Holding Democracy Prisoner
Notes for Talk by Hon. David Kilgour, M.P.
Burma Day of Advocacy
Seminar on Implementation of House of Commons Motion on Burma
Wellington Building, OttawaOctober 24, 2005
On behalf of Parliamentary Friends of Burma, it is my pleasure to welcome again to Ottawa Mr. Sein Win of the National Coalition Government of Burma, who is the democratically elected prime minister of that country. Since the last free election of 1990, Prime Minister Sein Win and countless others have been campaigning relentlessly to open the world’s eyes to the suffering of the Burmese people.
The purpose of this seminar is to ensure that those of us who are in a position to do something about the current plight of Burma – and we can all do something - do not shy away from our responsibilities and do not turn our backs on fellow democrats who yearn to bring about democratic change in their naturally beautiful homeland.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s 3650 Days
Monday October 24th, 2005 marks the day that the leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has spent an aggregate of 10 years imprisoned by the military regime of Burma. She is the only Nobel Laureate on earth under house arrest. It is a testament to her that the regime in Rangoon is so afraid of her and the democratic ideals that she represents that they must keep her under guard. I’m told that she even requires their permission to see her doctors. Along with Suu Kyi, about 1,300 other democratic activists are still held in prisons, their only “crime” being their belief in a democratic way of governance.
Fifty years ago, Burma was a promising democracy with a vigorous market economy and a higher standard of living than virtually all of its Asian neighbours. I understand that for a long period after 1945 Rangoon had more commercial flights landing there than Hong Kong. Today it is one of the poorest and least-developed nations on earth. There are few places in Asia where “human security” is more lacking than in Burma. The situation is not the result of some humanitarian crisis born out of war or a natural disaster. Rather, it is almost entirely attributable to the ruling junta’s gross economic mismanagement and complete lack of respect for human rights.
Since 1962, Burma’s military rulers have committed widespread and systematic human rights violations with impunity, imprisoned thousands of innocent civilians, displaced millions from their homes; and profited from the sale of heroin and other illicit drugs to the world, including Canada. Kung Sa, for a long while the most notorious heroin trafficker on earth, lives in a mansion in Rangoon.
One of the world’s worst regimes
According to the Freedom House Country Report for 2005, Burma continues to be ruled by one of the world’s most repressive regimes, the junta which now calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). They used to be known as SLORC. The SPDC rules by decree; controls all executive, legislative, and judicial powers; suppresses nearly all basic rights; and commits human rights abuses with impunity and showed few signs of being willing to consider meaningful positive reform, Freedom House states.
A March 18th report by Human Right’s Watch and the US State Department 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.” Guy Horton’s book, Dying Alive: A Legal Assessment of Human Rights Violations in Burma, should be read by all of us.
The erosion of freedoms and rights has resulted in a swelling of Burmese refugees. Currently there are over 600,000 children, women and men languishing in refugee camps in border towns in neighboring Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh and India. Furthermore, it has created more than one million internally displaced people; innocent people who regularly undergo harassment, beating and rape at the hands of the Burmese military. CIDA helps by funding Doctor Cynthia Maung’s clinic to help refugees. CIDA also has capacity building projects for Burmese refugees and civil society organizations along the border.
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.
Canada for once has not been silent in the face of this growing quagmire in Burma. 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 on Burma and to call on Canadian companies to suspend further investment there. We also maintain a ban on visits by senior officials and maintain travel restrictions on Burmese diplomats in Canada. We should apply our Economic Measures Act to get all Canadian companies out of Burma.
Recent Motion on Burma
On May 18, 2005, our Parliament passed a motion in May which calls on Canada to uphold its longstanding commitment to democracy and human rights in Burma. It calls on Canada to implement stricter trade and investment sanctions against the military regime, to take a strong stance on human rights abuses and to increase support to the legitimate government of Burma in exile. A key pillar of Canadian foreign policy has always been a concern for human rights, justice and democracy. The motion urges the Government of Canada to act on its own stated principles and play a leadership role in advancing the cause of democracy in Burma.
Like you, I’m associated with other members of the Parliamentary Friends of Burma, who played a valuable role in carrying the motion through from the Sub-Committee stage to the House Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Now we must work together, within the spirit of the motion, to ensure that it is used for the purpose of achieving our objective.
Last week, Burma supporters in Canada called upon the UN Secretary General to put Burma on the agenda of the Security Council. It was based on the call of former Czech President Vaclav Havel and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to take up an urgent initiative at the Security Council in an effort to bring political reforms to Burma.
The Havel-Tutu report of September 2005 stated: “…..the failure of all past interventions makes clear that the Government of Burma now needs to be given a binding obligation to achieve national reconciliation. The Security Council has the authority to act and should exercise this authority in the case of Burma.”
Like you, I endorse this view. The UN is indeed the most appropriate and effective channel to bring justice to Burma. In the spirit of our motion, I now urge the Canadian government push for a very early Security Council intervention. Canada has excellent relations with the five permanent Security Council members. Furthermore, Canada wields influence and has tremendous goodwill amongst several other member states. We must leverage on this to ensure that the Security Council takes very serous heed of the Havel-Tutu recommendations and moves efficiently, effectively and immediately towards an initiative that will bring relief for the suffering Burmese people.
The plight of Aung San Suu Kyi must be at the forefront of any Canadian initiative to bring justice to Burma. The world’s best known prisoner of conscience remains a symbol of hope for millions of Burmese and for many more around the world who wish to see human dignity restored in Burma. Let us not forget that the National League for Democracy won over 82% of the popular vote in Burma. Canada must demand the immediate and unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the thousand or more of her comrades. We must in no uncertain terms condemn this act of the Rangoon regime of holding democracy as a prisoner.
In the true spirit or the motion, Canada must also make a clear distinction between applying economic sanctions against the regime and providing humanitarian assistance. Canada today implements export controls and does not bilaterally provide commercial and development assistance to Burma. But as the Havel-Tutu report itself has pointed out, these have had little effect in pressuring the junta into changing its ways. Furthermore, these sanctions are undoubtedly hurting the innocent people of this country, who in addition to human freedom, also lack such basics as food and shelter.
I suggest that we take an even stronger stand against Rangoon. But let us not use our sanctions to ignore our responsibility towards the suffering people. While steering ahead with sanctions on the one front, we must simultaneously increase our assistance to international humanitarian and aid agencies that assist Burmese refugees and IDPs.
I take this opportunity to congratulate the people gathered here for their unwavering support towards Burma’s emancipation. Make no mistake, your efforts make all the difference and some day will ensure that Burma will be a free and democratic country.
I wish you the best.