Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mark My Words - Mark Canning

Interview - The Irrawaddy News

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

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 there 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 and the UN had been unsatisfactory. There was no move towards any sort of dialogue between the government and the opposition. There was continued repression.

The number of political prisoners doubled, and more than 200 activists, who’ve done nothing but espouse peaceful protests, were given massive prison sentences. Aung San Suu Kyi remains locked away and prevented from playing the conciliatory role she could fulfil if allowed. The various concessions made at the turn of the year, like the series of meetings between her and the labour minister came to nothing. The population has been told to expect the introduction of “disciplined democracy” in 2010—they’ve seen plenty of the former but not much of the latter.

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.

There’s always been a tendency to criticise the envoy—you saw the same with Razali Ismail, you see it now with Dr Gambari, but that’s a mistake. It’s quite clear where responsibility lies for the lack of forward movement. The priority for 2009 therefore is to rebuild more solid international backing for what the UN is trying to do. The secretary-general’s personal engagement is a great asset and should help achieve that, and we hope very much to see him back here once conditions allow. We have now a clear assessment of where things have got to on which to build. 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 backwards and will continue to do so until there is clear and unambiguous backing for the UN. Issues like the release of political prisoners, rather than being internal matters, are central to what the UN is trying to achieve—political reconciliation.

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. As you say, the UK has been the largest contributor, and we’re proud of that. Most of all though it’s been a fantastic co-operative effort which has involved a range of donors, agencies, and local and international NGOs, all of which has rested on the hard and innovative work of the three TCG partners.

Our ministers are now in the process of assessing what more we might do. Looking ahead, we—and I think most donors—hope to see the TCG mandate extended beyond July so that it can build on what’s been achieved. We hope also that in partnership with government, some of the underlying policy issues in the area of agriculture and livelihoods, that affect the ability of those in the delta and elsewhere to make a sustainable living, can be considered. There’s good work going on there too, but there’s probably more that could be done. The key point is that there’s no point bandaging the patient if you then send him back into the environment that helped cause the problem in the first place.

Q: Do you think that the “humanitarian space” in the delta can be expanded to other areas of the country? 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 co-operative working, and both local and international NGOs play a fantastic role. All this has been excellent, but, as you say, the rest of the country is out there and 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. Whether we’ll succeed, and the environment will almost certainly be difficult and unpredictable in the period up to 2010, remains to be seen, but it’s essential we try to build on the gains and keep up the momentum.

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? You recently asked the Burmese military government to increase its assistance to the Burmese people. Do you think that they have increased their aid to people who are in need?

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. Our role in the relief operation was consistent with this, and we hope that the success it’s enjoyed will encourage other donors to work in this country, which remains one of the most under-aided in the world.

To the sceptics you mention, I’d say that while this is not always the easiest of environments, good work can 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. We very much hope to see more donors come in and are more than happy to share our experience with them. We hope to see the government’s contribution increase—that not only makes more funds available for the delivery of health, education, etc, but it also sends a signal of commitment that helps draw in new donors and encourages those already here to provide more assistance.

Q: Turning back to politics, what about Burma’s neighbours? Apart from the members
of Asean, what do you think other countries, such as India, China and Russia, can do to bring about positive change in Burma?

A: There’s a key role for the countries of the region. Everyone understands the intractable nature of this problem. There are no easy solutions, and it must be tempting at times, when the issue is on your doorstep, to give up on it. Regional integration is hard enough at the best of times, yet alone when one of the members is moving in the opposite direction in political and economic terms. 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 neighbours, are likely to become more pronounced.

The fundamental question for the region therefore is whether the course on which the government is embarked is going to deliver the sort of stability and prosperity they have achieved in their own countries? There’s very little evidence in my view that it is. Nobody is under any illusions about the scale of the challenge, and a number of countries in the region have been working to address it, but the key in coming months is to build a more unified backing for what the UN is trying to achieve. It’s essential that the government should constantly be reminded, by those that have influence, of the need for change and meaningful cooperation with the UN.

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. She has made clear her wish to work for gradual, stable, evolutionary change, and change which takes account of the interests of the many different parties involved, including the military.

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 government that is the only way that progress is going to be made. If she’s not allowed to play that role, then it’s difficult to see how this will be done.

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 are able. 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 detail of what the SPDC 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. We hope to see that happen. 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.

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