The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Burma at a Crossroads
By MARK CANNING Monday, January 1, 2007

Newly Appointed British Ambassador Mark Canning Looks at UK-Burma Relations

Mark Canning was appointed British Ambassador to Burma in July 2006. He previously served as deputy high commissioner in Kuala Lumpur and first secretary in Jakarta. Other postings with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office include service in the US and in the UK’s Counter Terrorism Department. The Irrawaddy talks with Canning on issues including the UN-Burma standoff, the democratic opposition and the importance of a two-way flow of information with the Burmese junta.

Question: Soon after taking up your post in Rangoon, Burma’s state-run press accused you of violating diplomatic procedure by making contact with the National League for Democracy. Has this episode affected how you would engage with the Burmese opposition?

Answer: It’s a central part of the job to keep in touch with a range of opinion, as the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations, 1961] makes clear. The circumstances under which we work inevitably mean that some discussions tend to attract rather more attention than others, but it’s important to recognize that the National League for Democracy is part of the political fabric of this country, and we value our contacts with them.

Q: What do you hope to achieve during your tenure as ambassador in Rangoon? 

A: Burma is clearly at a crossroads. In one direction lies international isolation, and in the other, a more constructive relationship with the international community. Recent events have been disappointing—the relationship with the International Labour Organization is in crisis, and Burma faces possible referral to the International Court of Justice. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been ordered to close most of its operations, and a further crackdown on the opposition is in progress. But as (UN Under Secretary-General Ibrahim) Gambari told the Security Council recently, the UN remains committed to playing a role in helping Burma forge a better relationship with the international community and a meaningful process of internal reconciliation.

Members of the Security Council—including the UK—made clear they want this process to work.

For the moment, the ball is entirely in the SPDC’s [State Peace and Development Council] court. But it’s not too late to change direction, and my hope is that during my time here, there will be genuine forward movement and a greater opportunity for the people of this country to enjoy the sort of benefits their Asean neighbors take for granted. We will do all we can to support this, and the European Union has made clear it will respond proportionately to movement in a positive direction.

Q: How would you describe your working relationship with the Burmese government thus far?

A: I have been received with great courtesy at all levels, and have been able to meet with a range of senior people. There’s no doubt the move to Naypyidaw complicates the task of developing the sort of less formal dialogue that’s so important if misunderstandings are to be avoided, and one occasionally wonders just how accurate a picture of things finds its way up the chain. I hope, though, that an improved two-way flow of information will steadily start to evolve, which will benefit both parties. We already have excellent exchanges, for example, on healthcare and education.

Q: Obviously, the opposition are in a weak position given government efforts to marginalize them. How would you assess their current state and their opportunities to move forward?

A: In my short time here I have met many brave and committed individuals within what you might call the “opposition.” Obviously, their viewpoints differ to a degree, but the thing that binds them all together is a love for their country and a belief they can bring improvement. That sort of passion and commitment needs to be harnessed, not rejected. As things stand, the opposition is in a weak position, but that’s hardly surprising given the pressures they are under. Achieving political progress will depend on all sides working together, but most of all, as Mr Gambari stressed, on the process becoming more open and inclusive.

Q: The UK is currently the second largest source of investment in Burma—a major point of contention for opposition groups. Doesn’t the UK lose credibility when it is one minute criticizing Burma and the next pouring money into the country?

A: Investment figures are a minefield in whatever country you care to mention. The ones you quote are no exception, and I’m puzzled why commentators who are rightly skeptical of other State Peace and Development Council statistics choose to attach such weight to these. The fact is we don’t really know what lies behind the headline figures, and we are unlikely to find out because they are not made public. But everything we do know suggests they are misleading. In the first place, they are out of date. The figures for the past five years show the UK and its overseas territories as the fifth largest investor, with a total that is a fraction of the average UK investment in other Asean countries. The figures are based on investments that were approved, rather than necessarily taken forward. They contain investments by UK companies who withdrew long ago. They almost certainly capture a range of Asian investment made via British Overseas Territories (which can of course be switched at will as tax and other conditions suit). If you look closely you will see that a single UK “deal” in 2003 accounts for more than 95 percent of UK inflow between 2001-2006. We’re certainly not in the investment premier league, in fact we were probably relegated from division four [the lowest] long ago.

Q: The British government stands accused of channeling funds to the 1988 Generation Students group, some of whom have recently been arrested. What is your response?

A: There is no substance to this. We have made no such payments, nor would we do so for the purposes alleged, so where these stories came from is something of a mystery. We do, however, know something of the pressures that informers are placed under, so it would not be a huge surprise if unsubstantiated rumor had translated itself into hard fact in this case.

Q: The London-based Burma Campaign UK released a report on October 12 to coincide with that of the British government on human rights. It said that the UK should be more proactive in tackling Burma. Is the UK doing enough?

A: The wave of bad news coming out of this country, particularly in recent weeks, gives rise to an inevitable sense of frustration. This is of course not a “UK issue” specifically, but one of broad international concern. Looked at objectively, however, Britain is playing an active and important role both in terms of trying to bring about positive political change and in providing support for efforts to address some of the humanitarian challenges that the country confronts. 

On the first track, we are obviously doing all we can here and in London to bring our concerns to the notice of the government. We are throwing our weight behind the efforts of the UN in the Security Council and, with our EU partners, working to forge consensus on the need for change. As the decision to add Burma to the Security Council agenda and discussions in New York show, there is now a high degree of agreement that the current situation is unsustainable. We are separately working within the country to support efforts to combat serious healthcare and other problems. The UK is one of the largest contributors to the US $100 million Three Diseases Fund and has shown real leadership in that field.

Q: Neither you nor anyone from the British Embassy attended the opening of the current session of the National Convention. Why was that?

A: As Mr Gambari stressed, the process needs to become a good deal more transparent and inclusive if it is to be recognized as credible in the eyes of the international community.

Q: The Burma government has set aside plots of land for foreign embassies in the new capital Naypyidaw. Does the British Embassy plan to relocate?

A: We have no immediate plans but are obviously following things closely and will need at some point to consider with our European partners what the options might be.

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