Mark My Words
covering burma and southeast asia
Wednesday, December 12, 2018


Mark My Words



British ambassador to Burma, Mark Canning, talks to The Irrawaddy about the role of the UN and Asean in Burma, the Cyclone Nargis relief effort and his expectations for the election in 2010

Mark Canning

Question: How do you assess events in Burma in 2008?

Answer: It was a bad year on almost all fronts. It was especially cruel that on top of all their other problems, the people of this country had to cope with the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis—but at least we’ve seen some good progress. After a difficult start, relief reached those who needed it, a creative mechanism was established for overseeing the operation and a number of tricky problems were overcome.

Elsewhere, there was no movement, in fact quite the opposite. The UN secretary-general himself said very recently that the degree of cooperation between Myanmar [Burma] and the UN had been unsatisfactory. There was no move toward any sort of dialogue between the government and the opposition. There was continued repression.

Q: Many critics, including Burmese both inside and outside the country, believe that Gambari’s mission has been a failure. What can he do to win greater credibility for his mission and to achieve political reconciliation in Burma?

A: The UN is playing a key role and we support it 100 percent. Dr Gambari has been working the problem extremely hard, but, as he and the secretary-general have made clear, the level of cooperation from the government has simply not been good enough.

It’s crystal clear there’s not been the kind of progress over the past 12 months which a number of countries claim to have seen. In fact, the situation has gone backward and will continue to do so until there is clear and unambiguous backing for the UN.

Q: The UK played a major role in the cyclone relief operation—where do you see things going now?

A: The operation is going far better than we feared at the outset. The Tri-Partite Commission Group mechanism has proved a great success, and there has been excellent collaboration between the government, Asean and the UN. Most of the affected population is getting some form of support, a wave of secondary deaths has been avoided, and the operation has been instrumental in saving hundreds of thousands of lives. 

Q: Do you think that the “humanitarian space” in the delta can be expanded to other areas of the country? If so, what makes you believe that this will be possible, and what obstacles do you foresee?

A: That’s certainly the hope of all of us who are involved in the operation. The Nargis operation has helped build confidence and trust between the government and the donor community. We’ve seen good cooperative working, and both local and international NGOs play a fantastic role. It’s important in coming months that collectively we start to raise our eyes from the delta to address some of the serious situations elsewhere. 

Q: The UK has tended to take a hard political line on Burma. Why in this case were you willing to donate so generously? And how would you respond to sceptics who say that aid organisations cannot operate effectively in Burma because of government restrictions?

A: We’ve always believed that, while the search for a political solution goes on, the people of this country should not be made to suffer further. We’ve steadily extended our humanitarian work in-country, particularly in health, but in other areas too, like livelihoods and primary education. 

To the sceptics you mention, I’d say that while this is not always the easiest of environments, good work can be and is being done. The Three Diseases Fund is a good example. It’s delivering real health benefits to vulnerable populations, has benefited from excellent cooperation from the Ministry of Health and has at all times operated within the guidelines donors set at the outset.

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