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Parliamentary testimony with Tin Maung Htoo on Sub-Committee on International Human Rights on May 3, 2012

Canada-Burma Relations:
Testimony at Sub-committee on Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development

By Tin Maung Htoo, Executive Director, Canadian Friends of Burma -May 3, 2012, Ottawa

Mr. Chair and Honorable Members,

It’s a great honor 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 Burmese democratic movement.

We thank the Government of Canada and Members of Parliament for 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 to the fact that Canada has played an important role in this positive political transformation.

However, we must be also realistic about the rate and extent of change, democracy in Burma has a long way to go. Just before last month’s bi-election’s 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 the position of the Government of Canada 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 possible 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 her decisions to contest in the by-elections is to try to amend the current constitution that is written in favor of the military rule.

Mr. Chair,
You might be aware that 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for the Army. Key cabinet portfolios such as Defense, Home and Border Affairs are also reserved for the Army.

Even more, 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 intensified.  Therefore, for business people in Canada and elsewhere, the immediate suspension of Canadian economic sanctions is a welcoming!

Burmese ambassador to Canada, U Kyaw Tin, said this fact in his interview with Postmedia. Quote:

“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 on that move. It is, of course, a bit early to suspend economic sanctions – a lost opportunity to utilize Canada’s leverage for a genuine political reform.

I feel that we are dropping arms and ammunitions that we could not bring them back if needed – due to some technical difficulties under the legal framework of Canadian legislation. 

We campaigned for this strongest economic sanction 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 suspension of economic sanctions.

For example, E.U suspension of economic sanctions on Burma has six-month review process and one-year extension period.  The United States has similar mechanism in place.

But we haven’t seen such mechanism in Canada. Therefore, we urge the Government of Canada for further clarification on that issue.

We are also aware of the difficulty in invoking the Special Economic Measures Act, or SEMA to impose economic sanction against a country.

In fact, there are certain conditions to be met to invoke SEMA. In the past many years, we were told that Burma wasn’t qualified to meet those conditions so as for Canada to impose economic sanctions. 

However, Canada imposed the strongest sanctions in the world in late 2007. That is because of a strong will of Canadian government, Parliament and public, even overcoming some legislative barriers.

Therefore, I want to say that Canada’s sanction on Burma is quite unique and would like to thank some former and current cabinet ministers who made this strongest sanction possible.

Last week April 27, Canadian Friends of Burma hosted a policy consultation at University of Ottawa with representatives of Canadian civil society organizations and key members of 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 the Minister 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 1st 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 6-point policy recommendations to the Government of Canada.

1. Canada must 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.

2. Canada must call for a nation-wide 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 Burma Army is using new ceasefires to reinforce and resupply troops in ceasefire areas, including sending in more heavy weapons.

More importantly, the violent conflict in Kachin State still remains unabated to this present-day. Peace talks must include agreements on political reform for ceasefires to be sustainable, but thus far the GoM has not agreed to such talks.

3. 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.

4. Canada must maintain calls for justice:
Impunity for past and present Human Rights violations remains unchecked and justice for most 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.

5. Support of local civil society:
Foreign support for decades-long partnerships with civil society and humanitarian organizations accessing Burma from across borders and assisting refugees in neighbouring countries are undergoing a dramatic and deliberate withdrawal by some donor states.

Canada should maintain its cross-border civil society and humanitarian commitments.

6. Sanctions:
CFOB 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 violation and all military-related trades.

We also need to see clarification on the details of the suspension and specific benchmarks set which, if unmet, would cause the revoking of the suspension.

We encourage 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 for the ongoing conflict in Kachin State and to contribute humanitarian relief to refugees and internally displaced people.

I thank you again for the invitation to appear before this committee.

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