Mr. Chair and honourable members, it is a great honour to be here to talk about Burma and to answer your questions related to the current political situation in Burma.
I represent the Canadian Friends of Burma, a federally incorporated non-governmental organization working for democracy and human rights in Burma. Early this year, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the organization, marking a milestone of Canadian supports for the Burmese democratic movement. We thank the Government of Canada and members of Parliament for their unwavering support for the inspiration of Burmese people.
We all know that Burma is now at the crossroads. We have seen some encouraging signs. We should all celebrate the fact that Canada has played an important role in this positive political transformation. However, we must be realistic about the rate and extent of change. Democracy in Burma has a long way to go.
Just before last month's byelections, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was asked about the progress to democracy. She was asked to rank Burma's progress between one and ten, with ten being complete democracy. Her answer? “We are on the way to one.”
We understand that the Government of Canada means to encourage more political reforms by suspending its economic sanctions. It would have been much better if Minister John Baird had waited a bit to see the most likely outcome of Canada's toughest economic sanctions.
For example, if Minister Baird had made an announcement yesterday to modify some of the sanctions, it would have been perfect timing, because Burmese democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her elected colleagues finally decided to enter the Burmese parliament after a period of dispute over the wording for taking an oath to the constitution.
It is, of course, a significant step, but what we have to keep in mind is that there are many challenges ahead. One of the reasons for her decision to contest in the by-elections was to try to amend the current constitution that was written in favour of military rule in Burma.
Mr. Chair, you may be aware that 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for the army. Key cabinet portfolios such as defence, home, and border affairs are also reserved for the army. Moreover, the commander-in-chief has the power to declare martial law and can even abolish the parliament, rendering the military above and beyond both government and the constitution.
In Burma now, international competition for natural resources is intensifying. Therefore, for business people in Canada and elsewhere, the immediate suspension of Canadian economic sanctions is welcome. As the Burmese ambassador to Canada, U Kyaw Tin, said in his interview with Postmedia:
||A number of Canadian firms, particularly in the energy sector, have expressed an interest in joining the rush of international companies that are now in the capital Yangon, looking for potential contracts and opportunities. They see that there are a lot of oil and gas pipeline opportunities over there. Some gold mining companies are also looking for the opportunities.
As a human rights campaigner, I have some reservations about that move. It is, of course, a bit early to suspend economic sanctions. An opportunity to use Canada's leverage for a genuine political reform has been lost. I feel that we are dropping arms and ammunition that we could not bring back, if needed, because of technical difficulties under the legal framework of Canadian legislation. We campaigned for the strongest economic sanctions for more than a decade, and we remain cautious about the fragile political situation in Burma.
In that regard, we have some questions on the nature of the suspension of economic sanctions. For example, the EU suspension of economic sanctions on Burma has a six-month review process and a one-year extension period. The United States has a similar mechanism in place. But we haven't seen such a mechanism in Canada. Therefore, we ask the Government of Canada for further clarification on the issue. We are also aware of the difficulty in invoking the Special Economic Measures Act, or SEMA, to impose economic sanctions against a country. In fact, there are certain conditions to be met to invoke SEMA.
In the past, we were told that Burma did not qualify; the conditions could not be met for Canada to impose economic sanctions. However, Canada imposed the strongest economic sanctions in the world in late 2007. This was because of the strong will of the Canadian government, the parliament, and the public, which even overcame some legislative barriers. Canada's sanctions in Burma were unique, and I would like to thank some former and current cabinet ministers, including members of Parliament, who made these strong economic sanctions possible.
Last week, April 27, the Canadian Friends of Burma held a policy consultation at the University of Ottawa with representatives of Canadian civil society organizations and key members of the Friends of Burma. We are now in the final process of developing a set of policy recommendations to the Government of Canada and we will be able to submit the paper to Hon. John Baird in the coming weeks.
In the consultation, we welcomed the positive advances that have occurred in Burma, including the release of some political prisoners and the April 1 by-elections in which the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won 43 out of 45 seats contested, representing approximately 6% of total seats.
In our opinion, these advances remain in effect tentative, and therefore we maintain our six-point policy recommendations to the Government of Canada.
First, Canada should call for the abolishment of repressive laws and the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Burma. There are at least 493 confirmed political prisoners still behind bars in Burma. The actual number is believed to be much higher.
Second, Canada should call for a nationwide ceasefire and troop withdrawal from conflict zones. The Government of Burma has signed several new ceasefire agreements since 2011. However, these agreements are unstable and in some instances subject to violations. Instead of withdrawing troops, the Burmese army is using ceasefires to reinforce and resupply troops in ceasefire areas, including sending in heavy weapons.
More importantly, the violent conflict in Kachin state is of immediate concern, and it remains unabated to the present day. Peace talks must include agreements on political reform for ceasefires to be sustainable, but thus far the Government of Burma has not agreed to such talks.
Three, Canada must call for an inclusive dialogue. Ethnic and religious minorities and women must not be excluded from further dialogues seeking reform, peace, and democracy.
Four, Canada must maintain calls for justice. Impunity for past and present human rights violations remains unchecked, and justice for some victims remains unmet. More generally, effective rule of law in Burma remains absent. For example, no military officers or soldiers have been tried or convicted for human rights abuses and crimes under Burmese law, including sexual assault, murder, and forced labour, and former military officers suspected of human rights violations hold government positions or office.
Five, support our local civil society organizations. The foreign support for decades-long partnerships with civil society and humanitarian organizations accessing Burma from across borders and assisting refugees in neighbouring countries is undergoing a dramatic and deliberate withdrawal by some donor states. Therefore, we ask Canada to maintain its cross-border civil society and humanitarian commitments.
Six is related to sanctions. Canadian Friends of Burma strongly advocates that all remaining sanctions that have not been suspended be maintained, such as those targeting individuals within the Burmese regime suspected of human rights violations and all military-related trades. We also need to see clarification on the details of the suspension and specific benchmarks set that, if unmet, would cause the revoking of the suspension.
We urge the Government of Canada to continue to push for the benchmarks of progress towards democracy. Perhaps most pressingly, we urge the government to strongly voice concern on the ongoing conflict in Kachin state and to contribute humanitarian relief to refugees and internally displaced people.
I thank you again for this invitation to appear before the committee.
Thank you very much.
Overall, the situation on the surface seems to be very encouraging, but if you look deeply, the situation is different.
When it comes to freedom of expression or free media, there is some freedom of the press, but today, for example, there is more international press today. According to many media advocacy organizations, Burma is still at a very low level in terms of freedoms, in terms of access to the Internet, in terms of publishing some articles critical of the government.
The press law still remains in Burma. You have to go to the censorship board; you have to submit your articles or opinions. In that sense of the media, of course, we have to wait and see how far the current government can provide freedom of expression for Burmese people. Of course, we are not totally satisfied with those situations. Hopefully, there will be more coming.
In terms of the political prisoners, we have received much information about the remaining political prisoners. As I mentioned, it's close to 500 people, but another 400 people are still being verified. Why is it difficult to know the exact number of political prisoners? According to Burmese law, you are not regarded as a political prisoner if you break a law. There are no political prisoners in Burma, according to the current government. It has never said there are political prisoners in Burma. That makes things very, very difficult. But we have many prominent organizations working to verify those numbers. It is also important that we should continue to ask the Burmese government to release all political prisoners, because the international community especially is getting ready to embrace so-called political reforms in Burma.
There were a few mining companies. Some companies got involved in the exploration of some precious stones in northern Burma. Some companies no longer exist there, as far as I know—for example, Jet Gold. That was a company based on the west coast. I don't think they are still in operation. Because of a business war, as you know, they marched out, one after another, and all names disappeared within a few years.
In this particular Ivanhoe case, we should be very careful. We are not opposed to investment in Burma, of course, if it is good for the people, especially people who live in rural areas. But in the Ivanhoe case, we received lots of information about some kind of complicity in corrections, for example. There are also many environmental degradations happening in that area.
I have one example I want to share with you. Recently, hundreds of villagers came out to protest the damming of mine tailings and some chemicals and other materials around their village. They came out and protested against this. These things are being done by Chinese companies.
One thing I wanted to let you know is that the Chinese companies acquired the Canadian Ivanhoe mine's assets. The Chinese companies are doing the work that Ivanhoe did before.
In terms of corporate social responsibility, who is responsible for those environmental degradations in that area? This is the question for us. Ivanhoe consistently denied their involvement, and they always said they were not responsible for that. One very important thing is that Burma doesn't have social responsibility or environmental standards, so companies coming from different countries take advantage of that loophole and then take advantage of everything.
If a Canadian mining company is to get involved in Burma in the near future, we recommend to the government to make sure that they stay away from those kinds of situations, and not repeat what happened in the Ivanhoe mine's operation. We are developing a paper. In that paper we make a specific recommendation with regard to this corporate social responsibility.
Yes. One thing we have to remember is that the military is quite smart in manoeuvring when they play politics. Even today they seem to be quite like military people, but they are quite strategic. They have broken promises in the past. For example, in the 1990 elections, which the opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won overwhelmingly, even though they promised to hand over power to the party that won the election, when they saw the overwhelming support from the public for the democratic movement and the democratic party, they refused to hand over power. That is very obvious evidence of the military changing their position and their heart.
In this situation I am hopeful that some retired military leaders, realizing the fact that Burma is lagging behind many neighbouring countries.... You might know that Burma used to be the most promising land in Asia, but Burma is now at the bottom of all the countries in Asia, even in Southeast Asia. Many millions of Burmese are in neighbouring countries, as slave labourers in Thailand, for example, or India or Malaysia. This is heartbreaking for everyone who loves the country and has the pride of holding identity.
I hope the retired general, President Thein Sein, has the will to change and to move forward. I am a bit cautious in a way, but at the same time I am hopeful that he will be able to move forward, along with other like-minded colleagues, retired generals.
We have to wait and see how far they can go. Some people say these reform processes cannot be reversed, but I want to let you know one thing: the previous military dictator, Than Shwe, is still playing behind the curtain. He is giving all the orders, and if things are not in accordance with his will, he can turn everything around. That's why Burma's situation is very subtle and fragile, as I mentioned in my presentation.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Dr. Htoo, I regret that I had to be in the House when you began your remarks today. When I walked in, you appeared to be referencing the issue that I do want to ask you a question about, and that has to do with the whole matter of freedom of expression.
As you know, today is World Press Freedom Day, on which we celebrate freedom of expression, which the Internet and the social media actually underpinned and helped propel the Arab Spring, certainly in its earlier manifestations.
But we then saw how that freedom of expression, even in the Arab Spring, became criminalized, as in the case of Egyptian blogger Michael Nabil, and also in the case of the U.K.-based journalist, Marie Colvin, who was murdered in Syria. We've also witnessed attempts by government to establish an Internet firewall to exclude the use of the Internet, as Iran is now doing.
So my question to you is, what role did the social media play with respect to the movement and transition to democracy in Burma? Is Burma still criminalizing freedom of expression? What has been the situation with regard to political prisoners or dissidents who have been released? Have they been targeted, or are they free to engage in their advocacy? Also, has Burma sought, like Iran, to build a firewall and quarantine expression re the Internet?
Yes. I also agree with your first point. If we don't do all these things that are good, other neighbouring countries, those that are not actually abiding by environmental studies, for example, China, or India, or other countries.... That is also true. I agree with you to some extent.
What we've got to look at is that we don't have a good track record in a range of communities, especially in that area. Even in Canada there are many mining communities. They have lots of problems in many countries, for instance, South America, or even Africa or in other places.
I'm not saying that I don't agree with you, but we have to work more on that. We have to ask them to be more beneficial for the people and try to stay away from all the environmental degradation. There has to be some kind of code of conduct in place.
But, yes, when it comes to Burma, it's still a long way off. It is wise to refrain a bit until we clearly see a better situation in Burma. Then we can go and do something that will be useful for the people.
Another MP also mentioned this investment-related issue. If we invest in Burma, I repeat again, stay away from mining areas or strategic areas until we clearly see a code of conduct over there.
At the same time, there are other opportunities, of course. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the new democracy movement, said that if there is investment, the investment should be in different areas that are beneficial for the people, for example, in the agriculture area, because 70% or 75% of Burma's population still rely on the agriculture industry and most of them are farmers. That could create more jobs.
When you do business in the mining sector or energy sector, I don't have any evidence that you've created jobs for the local people.