With Canada’s Conservatives set to retain power according to preliminary results of the country’s General Election, a series of US diplomatic cables has shed light on aspects of his administration’s foreign policy since it took office in 2006.
Burma comes up in most of the recently-released documents, which were made available to the public a week after the new Burmese Ambassador to Canada had his credentials accepted. On April 19 2011 Canada’s Governor-General David Johnston met U Kyaw Tin, Burma’s first Ambassador to Canada since 2004. The last incumbent, U Win Tin, was recalled to Burma after the arrest and detention of Gen Khin Nyunt and the purging of his intelligence personnel. Canada’s Ambassador in Thailand currently handles his country’s relations with the Burmese Government.
One possible task facing the U Kyaw Tin might be to discuss the invitation made to Aung San Suu Kyi by Mr Harper on December 27 2010, to visit Canada, where she would likely receive her honorary Canadian citizenship, which Harper previously announced on October 17 2007.
At that time, the Burmese military was cracking down on protestors across Burma, after the monk-led Saffron demonstrations that had taken place since August that year, and riveted a global audience. Harper was at the time at the head of a minority Government, but Canada’s Burma outreach had unanimous support in the country’s parliament, according to US cables.
The cables show that Canada is broadly in line with US policy on Burma, partnering with the Americans on supporting civil groups and activists seeking democracy and human rights in Burma.
In one high-profile case, the Quebec Women’s Federation launched the Canadian “Panties for Peace” campaign, to spotlight violence against women in Burma, where the army is accused of widespread rape in ethnic minority areas.
According to a US cable, “the campaign plays on the military junta’s fears that touching women’s underpants robs men of their strength”, a reference to one of more lurid superstitions that are said to sometimes affect decision-making by Burma’s rulers.
On a more conventional diplomatic note, a US embassy cable from Ottawa, dated January 22 2008, described Evelyne Coulombe, Deputy Director for the Southeast Asia and Pacific division of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), tell the American officials, according to the US account in the cable, that “Canada is taking every opportunity to encourage other countries to impose import bans on Burma”, after Ottawa implemented economic sanctions against the Burmese Government in December 2007, in response to the crushing of the Saffron revolt.
Less successfully, as it appears in retrospect, was Coulombe’s assertion that Canada was “continuing to pressure ASEAN to take a tougher stance on Burma”. ASEAN has its fist 2011 summit later this week in Jakarta, with Burma pressing the rest of the bloc to allow it assume the Chair of the group in 2014.
Burmese exiles and activists in Canada appear to have significant influence on DFAIT thinking on Burma, according to a cable dated May 8 2008. According to the document “the Political Section maintains close contact with the “Friends of Burma,” an exile group working to raise awareness of the human rights situation inside BURMA and to urge the Canadian government to take a stronger stand to help the people of Burma”. More specifically, the cable says that FOB advocacy led Canada to impose stronger sanctions against the Burmese Government
However the case for sanctions against the junta was seen by some as self-evident. That cable came just days after Cyclone Nargis killed an estimated 140,000+ people in Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta, leaving 3 million homeless and wrecking homes, farms and livelihoods. The Burmese Government was unwilling to allow international humanitarian aid or personnel into the country or the affected region, earning the junta renewed international opprobrium just six months after the army crackdown on the Saffron street protests.
A day later, another cable attributed remarks to a Canadian official that Canada “is pressing for (the delivery of) humanitarian assistance through the UN”, as western countries met to form a policy response to junta intransigence on the aid delivery stand-off. According to the account in the cable, the Canadian Government sought assistance from the Burmese Charges D’Affaires in Ottawa, who in turn was described as “noncommittal” to “Canadian entreaties”, and merely promised to fax them to Rangoon.
On the same day, Canada’s House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion on Burma, which the US Embassy saw fit to note in its cable. That motion laid bare Canadian anger at the Burmese junta’s “deplorable response to the crisis following Cyclone Nargis”, and went on to pointedly “condemn the unprecedented seizure of international aid shipments by the military regime”.
By May 23, after some small progress on getting international aid and staff into Burma, a more mellow tone is clear from the Canadian side, according to the US Embassy accounts. Three Canadian Government representatives were admitted into Burma to attend a UN-ASEAN conference in Rangoon. DFAIT Director of Humanitarian Affairs and Disasters Response Group Leslie Norton told the Americans that “Canada wants to keep political concerns separate from humanitarian relief efforts, and has no plans to issue a statement regarding the next round of BURMA’s constitutional referendum or the expected renewal of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.”
While final results of the Canadian election are yet to be announced, Harper’s Conservatives look set to win an overall majority for the first time, with the Liberal Party, which has been the dominant force in Canadian politics since independence from Great Britain, set to lose heavily and fall into third place behind the leftist New Democrats, who appear to have sucked up votes from the Liberals and the separatist Bloc Quebecois.