In the immediate wake of the visit of Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion to Myanmar, Mizzima sat down with the Canadian Ambassador Mr Mark McDowell to discuss the visit and Canada’s engagement with Myanmar at this important juncture.
The interview was conducted just prior to the Thingyan holiday by Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint at the Canadian Embassy in Yangon.
First of all, please can you tell us about the visit of your foreign minister, Mr Stephane Dion, to Myanmar?
We just finished: in fact, we just dropped him off at the airport, and I have only been back in the office a couple of hours.
It was a really action-packed visit. He was here for less than 48 hours but he had 15 meetings in Yangon and in Nay Pyi Taw, so it was non-stop. I felt very sorry for him because it is a long flight from Canada, more than 24 hours, and they got off the plane and had to go right into meetings. The best known ones were meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi -- they had minister of foreign affairs to minister of foreign affairs talk -- and he also had a meeting with the President. There were also a number of meetings in Nay Pyi Taw with parliamentarians; now that the new parliament is sitting, it is a great opportunity for us to start building ties between Canadian parliamentarians and Myanmar parliamentarians. He met with the Upper and Lower house international relations committees, where they discussed trying to start a parliamentary friends of Myanmar group to link those two parliaments together.
That was just part of what we did in Nay Pyi Taw. In Yangon, he had a very interesting programme because, part of it was briefings with experts and academics, local and foreign, but then he also had a very long meeting here at the Embassy with some human rights defenders, representatives of local grassroots human rights organizations, we can talk about that in more detail. We wanted for him to see Yangon and not just be inside boardrooms all day and sitting in armchairs talking. So he visited the Secretariat, and took a long walk through historical Yangon. So we didn’t want just a photo op in the Secretariat, we wanted him to really see some of the old city, see some of the real life in the historical downtown. And of course, he visited Shwedagon, which is always mind-blowing for foreigners the first time they see it.
In his discussion with the government, what were the main issues both sides discussed and agreed to?
This is [Minister Dion’s] first meeting, so a lot was just getting to know the new government personnel. One of the things picked up in the newspaper was that he announced the first batch of a number of larger-scale projects that Canada is going to be delivering here. The figure of 44 million was cited but really that is the start of what we hope is going to be a stream of development cooperation projects.
I will give you two examples that show you the two different areas that we are looking at. One of them is a programme to support the Forum of Federations [an Ottawa based international organization) and the Beyda Institute here in Myanmar in doing training and research on federalism. As we all know and all [major political] parties agree to, a democratic federal system is the goal of the people of Myanmar and the NLD (National League for Democracy). The Form of Federations are an organisation that collects best practices in federated systems and shares them and discusses them with countries that are seeking to establish, or change their own federal system. So that is going to be a multi-year programme of training. Canada has already been doing it in a smaller scale over the last two years; many NLD members of parliament have been through this training, and so one of the meetings we had in Naypyitaw was with MPs who have been through Forum of Federations training. The consensus is that it was useful and successful and we want to scale it up. So it will be a multi-million dollar training at the Union level but we hope also at State and local level.
That is one type of project we announced. Another was a programme of training for women entrepreneurs in the rural sector. Our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is very interested in gender equality, so we put that idea together with the local conditions here, 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and empowering rural women to become entrepreneurs is really a way to create wealth in the countryside. It would also possibly prevent too rapid migrations to cities, and inequality of wealth in different parts of Myanmar (town versus countryside etc).
So those are two examples of programmes that we announced but there are others and there are going to be many more.
To get back to what we talked about in those meetings, one of the central concerns of our government and our minister of foreign affairs, that is linked to federalism, is the idea of embracing diversity. I think this resonates with the Myanmar experience where national reconciliation is such a key issue. People here think of Canada as a peaceful country, it is an affluent country, but we have had to work through a lot of problems. We are a multi-lingual country with at least two official languages [there are Aboriginal official languages at the sub-national level], and there has been tension between those linguistic and ethnic groups at times in our past and I think through dialogue and institutional arrangements we have overcome that. It is an ongoing process, never ending.
So we think that Canada is actually quite similar to Myanmar in a lot of ways: multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural. And our Minister was very interested having a dialogue about these issues. Not because we are bringing a recipe for success, but because both sides have a lot to learn: we think we have experiences, good and bad, to share with Myanmar.
And then of course, the issues like economic development, environment was a very key issue that was discussed in a meeting with the President. Usually you want to brief your minister about everything that is going to be discussed in such a high level meeting, but we were surprised – pleasantly -- that President Htin Kyaw spoke very passionately about the environment and climate change. For our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, one of his central concerns is climate change, so we are starting to think now about how Canada can cooperate with Myanmar to mitigate the effects of climate change, and adapt to climate change, because it is going to be a very serious issue here.
When we look at the broader bilateral relationship, what would you say are the main priorities and areas of focus between the two countries, especially because Myanmar has a new government and you also have a new government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. What are the main priorities?
I am glad you mentioned the fact there is a new government in both Canada and Myanmar. We are also going through a transition, new Cabinet, new leadership, new policies, we are very familiar as civil servants with what is going on here in Myanmar. What are the priorities? Well maybe if I can go back two years, three years, or even further. You may know that Canada and Myanmar had a very icy relationship for about two decades or more, and after the announcement was made to open the embassy, our first staff on the ground arrived here permanently in early 2013, and I arrived later that year. The embassy office opened in 2014. So we are a very new embassy and our footprint is fairly small, fewer than a dozen staff. Therefore we have had to be very targeted in the things we want to get involved in. We can’t do everything.
In the first year or two, we were focused on supporting grassroots organisations here, especially ones dealing with civil liberties and human rights, and that was a very efficient use of funds, because a little bit of money given directly to a local organisation is the most efficient way. So until now, the priority has been human rights and governance, helping Myanmar in its path to reform.
The economic relationship has actually grown very fast but from a very, very small base. So that is something I would like to see over the next couple of years developing, and maybe we can talk about that later on in our discussion.
Another pillar is development cooperation and that is something we have only been able to gear up to now because it takes a lot more staff, and now we have grown the embassy to where it is not like a corner store, mom-and-pop operation anymore, we have a fully-functioning embassy that now has trade, development, political sections so we are able to have a broader relationship with Myanmar.
In terms of trade, I understand there was almost none before 2010, so can you tell us about the progress and figures between the two countries?
Right, if you look at the percentage increase between 2010 until now, in five years, you would think we have done a fantastic job. The growth is something like 5,000 percent, but we have to admit is that it started from such an incredibly low base. The bilateral trade now is about 50 million dollars a year, but we think there is a tremendous opportunity for growth. There is also a tremendous opportunity for investment here, because a lot of the expertise that Canada has fits very well with Myanmar’s needs. People know of Canada as a resource-rich country, and it is a resource-rich country but we have also managed those resources in a way that has brought maximum benefit to the country and limited negative side effects; to develop resources in a way it benefits local communities and mitigates negative environmental impacts, negative social impacts. So we see a lot of potential in this country for investment, trade in natural resources.
So you may ask, where are all the Canadian natural resource companies? Half of the mining companies in the world are listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Canada is really the global leader in small-scale exploratory mining. But those companies have not come here in the numbers you might expect, and the reason for that is that it is not a lack of riches waiting to be discovered here. It is more about the regulatory environment. The legislation about mining, the legislation about investment, and also the broader issue of rule of law are the keys, because if a company thinks that their assets can be taken away or they can be sued, they won’t be able to win a fair fight in court, there are many places in the world you can invest, there are a lot of places in the world to dig. So that is really what has to change here.
One thing that has been mitigated over the last five years is the political risk. So there is less worry about political risk than ever, I think, but the issue of the regulatory environment and the legal structure remains.
If I could pick another case, would be the financial services. So for example, I don’t want to sound like an advertisement, but let’s use the company ManuLife as an example. ManuLife is a Canadian company with a representative office in Yangon, but they are not selling any insurance right now because the sector is not open. The worry is that Myanmar companies will be hurt by it but I think it would raise the game of Myanmar and competition, we all know is the way to increase productivity and increase standards of living. So I think that will be a real challenge for this government over the next five years. And all of those things, opening legislation and opening sectors that is difficult work and takes time. You can’t just say – “now we want a free and open economy”.
Are you optimistic with the new government, with the change of government here, there will be more and more Canadian companies in these sectors, you mentioned mining, finance, banking?
Mining, finance, banking, there are a lot of areas. There was Canadian participation at the IT sector show in Yangon last November, and some of these small Canadian IT companies made small sales, they provide IT solutions. So there are these small successes. The agricultural sector is another place where Canadian expertise and Myanmar’s needs mesh very well. Canada is an agricultural powerhouse and things like lentils and peas that Myanmar grows, Canada grows as well. You don’t think of these two countries having something in common, but they really do. And I think there is a lot of opportunity there for Canadian technology, Canadian expertise, Canadian distribution chains, those types of technologies, hard and soft technologies.
So, whether I am optimistic or not? I would say, yes, I am cautiously optimistic.
The regulations. There is no agreement between the two countries on foreign investment?
Not so far. That is something we are looking into very actively right now. So that is a possibility. But businessmen don’t invest because they think the country is nice or because it is an inspiring story. They invest because they think their investments will be profitable and safe.
Your mentioned Canadian commitment to human rights and in supporting the human rights groups in the country you have been very actively doing. Myanmar has been struggling with the human rights issue, we have political prisoners, hopefully some of them will be released today and tomorrow, before our new year, and we have been criticized, Myanmar has been criticized on the human rights situation by the United Nations and bodies. Do you expect an improvement in the human rights situation in the near future?
I am optimistic about continued improvement. We have to give the former government credit. It was a semi-democratic government but a lot of progress was made, again from a very low base. I think this government is committed --and the prisoner release is an example of it -- to continuing that improvement. But human rights is not a thing that is ever finished. In affluent countries, countries that have been democracies for a hundred years, we still have to worry about human rights. There are human rights violations, people in positions of power can act with impunity, groups can be marginalized. So don’t think that okay one day we are finished, we’ve got perfect human rights, and it’s done. You have to be constantly vigilant.
That said, there are still a number of issues here that are of great concern. There is conflict, and in conflict areas there are always human rights abuses. There are issues of interethnic and intercommunal violence here that we hope are going to be on the wane and disappear.
Let me give you a couple of examples of things, these are small examples of projects that Canada has been funding for the last couple of years. We are an active supporter of PEN Myanmar, which works for freedom of expression, freedom to publish, freedom to speak, and so on, and that is a freedom that is under attack in many parts of the world, in countries that are much more developed than Myanmar. So it is a credit to them that their work is so high profile. They are very professional and very active here.
Another one is the Human Dignity Film Institute that puts on the human rights film festival every year in Yangon in June. We are proud that we actively supported that from the very first year. In fact you may know their student film award is named after Peter Wintonick, a Canadian film maker. There is a tremendous Canadian connection there beyond funding. We are very proud of our documentary tradition and we are happy to see that documentarians are becoming human rights defenders here. And the other aspect of it is, it is not just a way to protect human rights domestically and to talk within Myanmar about protecting human rights: these are stories everybody in the world is interested in. Everybody in the world is interested in Myanmar, and for the past half century we haven’t heard the real stories that are coming out of Myanmar and the documentary tradition is a fantastic way for people in Myanmar to tell the whole world about their stories. So we are very proud to facilitate that.
Allow me to go back to the history, where Myanmar and Canada are concerned, that goes back even before Burma achieved independence. There were Canadian soldiers in the Allied Forces who were fighting against the Japanese occupation in Burma during World War II. Can you recall some historic ties that the two countries had?
Again, a lot of people in Myanmar think of Canada as this very distant, different country, that may be a pleasant place but has no connection to Myanmar. But actually Rangoon, a hundred years ago was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Asia. Sun Life and Manulife were Canadian companies that had offices in old Rangoon, more than 100 years ago. So there are commercial ties that go back a very long way. We have photographs of board of directors meetings of Canadian companies a hundred years ago. As you said, there was substantial Canadian participation in the air force that drove the Axis troops out of Myanmar in 1944- 45. There are many Canadians buried in the Commonwealth War cemeteries here, particularly in Taukkyan.
And then in the 60s and 70s, we had the Columbo Plan, and Canada was very active here. If you go to the Yangon Children’s Hospital, not the Yankin branch, but the old building of the Yangon Children’s Hospital, the original building, you will see on the cornerstone a little red maple leaf and that was a sign that it was built with Canadian assistance and Canadian technology. And that is an area we would really like to restart, cooperation of health, because health is another area where Canada has a lot to share. We have outstanding hospitals and research but maybe more importantly, outstanding public health, is something a developing country like Myanmar needs.
As I said, after that there was this quarter century of kind of a freeze. And so a lot of the ties between Canada and Burma, they disintegrated, no trade, no investment, no development cooperation. It was very hard to get a visa to go to Canada, so there were very few Burmese tourists or foreign students and very few immigrants. And of course, no high level ties and no embassy here. So really the relationship between Canada and Myanmar was down to zero. So this embassy is kind of like a start-up. But sometimes there is a benefit to arriving late. You can approach things differently, maybe move more quickly when you are a late starter. And that is what we hope we will be doing. We are a bit of a late starter here, but we really want to make up for lost time. We want to rebuild that relationship between Canada and Myanmar. And as I said we started with a lot of assistance to grassroots organizations. Now we have more high level visits, this is the third ministerial visit we have had. We have talked about our new development cooperation. We’ve opened a visa application centre. We have a relationship becoming broader and more mature. And I really hope especially as trade takes off and development cooperation there will be more dollars. Not just goodwill but also money behind the relationship.
Canada has been consistently supporting the democracy movement for more than two decades and one of the things that Canada did for Burma, Myanmar was allowing the Burmese activists or exile community to resettle in Canada. Many of them I am aware that they have been doing very well in Canada, many of them are workers in companies. What is the role they can play now, in your opinion? Myanmar has a space or Myanmar is transitioning to democracy.
Let’s look at it from two ways: what can they do for Canada, what can they do for Myanmar. Canada views its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic makeup as a real asset. So there are many Chinese Canadians, Indian Canadians, Portuguese Canadians, Italian Canadians, and they very often act as a bridge between the two countries. It is not something that is organized by the government or anything like that but it just happens naturally. I believe James Myint Swe, who is a Burmese author and historian, said, immigrants, wherever they come from have two loves, they are in love with the country of their birth and the country they adopted. But those two loves can coexist very well. Such people can act as a bridge and you know for Canada they have been a tremendous asset, facilitating international business, and just bringing a general international understanding.
We are happy to see Canadians coming back here bringing entrepreneurial expertise, capital, and there are a lot of Burmese Canadians who are interested in making a contribution maybe for example as volunteers, or to try to make a contribution to things like human rights and peace, and so on. Immigrants are people with really a unique world view and unique skills.
Your new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he is a young leader, can we expect him to visit Myanmar, especially young people to get inspired very soon?
There are no plans right now. I would love to have him visit here. We are a little bit exhausted now since our own minister just left today but that would be fantastic. You mentioned youth earlier, and I wanted to say that Prime Minister Trudeau also kept one cabinet post for himself, which is Minister of Youth. He is very concerned with gender equality but also with youth issues, and I think he has inspired Canadian youth to be interested in politics, to be more interested in issues that not only are going to affect them now but in twenty or forty years. So I think he has been a tremendously positive force in that sense. And he has also been very good publicity for Canada. Canada is often seen as a very successful country but a little bit boring, right, compared to maybe its neighbour. But I think Trudeau has brought a bit of excitement to the image of Canada as a young leader with a vision and a lot of charisma. And an ability to talk directly to citizens in a very genuine way.
Since you opened the embassy here a little more than two years ago, I have seen very active use of social media by the embassy, especially on Facebook. Why?
I came here from Beijing where I was in charge of public diplomacy, and we made tremendous use of social media there. It is a very different environment because there was not as much freedom of expression, so we went to virtual space to get our messages out on Weibo, the Chinese version of Facebook. Here it is a little bit different. It also goes back to what I said about the virtues of being a latecomer. We came here and we realized, okay, we are much smaller than other countries and we don’t have the same kind of assets on the ground . . . how can we make an impact, how can we get our message across? That forced us to think, instead of using traditional diplomatic tools, to put a lot of our thought and emphasis on Facebook. It is a way to engage directly with the population of Myanmar, particularly with young people.
We can post on Facebook and we reach 200,000 people. Our approach on Facebook has been very conversational, informal. In a way that reflects our country, we want to be friendly, we want to talk to people in Myanmar on equal terms, want to exchange. We want to give information about Canada, about things we are doing here, also help people here understand a little bit better Canada’s priorities, Canada’s outlook, but we do it in a very conversational way. We hope it is fun as well. We don’t want it to be a boring government propaganda tool, we want it to be engaging and entertaining.
We have an issue of the negative side of social media especially in times of crisis and social tension. What do you think about that? How can Myanmar handle this the best way possible?
Every broadcast medium has a good and a bad side. I find in a lot of cases actually the community can police it itself. There will be a discussion on social media, it will burn itself out, or it will be resolved in some way. You are talking about the hate speech or incitement to violence, I think the issue here is we have to be very careful here that we don’t use fear of hate speech as maybe a kind of a wedge that will start closing down space for freedom of expression. We have to be very cognizant of the fact that freedom of expression is in itself a way to resolve issues and I am quite convinced that tolerance and mutual respect are things that are quite reasonable and logical, and with a free discussion most people will come to support them.
On the other hand, if there is incitement to violence that has to be dealt with by the law. But it is just drawing that kind of fine line. We’ve been very fortunate here that we haven’t experienced much negative commentary on our own Facebook pages. I don’t think we have every deleted any negative comment because if you don’t like our government policy, that is fine, you are free to speak and it is great for us to get that feedback. When you are a diplomat, people are very polite to you, very nice, but we want to hear the people’s real opinions.
So I should have said that was the other reason why we wanted to be active on social media. It is not just a broadcast medium for us. One of our other problems was because of this long period where we had very little contact we didn’t have a good understanding of what people in Myanmar are thinking, and I think social media in a way allows you to read people’s minds. It is a way to read the mind of the community, because people say on social media exactly what they are thinking. People in Myanmar they will never say impolite or awkward things to a grey-haired foreigner, so it is very useful for us to listen carefully to social media to find out what people think about Canada and all kinds of other issues. Follow us on Facebook.com/CanadaYangon.
We have been having peace negotiations in the last four or five years in the country. Some results but still fighting, some tension in some areas is still going on. What do you think of the peace process in Myanmar? Is there any role for Canada in the peace process?
The peace process has to be managed by the Burmese people themselves. Foreigners are not going to come in and solve your problems, and I am sure Myanmar people don’t want foreigners to come and try to solve your problems. Just as in other areas, in development cooperation, or human rights, Canada wants to respond to the needs of the Myanmar people. We don’t want to come in and tell you how to fix things. We have played a very peripheral role in the peace process. But perhaps we can play a role in the process of helping participants in the peace process better understand how these processes work successfully or unsuccessfully in other countries. That is an area where we could possibly fund training, fund exchange of experiences, something like that. But we will only play a role at the invitation of the Myanmar people.
Another subject I would like to touch on is Canada’s role in the world. You now have a new leader in Justin Trudeau and you are a neighbour to the United States. What do you think about your leader’s role in this changing world?
I think the new government has very clear ideas how it wants Canada to be perceived in the world and one of the major initiatives of our new government is it wants to reengage in a much deeper way with the United Nations system. Canada is a firm believer in multilateralism and is well known for its emphasis on multilateralism and peaceful globalism, our in peacekeeping around the world and very active participation in UN activities. This current government wants to regain Canada’s place as a player in the multilateralism system. In fact it is not just nomenclature we renamed our ministry “Global Affairs Canada” because the Prime Minister has a view of Canada’s role, and a view of the key challenges facing humanity as global issues, such as climate change.
You have been in this country for more than three years. What are the moments that have been important to you so far? I am sure you witnessed the November elections, so what are the things that have been important for you?
I covered Burma from 2003 till 2007 when I was head of the political section in Bangkok so I visited very frequently over that four year period. So actually my experience in Myanmar is over a period of about 13 years and I have seen tremendous changes from 2003 till today and I don’t really see the pace of change slowing down. There are many more and bigger days to come in the future I am sure. But if I was going to pick one day I would have to say it Election Day. I mentioned we have a very small embassy but we fielded seven teams of election observers. Everybody in our embassy except for one person who had stay behind and manage the office was an election observer. A colleague from Bangkok came and the Burma desk officer from Ottawa so there were fourteen of us and we split into two person teams and we did our observation in the Irrawaddy delta, in Bago, in Mon State and Kayin State and in Yangon of course. Among those seven teams I believe we visited some fifty polling stations and also viewed the counting at the polling stations.
My day was very special because I went the day before to Bogalay. I have a great affection for the town of Bogalay because in addition to being posted as a diplomat to Bangkok I was also here after Nargis when I worked on a study of civil society response in Bogalay. I was very happy to get back to Bogalay and see the tremendous recovery that has taken place between Nargis and now. To get [back] to Election Day, like many people I woke up about 4.30-5.00 in the morning it was very dark. I am not a morning person I don’t like getting up at five o’clock in the morning but when my alarm went off I was very excited, so I jumped out of bed and went to a restaurant to get something to eat, the monks were all leaving the temples it was a very serene atmosphere, chanting, still very dark, but the city coming to life. I had my breakfast in a leisurely way because I thought the polls don’t start till six I have lots of time and I was so surprised when I got over to the polling station at maybe ten to six and there was a line up lots and lots of people the polling station was a hive of activity. I was so impressed with the organisation of the polling station, because there were all of these stories that the election was going to be a disaster. Voter lists are terrible and things are disorganised. As you know the polling station were all runs by women in their forties, fifties, sixties, and it was all very well organised like a military operation.
It was exciting like it was the day of a big championship football game or something like that or maybe more like the day you get married. Because very exciting but also a little bit frightened because it could go very wrong. So there was that kind of fear and excitement at the same time and then the polling started and maybe after about an hour and it started to get light and the city was even more lively you could feel the mood started to change. People’s nervousness was evaporating like the morning dew under the sun. You saw more and more smiles and less worry and by about ten or eleven o’clock people were taking selfies and chatting and “oh foreigner, foreigner come over here and take a picture” and the mood started to become more happy. I drove back to Yangon to visit some polls here and I finished the day in the area around the embassy which as you know is a very interesting multicultural area. I went to a very small poll in a shop front and it was absolutely packed with people and everybody had their cell phones out taking pictures and videos, again, a very exciting atmosphere it was like we were watching some sort of sports event you could feel the excitement as the names on the ballots were being read out. I think by the end of the day everybody had this great feeling of not only relief but achievement as well and that this was really a landmark. Not just for the party that won although it was tremendous victory for the NLD but it is also a victory for the reform process that this election had been carried out with a high degree of organisation and relatively few problems. We know there were problems in Rakhine state and conflict areas but it was a really amazing achievement. Also it was not like in a championship football game where ok now the seasons over, but rather a start of something new. It is really a victory for everyone and it’s the start of a new story. That is definitely the most exciting day I have had here.
Once last question. You have made the embassy staff ware longyis why?
I will give you a couple of reasons. The obvious reason is that the longyi is much more comfortable in this climate we always wear a longyi on Friday and usually also on Monday as well. It is much more comfortable if out go in the day time to get lunch I am cooler and feel more at ease.
Another thing is I want to express that, Myanmar is going through a process of modernisation but don’t lose the important things that make Myanmar, Myanmar shouldn’t have a desire to be something else. Definitely you want to be modern in the sense of good healthcare good education and technology but the longyi is very practical, beautiful tradition and I think we should keep it. Just like chinlone - I love seeing people playing chinlone in parking lots and alleys and on the street. I think it is a fantastic sport that Myanmar should share with the world. I am a terrible chinlone player but I am good at tying a longyi I think. I have never had any Canadian staff say ‘I don’t want to wear a longyi’: maybe they are nervous the first time or embarrassed but once somebody wears one they don’t want to go back.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I guess the only thing I would like to add is to reiterate what I said about the Canada-Myanmar relationship. We are countries that are quite different in a lot of ways but I think differences can be complimentary. We have enough the in common that it creates a lot of potential for cooperation and collaboration. I think as Canada and Myanmar get to know each other again after a long separation, this is going to be a very beautiful and productive friendship.