Critique of the Burma Forum Report Criticizing Canadian Foreign Policy on Burma

By Salai Za Uk Ling & Salai Za Ceu Lian[*]

January 24, 2005

In the summer of 2004, a select group of Burmese gathered in Ottawa under the banner of Burma Forum-Canada with the express objective of “establishing a stronger and more inclusive consultative process among Burmese Activist Communities in Canada in order to effectively advocate for the issues facing Burma with the Canadian Government, Public and Civil Society Organizations.” Attended by 22 individuals mostly living in Ottawa and Toronto area the meeting concluded with recommendations calling for policy revision for Canada’s policy towards Burma. Many of the recommendations expressed valid concerns with the way Canada, the world’s leading champion of democracy and human rights, handles the issues of Burma with regards to democratic and human rights reforms in that country.

In the fall of 2004, the Burma Forum-Canada came up with a 47-page report containing analysis on specific areas of concern about Canadian foreign policy on Burma. This includes, among others, Canadian policy on humanitarian assistance and economic sanctions towards Burma. While many of the arguments made in the Burma Forum report are laudable and does contain crucial policy recommendations specifically with regards to calls for increased political and economic pressures on Burma, the report is one-sided, un-inclusive of the views of major stakeholders of the “Burmese” community in Canada and miserably fails to present crucial supporting evidence when criticizing the effectiveness of Canadian humanitarian assistance for Burma. Under the title of “Humanitarian Assistance,” the report contains a section on “Capacity Building for Burma,” which is particularly critical of how Canadian assistance funds for Burmese are managed and the extent to which they have been effectual in meeting the objectives of Canada’s contribution for the project.

This critique is devoted to countering that particular section of the report since it is passionately felt that such sweeping criticisms are based on prejudice and misgivings rather than on factual evidence on the ground. In light of the shockingly bold claims of the report and the potentially negative consequence it entails, it is necessary to seriously look into how the report came about in the first place and why the Burma Forum and particularly the report’s author arrived at such conclusion.

The report, authored by Tin Muang Htoo, a leading member of the Burma Forum, alleges that despite the noble intention of Canada to contribute to making“tangible, strategic investment in peaceful long-term development in the region of Burma,” Canada’s monetary contribution towards that process have been misspent, misallocated and mismanaged, resulting in the further weakening and division of Burmese civil society and disenfranchisement of certain sections of the Burmese populations. This, argues the Burma Forum, makes Canada an unknowing accomplice to the “divide and rule” policy practiced by the Burmese military regime.

This is surprising as well as highly irresponsible given that none of the Burma Forum members, especially the author of the report, has not personally visited the Thai-Burma or India-Burma border areas where the projects are being implemented to assess realities on the ground. In fact, there is no evidence that any of the Burma Forum participants has been to that area at all since they first came to Canada many years ago. Many of them have lived in Canada for a decade. In the absence of actual and firsthand assessment of situations on the ground, it appears that conclusions drawn in the report heavily rely on misguided opinions of key individuals. This in itself reflects an insincere motive of the Burma Forum in initiating the report in the first place. It must also be mentioned that during the preparation of the report, it was learnt, some original participants of the Burma Forum meeting were deliberately or otherwise left out of the consultation process to comment and make input into the draft document. Unfortunately, some participants we spoke with are even unaware of their names appearing on the report as endorsing its contents.

The report alleges that capacity building projects such as the ones supervised by Interpares and Burma Relief Center have worked to erode the solidarity of diverse Burmese groups who have “historically been used to working cooperatively together.” It claims the criteria for assistance distribution are based on misunderstood ethnic differences, thereby contributing to and even encouraging ethnic displays and competition. The report, however, fails to come up with any instance or evidence that suggests that that has been the case. On the contrary, people who have been closely working with such projects on the ground in Thailad-Burma and India-Burma border for the past several years have seen the benefit of Canadian assistance in strengthening civil society organizations, bridging cooperation across ethnic lines and in providing vital resource for medical and humanitarian relief works inside Burma and among refugees on the border areas. Among those benefited from the capacity building project, and the report acknowledges, are Dr. Cynthia Maung’s health clinic which provides valuable and accessible medical help to refugees in Thailand as well as Internally Displaced Persons inside Burma, and the Shan Women Action Network, which produced a widely publicized report exposing the institutionalized use of rape by Burma’s military regime as a weapon of war against ethnic Shan women.

For all its worth, the success of Canada’s assistance should not be measured by these two alone as the report tries to do, although they do represent perhaps the greatest achievement any projects can accomplish. There are numerous other programs supported by Canadian assistance funds, which over the past several years have produced significant results. The creation of National Reconciliation Program (NRP), a project partially supported by these funds, has been widely seen as providing the greatest hope for the long-term and peaceful resolution of inter or intra-ethnic differences, which have been a regular feature in Burma’s political history. A program such as NRP has worked to strengthen and nurture the spirit of cooperation unprecedented in the relations between and among different ethnic groups in Burma. Ignoring such positive outcomes on the part of the Burma Forum makes one wonder the real motive behind the publication of the report.

In summary, the primary allegations made in the report centers around the issue of fair distribution of Canadian assistance funds for “Burmese Democracy Movement.” Implied in the report is that the provision of Canadian assistance funds to organizations such as the Shan Women Action Network and other ethnic-based organizations or what it characterizes as “sub-movement” is counter-productive to the realization of democracy and civil society in Burma. If this is the true reflection of how the report’s author and members of the Burma Forum view the “Burmese Democracy Movement,” then several questions must be raised. If civil society groups and other ethnic organizations operating in the border areas are not considered to be part of the “Movement,” then who constitute the movement?

It must be kept in mind that the vast majority of internally displaced persons IDPs and refugees along the border of Thailand and India are from ethnic nationality groups who have been worst hit by decades of civil war, Rangoon’s military campaigns and human rights abuses. These people unquestionably are the most in need of help and attention, and this is precisely where most assistance funds have been directed and allocated. If the position of Burma Forum is to argue that Canadian funds have been misallocated as the report clearly suggests, then they are opening themselves out to questions about their ethnic affiliations, motive and credibility. It must be stated on record that the majority of key individuals who participated in the preparation of the Burma Forum’s report do not represent ethnic groups whose populations have experienced the worst form of human rights violations and whose civil society has been completely trampled on for the past half a century by the Burmese military regime. Any efforts to rebuild and strengthen Burmese civil society therefore needs to begin with the ethnic nationalities, and this is precisely where capacity building programs such as the one funded by Canadian International Development Agency can contribute to tangible results and sustainable development.

In the report, the Burma Forum makes an interesting point and that concerns the need for funding made available for advocacy activities within Canada in recognition that Canadian public awareness and support for Burma constitutes an important part of the movement for democracy and human rights. We agree with this assessment.

But the validity of the claims of Burma Forum report needs to be assessed in the context of reality on the ground. And this means whether those preparing the report conducted such evaluation by personally visiting to the areas where capacity building projects are being implemented. This unfortunately has not been the case. Allegations about Canadian assistance funds being used to divide and disenfranchise Burmese civil society appears to derive from personal opinions of individuals preparing the report. In an email message on December 5, 2004, the report’s author Tin Maung Htoo reassured Burma Forum members “We already have supports from groups and people on the border, being so eager to expose their grievances in dealing with those NGOs on the border.” While it is unclear who these ‘groups’ he was referring to, contacts with these groups appear to have occurred after the fact, that is after the Burma Forum report was made public. There is considerable doubt these ‘groups’ are the ones making assessment on the ground for the Burma Forum. Essentially, the report calls for inclusion of “Burmese Canadians” in the decision-making of how Canadians assistance would be allocated on the border. This seems quite appealing since there is a general sense that inclusion of the Burmese themselves in the management of a multi-million dollar Canadian project would ensure greater efficiency, accountability and allocation of funds to where they are most needed. The problem with this, first of all, is who will represent the interest of millions of Burmese in such a process given the diversity of Burmese society—the Burma Forum itself? Secondly, no decision can be considered “reasonable and impartial” in the determination of “who gets what?” since we all have a degree of bias and partiality. No disrespect to those who prepared the report, but such suggestions seem to have been driven by a sense of self-importance.

During the last several years, there has been increasing recognition by international donor countries, including Canada and NGOs directly working with Burmese groups on the border about the need to put special focus on capacity building for Burma’s ethnic groups who have been systematically disenfranchised and marginalized by the central government in Rangoon for the last half a century. Either inadvertently or wittingly, the report is attempting to take that attention away from the ethnic people by suggesting that such efforts are ineffectual and self-defeating. This seems to explain the reason why the report lacked any substance regarding the question of ethnic nationalities and even tactfully avoided using terminology like “federalism” and “tripartite dialogue” as the means to achieving peace in Burma. Not surprisingly, the report made no recommendations that encourage Canada to support the emergence of “Tripartite Dialogue” as an essential step towards the process of democratic and human rights reform in Burma. This indifference towards the ethnic issues seems to explain the reluctance to either support, or positively view programs that would help to empower and benefit the ethnic nationalities.

We consider many of the recommendations made in the Burma Forum report to be both cogent and plausible, but we are of the view that the criticism with regards to “capacity building for Burma” is highly unconvincing and irresponsible.

[*] Salai Za Uk Ling is studying Political Science at Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario. Since 2000, he has been working with Chin Human Rights Organization as an Associate Editor of Rhododendron News, as well as Associate Editor for Chinland Guardian News Agency. Salai Za Uk Ling addressed the 21st session of United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva in 2003.

* Salai Za Ceu Lian, a student at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, is currently Secretary of Burmese Community Organization of Manitoba. He is also in-charge of Alliance Affairs for the Chin National League for Democracy (Exile), a political party which won 3 Parliamentary seats in Chin State during the 1990 general elections in Burma. He was a former Chin Youth representative at the United Nationalities Youth League (UNYL), multi-ethnic youth alliance based in Thailand, and was a former Assistant General Secretary of the Committee for Non-violent Action for Burma (CNAB) based in India. He also works as Associate Editor for Chinland Guardian and Rhododendron News, a bi-monthly human rights newsletter published by Chin Human Rights Organization.

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