest UNDP data, Burma ranks 149 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. It is the least developed country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The average life expectancy is just over 65 years.
The human rights in Burma have been an ongoing concern for more than two decades, including issues such as crackdowns against protesters, detention of political prisoners, and stiff restrictions on fundamental freedoms including freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. There have also been well-substantiated reports that members of the Burmese military systematically committed gross human rights violations against civilians, particularly in ethnic minority communities, including forced labour, extrajudicial killings, and sexual violence.
Over the years, Canada has consistently spoken up about the human rights situation in Burma, raising this issue bilaterally at all appropriate opportunities, as well as in international forums such as the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council. Specific concerns we have raised included the detention of hundreds of political prisoners, fighting and abuses in ethnic areas.
In response to these violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Burma, Canada, along with other western countries, imposed a range of diplomatic and economic sanctions and other measures against Burma. These have included the suspension of official development assistance; a ban on arms exports; adding Burma to the area control list; excluding Burma from the least developed country market access initiative; and finally, in 2007, a comprehensive ban on imports, exports, and investment, under the Special Economic Measures Act.
These sanctions were designed to cut off all trade with Burma, apart from exports of humanitarian goods such as food or medicines in response to a natural disaster, except if the Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a special permit. As a result, trade with Burma in 2011 consisted of roughly $60,000 in imports and just over $800,000 in exports, primarily the export of medical instruments.
With this background in mind, I would now like to update you on the most recent developments in Burma.
In November 2010, the country held its first general elections in 20 years. Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest at the time, and her party boycotted the elections, though a number of other opposition parties did participate. Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, along with other members of the international community, criticized the process, which was viewed as deeply flawed, neither free nor fair.
Under Burma's current constitution, 25% of all seats in Parliament are reserved for appointed members of the military. Of the remaining seats that were contested, the regime-associated party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, claimed an overwhelming 76.5%.
The new parliament convened for the first time in early 2011, and the new nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein was inaugurated in the spring. This represented the completion of the road map to democracy that had been laid out by the military regime.
Since that time, the Burmese government has embarked on a remarkably reformist path, which has already led to an improvement in the human rights situation, with more steps promised. In the spring of 2011, a small number of political prisoners were released as part of broader prisoner amnesties. More significantly, over 200 were released in October 2011, and in January 2012 a further 650 were released, including several high-profile dissidents and political figures.
Aung San Suu Kyi was herself released from house arrest within days of the 2010 elections. To date, her safety and freedom to travel within the country have basically been protected, unlike on past occasions when she was briefly released but continued to be harassed and was eventually re-arrested.
In August 2011 and again in April of this year, she met personally with the president and has also met on several occasions with other high-ranking members of the government. She has stated publicly that she believes the president is sincerely committed to reform.
Following changes to the country's election laws in late 2011, her party decided to re-register and ultimately to participate in by-elections held on April 1, 2012. These by-elections were to fill 48 seats in state and national assemblies vacated last year by appointments to cabinet. Burmese ministers do not continue to serve as MPs.
By-elections in three constituencies in Kachin state were cancelled, and an NLD candidate was disqualified in one other constituency. Nevertheless, the NLD won 43 of the 44 seats they contested, with Aung San Suu Kyi personally running and winning a seat for the very first time. This is a historic development, even though it gives the NLD fewer than 7% of the seats in Parliament.
Other positive steps have included the signing of ceasefire agreements between the government and most ethnic armed groups. Fighting between the government and these various groups has gone on intermittently for decades and flared up in eastern Burma after the 2010 elections, so new ceasefires are a welcome development. These ceasefires must be followed by more comprehensive peace and reconciliation talks and agreements, but we are encouraged that the government appears to be willing to engage in dialogue.
These and several other developments suggest that Burma is at last beginning to move along a more hopeful and democratic path; however, several concerns remain. It is believed that a significant number of political prisoners, possibly in the hundreds, remain in detention. Canada continues to urge the government to unconditionally release all remaining political prisoners. Despite ceasefires in other areas, fighting continues in Kachin state, and human rights organizations continue to document practices such as the planting of land mines on villagers' property, recruitment of child soldiers and forced porters, and violence—including sexual violence—against civilians. Moreover, access to conflict-affected areas by international humanitarian organizations has been very limited. In his most recent report in March 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomás Quintana, welcomed positive changes in Burma but flagged several other areas still in need of major improvement, including treatment of prisoners, consistency of certain laws and provisions of the constitution with international human rights standards, and reform of the judiciary.
I would be happy to respond to your questions about the situation in Burma and Canada's Burma policy.
I'll be happy to respond to your questions about the situation in Burma and Canada's Burma policy.
Thank you very much.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, honourable members.
Thank you for the invitation to appear this afternoon. I'm pleased to be here. As the regional director general for Asia in the geographic programs branch, I am responsible for CIDA's bilateral development programming in Asia—with the exception of Afghanistan and Pakistan. My colleague, Leslie Norton, is the director general of the international humanitarian assistance programs in the multilateral and global programs branch of CIDA and is responsible there for our global humanitarian assistance programming.
Burma's development challenges are significant. According to the 2011 UN Human Development Report, Burma ranked 149th out of 187 countries on a composite measure of income per capita, life expectancy and education levels. In the border regions where fighting continues between the national army and armed non-state ethnic groups, there is evidence that the depth of poverty is considerably greater than the national average for Burma. In addition to impeding long-term social and economic development in the affected regions, these long-standing conflicts have resulted in widespread displacement within Burma and migration across borders.
From 1950 to 1988, Canada provided over $100 million in official development assistance to Burma. Assistance was directed toward areas such as agriculture, forestry, health, and industrial development, with the occasional provision of food aid.
Following the Burmese army's massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988, Canada suspended bilateral development assistance to Burma. In 2007, Canadian sanctions were strengthened through the special economic measures (Burma) regulations. Under these sanctions, the provision of development assistance other than humanitarian assistance was only possible through a special permit from the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
While the easing of sanctions removes this constraint to Canada providing long-term bilateral development assistance in Burma, at the present time Canada does not have a bilateral development program inside Burma, nor do we provide any official development assistance directly to the Government of Burma.
Under Canadian sanctions, provision of humanitarian assistance in support of crisis-affected people within Burma was permitted. As elsewhere in the world, CIDA provides humanitarian assistance on the basis of need and in response to appeals issued by experienced humanitarian organizations in the UN system, the Red Cross movement, and Canadian NGOs.
In Burma, CIDA has provided humanitarian assistance to help people affected by natural disasters, conflict, and statelessness. Between fiscal year 2009 and fiscal year 2011, CIDA's humanitarian assistance in Burma totalled approximately $29 million. Twenty-five million of this was provided in response to Cyclone Nargis, which struck southern Burma in May 2008, killing 140,000 people and severely affecting 2.4 million others. That sum includes $11.6 million provided by the Government of Canada through a fund set up to match Canadians' charitable contributions in response to the disaster.
CIDA support helped humanitarian partners achieve important results, including the provision of life-saving food assistance to some one million people, emergency shelter material to over 350,000 families, and essential household and hygiene items to over 800,000 people.
In fiscal years 2011 and 2012, CIDA's humanitarian assistance to Burma included $3.5 million to the United Nations World Food Program. Results of this included, in 2011, in northern Rakhine State, provision by WFP of a monthly food basket during the six-month lean season to 70,000 particularly vulnerable households, as well as supporting the regular school attendance of 113,000 students through the provision of a monthly rice ration.
Since 1988, CIDA has also provided assistance to displaced Burmese migrants and refugees through a border area programming approach. The current phase of this programming, which runs until 2015, is the Burma border assistance program, implemented by the Canadian NGO Inter Pares with a five-year budget from CIDA of $15.9 million.
This initiative delivers food, fuel, and shelter to approximately 145,000 refugees in camps in Thailand, as well as health care services for 500,000 displaced Burmese living in border areas. I would note that we have some folks from Inter Pares in the room with us today.
Under this program, with CIDA support, over one million cases of malaria, acute respiratory infections, TB, and severe malnutrition have been treated. This same initiative is helping to improve the capacity of over 50 civil society organizations to access, document, and disseminate information on human rights, including women's rights, and on environmental sustainability.
My colleague Leslie Norton and I are pleased to join our colleagues from Foreign Affairs in answering your questions.
First, as an addendum to my colleague's answer on the question of NGO access, we have, through our CIDA border areas programming, just a very small window on a slice of life in Burma as seen from the border, and we work indirectly with over 50 NGOs based in border areas in the neighbouring countries, principally Thailand but also in the other neighbouring countries. What we are hearing anecdotally from some of them is that they are seeing some improvement in their ability to do things. Some of them are people who go in and out of Burma. Some media organizations that we support report that their websites are no longer blocked in Burma. They can track where the visits to their websites are coming from and they're seeing a definite increase in the traffic on their websites from readers within Burma, so that's encouraging.
At the same time, access is a really big issue for anyone wanting to help in Burma, especially in the border regions and in those places where ceasefire arrangements have not been concluded yet. It's very difficult to get to populations in these border regions. Typically they are so-called ethnic minority populations and it's very hard to access them from within Burma. It can also be difficult to access them from outside, of course.
We have anecdotal stories of some definite changes in the last six months, but still there are huge challenges.
On the question of capacity to assist, in CIDA we are monitoring the developments in Burma very closely. We're encouraged by the changes that have taken place. We have been providing humanitarian assistance, as I mentioned in my statement, and we have been providing assistance to the communities of displaced persons and refugees in the border areas.
CIDA is not opening a bilateral program in Burma at this time. We're monitoring the situation closely. We have staff in the region in Southeast Asia who are in touch with other donor agencies—the UN agencies as well as the international financial institutions, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and bilateral donor agencies, countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, and the U.S. We are in touch with them about what they are doing, but as Mr. Giokas mentioned, the Canadian capacity to be involved on the ground is extremely limited at this time.
They need to more or less put in place what they're talking about. It has been more than just good talk; they've been backing it up with actions. Very often in situations like this we see statements for international public consumption and then actions that defy the intent or apparent intent of the statement. They appear to be doing what they're saying, in other words, developing democratic instances in their institutions and dealing with media freedom and freedom of people.
They really have to deal with a lot of these border conflicts. They have to find a way through this. That's one key ingredient. They are making those attempts, but they have to keep making them. I imagine they will also have to get more appropriate civilian control over all the institutions of their government.
The other thing is economic development. This is where the sanctions have likely had an effect. They will want to attract investment. They will want to see employment. They will want to see economic activity for their people. Without that, everything else will likely become problematic. So there's an economic piece to this that really needs to be developed, and that's where western expertise, technology, innovation, and ability will come in handy. In order for that to succeed, they will need to have the appropriate mechanisms.
As we sit now, it would have to be a brave and bold company to invest in that environment. There's a desperate lack of infrastructure. There's virtually no cellphone capacity, so communications are difficult. The government has been controlled by the military, which will for some time have personal and physical linkages with the important infrastructure and development in that country. They will need to work on a set piece of institutions and architecture to attract the type of investment they will require to create prosperity in their country.
Those things all fit with democratic development. If you have a situation where you're denying your people fundamental freedoms, you're not allowing them to free up their innovative capacity either. If you allow them to free up their innovative capacity and you don't want that to turn into riots in the street, you need to have them gainfully employed or feeling that there are prospects, hope, and a future for them and their families.
That is where we sit now.