Evidence of meeting #36 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 burma.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Aung Din  Executive Director, U.S. Campaign for Burma

1:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Scott Reid

We are the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. Today is May 8, 2012, and this is our 36th meeting.

We are today continuing our investigation into the human rights situation in Burma, and we are joined by Mr. Aung Din, who is the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

Mr. Aung Din, I saw you speaking with the clerk earlier, so I know you've been briefed on the practicalities of how everything works here. Therefore I invite you to begin your testimony.

1:05 p.m.

Aung Din Executive Director, U.S. Campaign for Burma

Mr. Chairman, and honourable members of the subcommittee, thank you very much for holding this hearing today. I am grateful to be here to testify about the human rights situation in Burma, the country in southeast Asia where I was born and raised.

I would like to submit my prepared testimony for the record. I will summarize it now, in 10 minutes.

The historic byelections in Burma were held on April 1, 2012. Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, won 43 seats out the 44 they had contested. The ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the USDP, won only one seat.

For the Burmese regime, allowing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to hold about 7% of the seats in parliament will not constitute any major threat to their hold on power, as USDP and the military still control 80% of the seats in parliament and the military still has veto power to kill any proposed legal changes.

However, the benefits they are gaining from the byelections are enormous. The international community recognizes their political system as all-party-inclusive and legitimate. The pressure and sanctions imposed by the United States, Australia, Canada, and the European Union are being significantly eased or suspended. The Japanese government has announced it will write off $3.7 billion in debt, and plans to resume development assistance.

The generals and their cronies, who still control the country, may be able to go shopping and send their children to schools in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe soon. In my opinion, the Burmese government led by President U Thein Sein is the real winner of the byelections.

We need to judge carefully whether current developments really substantiate the lifting of sanctions or not. To be sure, there have been significant changes in Burma over the past nine months, but it would be a mistake to assume that they are irreversible or that all things are pointing in a positive direction. Responding to positive changes is one thing; racing to provide rewards may be regrettable.

Let me begin with the issue of political prisoners. The Burmese regime has consistently said that there are no political prisoners in Burma. Nevertheless, the regime released more than 500 political prisoners in October 2011 and January 2012. Those released included prominent leaders of Burma’s democracy movement. This is remarkable.

However, their release is not unconditional. Many of them were released as their prison terms were almost completed, and many were released under subsection 401(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which grants temporary suspension of the prison term. They will be rearrested without warrant by security officials if the president is not happy with their activities, and they will have to serve the remainder of their prison term, in addition to a new sentence.

Furthermore, more than 600 political prisoners, including prominent human rights defender U Aye Myint and student leader Aye Aung, and many Buddhist monks are still in prison. The unjust laws and decrees that the regime created and used to send them to prison are still in effect.

The ineffective and corrupt judiciary system has been and continues to be an instrument of oppression used by the regime against its own citizens. Corrupt judges run the courts without due process and make rulings as instructed by their superiors, or in favour of those who pay the most. Law enforcement officials are brutal and dangerous, and arbitrary detention and torture are their only tools to get confessions from the accused.

I would like to shed some light on the ceasefire agreements and peacemaking process. It is true that the Burmese government has signed ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups. However, these agreements are preliminary and fragile. War in Kachin state and northern Shan state between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Organization is still ongoing and has forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic people to flee from their homes and villages.

Current peace talks between ethnic armed groups and the regime may not lead to the permanent ending of civil war without the establishment of ethnic rights. Such rights include a certain degree of autonomy, self-determination, and proper sharing of revenue generated from natural resources located in ethnic areas, which represent 60% of the country’s total land, as well as a complete end to human rights violations in ethnic areas, committed by the Burmese military.

The ceasefire agreements will not last as long as the Burmese government does not withdraw its troops from ethnic areas and does not try to reach a negotiated political settlement with ethnic groups outside of the parliament.

National reconciliation is not just about dialogue and ceasefire agreements between the government and ethnic armed groups. It should be a process of ending decades of violence, abuses, and impunity for systematic and widespread human rights violations, addressing the suffering of the abused, and holding accountable those who committed the horrible crimes. Any peace-making effort without addressing truth, justice, and accountability will not be credible.

Let me talk about the byelections. It is true that the byelection was historic, because our leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and her party contested and won a landslide victory. However, this victory gave Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about 7% of seats in the parliament. We cannot celebrate such a small gain when our long-standing objective and expectation of Burma’s democracy movement, which is the realization of a meaningful and time-bound political dialogue between the military, democracy forces led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and ethnic representatives that would lead to real democratization and sustainable national reconciliation, was effectively eradicated.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD have promised that it will work on three major issues in the parliament. Number one is rule of law. Number two is internal peace. Number three is amendments to the 2008 constitution. All three major campaign issues need constitutional amendments and additional changes to the laws in order to be fulfilled.

However, the constitution was purposefully crafted to be difficult to amend. At least 20% of lawmakers have to submit the bill to amend the constitution to the Union Parliament, which is a joint session of the lower and upper houses, and the amendment can only be approved by a vote of more than 75% of all the representatives of the Union Parliament. This effectively gives a veto power to the military, which holds 25% of seats in the parliament. Even if all 75% of the elected representatives stand together for the constitution amendment, they cannot win if they are unable to get even one vote from the military bloc.

While the people see some freedom on mainland Burma today, there is no difference in ethnic areas. There are more and more violations of land and housing rights caused by infrastructure and development projects, natural resources exploitation, and land confiscation by the military and its cronies. The government’s decision to grant economic opportunities to the businesses belonging to the military and its cronies are always made without consultation with affected communities and without proper environmental and social impact assessments. These projects have driven the people into deep poverty, landlessness, and displacement.

Instead of withdrawing from the ethnic areas, the Burmese army has increased troops and supplies including food rations and weapons to the ethnic areas. They forced the nearby villagers to carry their supplies from the road to their barracks, and ordered the villagers to provide them with leaves, bamboo, and small wood poles to build or renovate their new barracks, especially before the rainy season comes. The Burmese soldiers have also constantly attacked religious gatherings of ethnic people who are not Buddhists.

Mr. Chair and honourable members of the subcommittee, I support the gradual relaxation of sanctions in a way that is directly tied to progress. A gradual approach enables the international governments to engage and influence the Burmese government in a direction that supports genuine and sustained political reform toward democratization, durable peace, and improved respect for human rights. I worry, however, that the Canadian government may be moving forward in a way that will undermine those goals.

Two days before the byelections, when a journalist asked Daw Aung San Suu Kyi how she would rate the current state of changes towards democracy in Burma on a scale of one to ten, she replied, and I quote, “On the way to one”. She knows clearly that there is still a long way to go.

In addition, the premature lifting of economic sanctions can greatly jeopardize the fragile peace negotiations currently under way between the regime and the ethnic armed groups. The majority of Burma’s ethnic populations believe that the regime is engaging in these negotiations to win economic concessions from the ethnic armed groups. If the international community rewards the regime with economic gains, critical leverage is lost to ensure that national reconciliation and peace is achieved.

Therefore, I would like to make the following recommendations and requests to the Canadian Parliament to balance the fast-track action of the Canadian government.

Number one, the list of designated persons and entities for asset freeze and prohibition on transactions must be updated to include more cronies and hard-liners. The list should be a must-check reference for Canadian companies that will do business in Burma.

Number two, binding requirements or a compulsory framework for responsible business conduct should be imposed for any business that will invest in Burma.

Number three, the cronies and military-owned business entities control every sector of the economy in Burma, especially in banking, airlines, and extractive industries such as oil, gas, power, and mining, so the Canadian government should consider restoring sanctions on these sectors.

Number four, the Canadian government must pressure the Burmese regime to end war in Kachin state and establish a nationwide ceasefire immediately. The Burmese government must allow former political prisoners to obtain passports, so they can make trips abroad; allow members of Burmese civil society to form and operate non-profit organizations freely; release all remaining political prisoners unconditionally; lift all restrictions imposed upon all former political prisoners; allow former political prisoners to go back to school or resume their professions such as legal representatives, medical practitioners, teachers, etc.; and allow international organizations to have unhindered access to areas affected by natural disasters and armed conflict.

Number five, the Canadian government must remind, and keep reminding, the Burmese regime that their full cooperation with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and democratic MPs in parliament and achieving a negotiated political settlement with ethnic nationalities through a meaningful political dialogue outside parliament are the sole factors to justify fully lifting all sanctions.

Thank you very much.

1:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Scott Reid

Thank you very much.

Looking at the clock, it seems to me that we will have time for seven-minute rounds, but we'll have to be quite firm on that. There will be seven minutes for each round as long as we are quite disciplined about keeping it to seven minutes.

Mr. Hiebert, you begin.

May 8th, 2012 / 1:20 p.m.

Conservative

Russ Hiebert South Surrey—White Rock—Cloverdale, BC

Thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Din, for joining us today. I appreciate your very thoughtful testimony. It will be very helpful as we review this issue.

I'd like to just go back and touch on a couple of items that you raised in your testimony, starting with the comment where you state that even if all 75% of the elected representatives stand together for an amendment, they cannot win if they are unable to get even one vote from the military bloc. You made that statement in light of the fact that the military is assigned 25% of the votes.

I am wondering how this works. Why would 75% of the elected representatives not be sufficient?

1:20 p.m.

Executive Director, U.S. Campaign for Burma

Aung Din

This is a constitution that is designed to grant supreme power into the hands of the military. The constitution grants supreme power to the commander-in-chief, so the commander-in-chief can run the military, the armed forces, as he deems fit. The constitution also grants the power to the commander-in-chief to appoint three ministers in the cabinet and also to appoint 25% of seats in parliament, not only at the union level but also at the state and regional levels. Then they make it difficult to amend the constitution by saying that any constitutional amendment should be approved by a vote of more than 75% of the vote.

Some people say that 75% will be enough if we can get some people in the contested seats, and then we could change the constitution, but it is not true. Even if all 75% of the elected representatives stand together, they cannot win if they are unable to get even one vote from the military, and we all know how the military will vote. They will vote as per the instructions made by their commander-in-chief.

So the 25% is kind of similar to the veto power held by five permanent members of the United Nations.

1:20 p.m.

Conservative

Russ Hiebert South Surrey—White Rock—Cloverdale, BC

In your recommendations you went through some very good ones, but your second one references binding requirements or a compulsory framework for responsible business conduct.

Could you elaborate on that? I didn't fully catch that.

1:20 p.m.

Executive Director, U.S. Campaign for Burma

Aung Din

Just like with Canada's gold rush, many foreign companies would like to rush into Burma to exploit the country's natural resources.

Also, people of Burma think that when western investors come to Burma, they are better than Asian investors. Asian investors—from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore—don't care about labour rights. They don't care the ethnic issues. They don't care about Burma's environmental impacts.

But if we don't set any rules for our foreign investors, western investors, they will do it the same way. When they set their foot in the country they want to make a profit. I don't think they will respect labour rights, environmental impacts, the social welfare of the people. We want those companies to be socially responsible, environmentally responsible, and they have to consider the welfare of, the benefits to, the people of Burma. These are the major points.

That's why, for whoever goes to Burma, we would like to set the binding principles for those companies to follow accordingly.

1:20 p.m.

Conservative

Russ Hiebert South Surrey—White Rock—Cloverdale, BC

I see.

You didn't really elaborate in your testimony, although I did see some reference to it in the unread portions, about the violence in Kachin state. You mentioned that it's still ongoing; it has forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic people to flee from their homes and villages.

I'm wondering what you believe are the regime's ultimate goals for the people of Kachin or other minority groups, but specifically the conflict in Kachin. Why after 17 years of ceasefire and reform efforts throughout the country are they now in battle in Kachin state?

1:20 p.m.

Executive Director, U.S. Campaign for Burma

Aung Din

One of the members of the KNU delegation just went to Yangon for a peace talk. She told me that when they were in Yangon, they talked to the region's railway minister, U Aung Min, who was the leader of the government's delegation.

She asked them why they were repeating history. In the past, when the regime had a ceasefire agreement with the KIO, the Kachin Independence Organization, the regime used all the available forces to overrun the KNU headquarters in Manerplaw. Now the regime is trying to reach a ceasefire agreement with KNU and other ethnic groups while using all available force to overrun the KIO Kachin headquarters.

1:20 p.m.

Conservative

Russ Hiebert South Surrey—White Rock—Cloverdale, BC

Why?

1:20 p.m.

Executive Director, U.S. Campaign for Burma

Aung Din

Because they have no intention of having a political settlement.

You know, a ceasefire alone is not enough. What the regime is thinking is, okay, we'll stop fighting, we'll let you run in your own territory, and we'll let you do business, and then this will be finished. But ethnic nationalities are asking for a certain degree of autonomy and self-determination. They won't let this risk their own culture. They won't let it risk their own nationality. They won't let it hide their own identity. This is a fight for identity. They are not asking for separation from their country. They would like to stay in their country, but equally. We are a Burma majority, but they are not a minority; they are also as equal as a Burma majority. Even though they are less in number than the Burma majority, 60% of the country's land belongs to these ethnic nationalities.

So first they are talking about equality. Second, they are talking about their having a real identity and that they will not be ruled. They would like to run their territory without having centralized figures from the central government.

During a ceasefire between the Burmese government and Kachin Independence Organization, KIO tried to get a political settlement. Every time there was a request for political dialogues, we were turned down. Later they were allowed to attend the national convention. At the national convention, KIO submitted their proposals for political change in the Kachin area as well as other ethnic areas. But those requests, those recommendations, were denied by the government.

Finally, once they finished the constitution, those requests made by the Kachin Independence Organization and other ethnic groups were denied, rejected, and not included in the 2008 constitution. Finally KIO realized that waiting for...[Inaudible--Editor]...after the ceasefire agreements, there was no chance to have the political settlement.

Finally, they found that the regime has tried to push them away from the area controlled by the troops because of the...[Inaudible--Editor]...development projects and initiatives and the Chinese petroleum companies to make hydro power projects.

They are going to...[Inaudible--Editor]. When the regime troops asked them to move away from the area controlled by them, to pave the way for the Chinese development projects, which will be a benefit for the Chinese petroleum company, they had to...[Inaudible--Editor]...and now they're going to end the war.

They don't want to end the war without the political settlement. The regime is trying to reach out to them, and has offered a way to make a ceasefire agreement, but KIO will not believe the regime anymore. They have been there. This time they will continue to fight but they will talk as they fight, continuously, concurrently. But the war will be ended only when they have reached the political settlement.

1:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Scott Reid

Unfortunately, that uses up your time. We're at eight minutes, actually.

On to Mr. Marston.

1:25 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Welcome, Mr. Din. We're very pleased to have you here today.

In your testimony you're quite clear with your concerns about Canada's lifting the restrictions so totally when in fact to some degree they've given up some leverage that they may have had in this country. Sadly, Burma's bad actors are still in control. Other than what could be described as some “window-dressing”, which is a Canadian saying, not a lot has actually happened that is going to improve the democracy in that country.

I've got specific concerns though. I heard your call for ensuring that companies are dealing appropriately with people over there, that there be some kind of system in place, a list of designated persons you talked about.

We had a bill before Parliament called corporate and social responsibility that was defeated, which is exactly and precisely the same kind of thing you're talking about here.

In Burma today, are there Canadian companies operating there, and to your knowledge are they functioning with responsible actions, corporately and socially?

1:25 p.m.

Executive Director, U.S. Campaign for Burma

Aung Din

I know that one of the Canadian companies is called Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe is working together with the Burmese government in a joint venture.

You will know that Myanmar Ivanhoe Copper corporation is on the targeted sanctions list made by the United States government. For me, this is clear that this company is not doing...ethically in Burma. Also, working together with the Burmese military junta, it is helping the Burmese regime to grow richer and richer.

Also, I don't believe those are.... You know, there are so many businesses in Burma, but especially the extractive industries: mines, oil, natural gas, in every sector. I don't think they can do this ethically. First they have to deal with the government. They have to bribe the government. They have to work with the government's cronies to get the business licences to work in these areas. It seems at the beginning stage they have to make a lot of financial support or any other kind of price to those people in authority.

So since the beginning they've had to counter a lot of ethical...[Inaudible--Editor]...in doing business in Burma.

1:30 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

We've had situations reported to us in other countries where Canadian companies have gone in and they've wound up hiring paramilitary security people who were actually accused of functioning in death squads and other such things.

In Burma, it sounds to me as if the government itself, the military, is actually capable of all of these things without having a paramilitary doing it. Do you know anything or do you have any direct information in regards to Canadian companies and the security-type forces that they use there?