Once fallen, Burma's on the rise

Canadian Ambassador Mark McDowell on the country's democratic transition, its relationship with Canada, and how it might avoid development mistakes.

By: /
February 19, 2016
Supporters of Myanmar's pro-democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi gather outside National League for Democracy headquarters (NLD) in Yangon, Myanmar, November 9, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

After a career that included postings in Taiwan, Bangkok and Beijing, Mark McDowell was appointed the first resident Ambassador to Myanmar (formerly Burma) in 2013. He arrived in the country at a time of great change — after decades of military rule, political opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and the junta dissolved in 2011, paving the way for a return to democracy. Historic elections were held on November 8 of last year, with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) winning a landslide victory.

As Myanmar’s new, democratically elected parliament convened for the first time earlier this month, Ambassador McDowell sat down with OpenCanada during a visit to Canada to discuss Suu Kyi, human rights, Myanmar’s “late arrival” and how digital diplomacy has helped improve the Canadian presence there after such a long absence.

First things first. Burma or Myanmar? Can we expect a change of preference with the new government?

In a recent meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, someone asked, ‘Are we going to change the name of the country back to Burma?’ And she said, in her inimitable way, a throw-away line, ‘Oh really, I don’t care whether it's Burma or Myanmar, I just say Burma because that's what I was raised with.’ And everybody in the room was like, ‘We've been arguing about this for the last two decades.’ So I think the issue of Burma vs Myanmar — it was a political litmus test and now we don’t have to take that test any more. 

Ok, but what will the letterhead say?

This was a problem when we launched our embassy’s Facebook page, because the name of the URLs are all ‘facebook.com/CanadaIn..’ and the name of the country. And I said, ‘Please, please, please, can we use Myanmar because this is aimed at a Burmese audience and a lot of Burmese don’t like the name Burma. Because, it’s not that Burma is democracy and Myanmar is dictatorship, it is that Burma is colonial and Myanmar is the name of the country. But Ottawa wouldn’t budge on that, so now it’s too late to change the URL. So we can use them interchangeably. 

It is symptomatic of a broader issue, which is that the NLD now has to deal with the facts on the ground. So for example they have this capital city, Naypyidaw, that they were very critical of building. But now it is built so are they going to move the capital back to Yangon [formerly called Rangoon]? You can't move it there because land prices there are the highest in Asia and it is overcrowded. Are you going to build a new capital somewhere? That would be even crazier. So they are kind of stuck in Naypyidaw. So, they have to deal with the hand they've been dealt. 

You’ve been engaging with the country for 10-plus years but just in the past three years, since taking your post there, would you say it has been an exciting time? 

It's been very exciting and it’s been very disorienting, because things are changing so fast and with every change there are new worries. It's a country with a very tragic history, ever since independence but particularly recently, and every time something good happens, it’s very worrying because it’s too good to be true. And [you think], what’s going to go wrong, and how can we, the international community or Canadians, try to make our small contribution to make sure things don’t go wrong. For example, during the election, thinking of all the challenges with the election, whether technical or worrying about fraud, and wondering what can we do to contribute. So in that sense you are kind of always on edge, which is fun and exhausting.

When Suu Kyi was released in 2010 expectations were very high, I assume they still are? Is criticism then fair, such as the critique around her lack of comments over the treatment of the Rohingya population?  

Every politician has a honeymoon period. I think her honeymoon period could be pretty long. But then again she was given this task by [outgoing] President Thein Sein to conduct an inquiry into a conflict around a mine shortly after she was released. She became a lightning rod for criticism because anytime you are dealing with a real-world, political problem, there are winners and losers, people are happy and unhappy with the way you settle it.

So I think she was quite taken aback by how quickly you can go from icon to target of criticism, but I am very confident that given the mandate she has received and given how, since the election, she has been very clever to say this is not a winner-take-all election, that she’s going to be inclusive. I think she seems to be making that transition from icon to politician more successfully than we gave her credit for. 'We' as in foreigners, because foreigners tend to be cynical, like ‘Oh she's an icon, but there's going to be this regression to the mean, and she can't be perfect forever.’ But she did handle the election pretty well, and she's done well since. 

Yet, she can't be president. 

No, she can't the way things stand now. Because according to [Constitutional Article] 59-F you cannot be president if you have a foreign passport or if any of your spouse or children have a foreign passport. And her two children have foreign passports. When Americans criticize that, the obvious response is ‘But, the United States has restrictions on who can be president — you have to be U.S.-born, you have to be a certain age…’ It’s a big source of controversy there. And the 59-F is not an unpopular constitutional paragraph except in so far as it prevents Aung San Suu Kyi. But things can change quickly in Burma, so who knows what will happen. Maybe there will be suspension of it rather than rewriting of it. 

Have you met with her personally? 

Oh, many times. 

What is she like in person? 

She is a very impressive person in real life. She is a heroic figure in real life. She has tremendous physical presence — she sits up very straight, and transfixes you with her eyes, and she's one of the few people I've met who speaks in paragraphs. You ask her a question and she has a well thought out, systematic answer to everything. 

Can you explain just how momentous the election was and how new that process was for voters, for journalists, etc.?

Everything has to be learned. You have to learn how to campaign. In a free election, what is going to work? Is it going to be flyers, putting up signs, making public speeches, sound trucks, Facebook? So that was interesting to see people use trial and error through that process.

And then on Election Day itself, people were obviously tremendously excited. There was great sense of anticipation, mixed with a little bit of fear. The night before there were a lot of people thinking ‘Is this really going to happen? Is it going to happen, are we going to win and if we win, is it going to be overturned?’ So, a lot of worries. And will there be chaos? That was my biggest fear. Voter lists could be wrong, and people can’t vote and there are conflicts and scuffles and stuff like that — that was my big worry. But then when I got to the polling station at 5:30 in the morning, I felt pretty good about it. It was older women running these things — schoolteachers — and they had it really under control, really organized, it was so impressive.

Also, whatever your political persuasion, there was a sense of pride that this is a step for Burma regaining its status and its rightful place as an orderly, learned, cultured country. And I think that’s something that weighed [on people] — apart from the infringements on freedom and bad healthcare and the economy and education — that feeling that the country had fallen so far. It was quite difficult for the Burmese. 

Which human rights concerns are still present?

There was a lot of fairly widespread, communal violence during the early period I was there, from 2012 to 2013, and there seems to be a lid put on that or it has dissipated. The good news is during the election, Ma Ba Tha, the Buddhist nationalist organization, didn’t seem to get any traction, and there was not much violence or anything like that.

The bad news is the situation in Rakhine state [where Rohingya Muslims are largely oppressed] is still quite far from resolved. You have huge numbers of people living in IDP camps. Basically there is kind of segregation in much of the state where Muslims have been forced from their homes and are living elsewhere. That's unacceptable. There are some Buddhists living in camps as well. And then in northern Rakhine state, which is an area where there is a large Muslim majority, there are restrictions based on movement which have very severe implications for people's livelihoods, their access to education, healthcare, and that falls overwhelmingly on the Muslim population. 

And were there human rights concerns that were eased by the election, for instance freedom of speech?

The problem is, you go to Yangon, and in Yangon, it's pretty free. You can read a hundred different newspapers or magazines, you can see what you want on the internet, you can say what you want on the street corner or a café. The problem always is in small towns. There are authoritarian habits in the police, in the security forces, that are going to take a while to unlearn. So my guess is it takes a while for this to percolate down. The courts are not yet up to any kind of democratic standard. That’s one of the explicit priorities of Aung San Suu Kyi. The other thing is there are lots of pockets of conflict around the Indian-Chinese-Thai borders.

The Canadian embassy team in Burma is quite small, and human rights issues have been a main area of focus. How does the addition of a visa office one year ago change things?

This is the overlooked but very important piece of the set of tools we have to build the Canada-Burma relationship. I'm a big believer in people-to-people ties, you know, I'm a public diplomacy guy, and one of the things that has been holding the relationship back is the fact that there is very few returning Canadian students, there's very few people who have been to Canada as tourists, and also lack of visa impedes the ability of commercial travellers and people representing NGOs to go to Canada. So there was a visit to Canada by probably the most important moderate monk in Burma and it was quite difficult to get him a visa. We had to get him a visa so he could go Thailand to apply for his visa [to Canada]. So you have to go there and come back, then you have to apply for a visa to go to Thailand again and go and pick up your visa. So it was a very onerous process. And because of that we could never do any promotion for tourism or study because all it would do is create huge headaches for us.

So the availability of visa services now is a really important piece. That will be a really key and long-term change.

And on the trade front? 

We have one Canadian and one local trade officer — well actually half a Canadian because half of her time is spent on administration — on the trade front. The impediment right now is the regulatory environment in Burma. The fact that there aren’t very good or clear regulations for things like extractive industries, and I think that’s keeping a lot of Western countries away. And the other is the fact that some sectors of the economy haven’t been thrown open yet, I’m thinking particularly of financial services, which would be an area where Canadian companies are poised to succeed — Manulife, Sunlife. We're very successful in Southeast Asia and I think that they see a huge potential here. Basically in Burma, nobody has a life insurance policy and there's 55 million people. So let’s say over the course of the next generation, there should be a growth of 50 million insurance policies! So if you look at that kind of potential between where they are now and getting to where, say, Thailand is now within a generation — that’s a huge amount of planes and insurance policies and edible oils [exports] that they have to go through to get up to that. 

Any lessons learned from other countries that have opened up?

When you talk about things like environmental assessments, that’s one aspect that Burmese think they are going to reap a benefit of late development. The people who think about these things, they always talk about corporate social responsibility, environment impact assessments, social impact assessment and how they don’t want to repeat the mistakes of other countries or the mistakes of their recent past.

For example in the natural resource sector, they tend to believe they have been burned by having a non-transparent process for economic deals and they want it much more transparent. Our former Minister of Trade, when he met with his Burmese counterparts, was really pushing that Canadian advantage, saying, ‘Look at the cost over the life cycle of a mine, don’t think you can cut corners now, it will come back to haunt to you.’

There’s one thing I wanted to mention and that is this whole idea of the benefits of late arrival. Burmese who think about this tend to think a lot about how they can do things differently and they are usually focused on the IT — developing during an IT period of great change. For example, they don’t want to lay landlines and they might skip banking completely. They may not have to open banks in villages and towns; they might go straight to online banking or cellphone money transfers. There is a lot of thinking about how they can leapfrog technological steps. 

Has there been any consideration for low-emission development? 

There is an understanding that the country is vulnerable to climate change and that development has to take place with climate change in mind. For example, development of the delta has to take place with the understanding that there will be changes to the natural environment in the next generation and they have to think about how to build mitigation measures into the development plans. That's something that people are thinking about. Again, most of these are urges rather than well thought-through policies. 

Because it's too early?

And there's just not much detailed policy capacity in the country. 

The Canadian embassy in Burma now has the largest Facebook engagement of all Canadian embassies [as detailed in this recent report on digital diplomacy]. What can you share about engaging online? 

The Burmese aren't the only ones trying to leapfrog steps. We are sort of trying to do that at the embassy because we've been away for so long. We are coming to Burma very late, not just compared to the Chinese and the Thais, who have been there during the sanctions period, but don’t forget the Americans and British had an embassy and still had programming during the sanctions period and even after 2010, we're a little bit late. The Swiss and the Norwegians have built a very big presence there, with a lot of people and money. We are coming in late and we are coming in lean.

One of the ways that we've figured we can mitigate those disadvantages of late arrival and scale is through a lot more attention to our online presence. And the punch line is that apart from the Americans, the next biggest players online are the UK and Canada, and then it’s a pretty long drop to everyone else. You can say, ‘OK, that's a small group of people,’ but actually it's not. On our English, French and Burmese pages, we are getting close to 200,000 fans, in an online population of 8 million, so it's a significant percent. Two percent of the people who are online are following us, and I think it does have an impact.

Maybe it is easy for us because one of our goals is pretty simple, which is telling people that Canada has an embassy, we are back, we're doing things. We're a reliable, helpful, respectful partner for you. Because they don't think about Canada, they think about the U.S. or the UK, or Australia. So there is another country out there doing productive things, like helping on human rights, and has interesting technologies and there are cultural similarities — Burmese are extremely humble and self-effacing, and I think there's a bit of a meeting of the minds there with Canadians. Our tone online is talking about how Canada and Burma can work together.  

You were there during the change of government here in Canada. Does that feel any different now to you?

Not so much when we're overseas. The other thing is our new government has a lot of priorities to work its way through — increased engagement with the UN, climate change, Syria, dealing with the relationship with the United States. These are issues I understand are higher up.

There are a lot of things that Canada can do here at fairly low cost, and that makes it a fun place to work.  Society is changing fast, people are open to new ideas, new ways of doing things, and you can see change really quickly. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.