The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Mark My Words
JAN — FEB, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.1

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.

Q: Turning back to politics, what about Burma’s neighbors?
A: There’s a key role for the countries of the region. Everyone understands the intractable nature of this problem. For the members of Asean, the situation poses an obvious reputational challenge—at the very time they are launching the human rights charter, we have a member flouting the standards it is designed to promote and as the situation declines—and it will—the practical effects on the neighbors are likely to become more pronounced.

Q: There has been a great deal of speculation that Aung San Suu Kyi could be released this year. If so, what do you think she will be able to achieve?

A: Whether she’ll be freed we obviously don’t know, but she should be. She has made clear repeatedly her willingness to work with the government and other political and ethnic nationality forces to address the challenges this country faces.

The fact that she’s under house arrest suggests she’s regarded as a threat. But she’s actually an opportunity in the sense that she could be instrumental in helping to forge the sort of broad-based dialogue with the government that is the only way that progress is going to be made.
Q: The regime has accused the British and other Western embassies of meeting
with NLD members. How do you respond to this charge?

A: We keep in touch with as wide a range of opinion as we can. That includes government, as well as a range of other actors, and that’s very much the role of an embassy.

Q: How do you see Burma’s political landscape in 2010 and beyond? What is the UK government’s stance on the 2010 election?

A: The coming year will obviously be dominated by preparations for the elections in 2010, and we’ll presumably soon get some more details of what the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] will allow in terms of participation. This can all represent a healing process, and a step on the way to resolving longstanding political difficulties—or it can be the opposite, as has been the case till now.

There’s clearly time to make the process more inclusive. The European Union has always made clear that it is willing to respond to movement in a positive direction. Clearly, you can not have a credible electoral process without certain things happening—the release of political prisoners; engagement between government, opposition and the ethnic nationalities—and those are the criteria against which it should be judged.

For the complete interview,
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