Evidence of meeting #35 for Subcommittee on International Human Rights in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was sanctions.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

1:35 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Thank you.

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Scott Reid

That was a good question, though.

Mr. Sweet, you're next.

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Welcome, Mr. Maung Htoo. Thank you very much. We have a very high respect for human rights defenders, but even a higher regard for human rights defenders who have actually been detained and experienced what it means to have their rights taken away. We're very glad to hear your perspective on the concerns of Burma.

We were having a conversation the other day about the use of Burma versus Myanmar. Why don't you call your organization the Friends of Myanmar?

1:35 p.m.

Executive Director, Canadian Friends of Burma

Tin Maung Htoo

We prefer to use Burma.

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Is there a reason behind that?

1:35 p.m.

Executive Director, Canadian Friends of Burma

Tin Maung Htoo

Yes, I can explain that.

After the military took power and cut down the peaceful movement across the country, not only did they change the country's name, but they changed every name, such as street names and township names, that were given by the British. As you know, the British were in Burma for more than 100 years. In a way, they are showing that we are very nationalist and we don't like the British. By changing all the names, they are trying to gain some kind of political ground, political support.

The question for me is not whether we like the name Myanmar or Burma; it's more the political reason. The intent of the government to change the country's name is just a political one. It's not related to cultural or historical background. That's why we prefer to use Burma.

Also, when the military took power, they were trying to shut down the country and make people conscious that Burma is no longer here and it's the new Myanmar. In the public consciousness, Myanmar is a new country and Burma is no more. That is a tactical way to cover up what happened in the past. That's why we cannot accept that yet. The decision will be made by the elected members of parliament in the near future. Hopefully, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and others will speak on that topic.

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

In a sense, for now, Burma refers to a time of more freedom and a time when the people, rather than the military regime, had the government.

1:35 p.m.

Executive Director, Canadian Friends of Burma

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Thank you for that. The characterization of your testimony, I would say, is significantly less encouraging than when we had our officials here.

Have you experienced this move in the past, in your lifetime, whereby there seems to be a willingness on the military's part to move toward democratic freedom and then pull back? Is there something extra that we don't see that's giving you pause at the moment to be less...? You didn't say it was encouraging on the surface, but you have a lot of caution there as well.

1:40 p.m.

Executive Director, Canadian Friends of Burma

Tin Maung Htoo

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.

1:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

In your testimony you spent a lot of time talking about the sanctions—

1:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Scott Reid

This will have to be very brief, as you are at your time.

1:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Okay. Sorry, Mr. Chair. I'll have to deal with it some other time.

1:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Scott Reid

Professor Cotler, please.

May 3rd, 2012 / 1:40 p.m.

Liberal

Irwin Cotler Mount Royal, QC

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?