Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Diplomat and Reporter

The Irrawaddy News
JULY, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.4

Rangoon says farewell to an outspoken, observant ambassador

THE diplomatic community in Burma said farewell at the end of June to its most outspoken and committed ambassador, Britain’s Mark Canning, who left to take up his new post as ambassador to Zimbabwe.

During his three years in Rangoon, Canning was more than an ambassador, often dropping diplomatic protocol to describe with a reporter’s objective eye the events he witnessed firsthand.

Mark Canning
When demonstrations erupted in August and September 2007 he provided the international media—including The Irrawaddy—with accurate eyewitness accounts of the bloody events. When he and other diplomats were allowed to attend a session of Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial, he vividly described the courtroom scene for reporters who were denied access to the proceedings.

Canning even wrote a regular blog for the British daily newspaper The Guardian, reporting and commenting on Burmese events in the crisp, readable style of a true foreign correspondent.

In a farewell interview with The Irrawaddy, Canning looked back on his time in Burma with the same perceptive eye.

Question: What have been the highs and lows of your three years in Burma?

Answer: It’s been a difficult time for anyone who cares about this country. We’ve seen a depressing litany of developments—the brutal suppression of the 2007 uprising, Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath, a doubling in the number of political prisoners and now the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi. As soon as you think you’ve seen the worst, something else comes along.

Despite this, I take away a number of positives about what we have been able to achieve. The UK’s role as the largest contributor to the cyclone relief operation. And the significant scaling up of our humanitarian effort in other areas—education, livelihoods and health. We’ll deliver US $80 million of assistance—directly to those who need it—over the next two years.

Also, the interaction we have had with thousands of individuals and organizations working to improve the country and the effort many well-meaning people within government have made to help.

Q: Do you see any short-term or mid-term hope for an end to military rule and the introduction of a democratic system of government? Are there any grounds for optimism about 2010?

A: There’s no disguising the fact that prospects look bleak, but that can be said of many countries which have then gone on to achieve positive change. Change will ultimately come from within the system. That’s not to say there’s not an important role for the international community in promoting it and creating the conditions to support it when it arrives—there is, and the UN’s role is crucial. But a successful transition will ultimately only occur when individuals within the government emerge who are willing to compromise, to work for genuine reconciliation and to give greater priority to the well-being of the people.

My expectations for 2010 are low. The trial of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the latest in a string of indicators to suggest what we can expect. You clearly can’t have a process that is credible without the release of political prisoners and the start of meaningful dialogue.

That’s not to say that some unintended positives can’t flow from it. It’s significant when the cast of characters in any authoritarian regime is shuffled, because it offers a chance, however fleeting, to make a break from the patterns of the past and to move the country in a fresh direction. I’m confident that within this regime are many who recognize how disastrous the course is on which Myanmar [Burma] is embarked.

Q: You have observed Aung San Suu Kyi under duress. What is your assessment of her? Does she have the qualities to lead the country, if she were ever put in that position?

A: She is a remarkable person who needs to be allowed to play a role in the future of this country. She has made clear repeatedly her willingness to work with the government as well as other key players and is an individual of the highest character and ability.

It’s ironic that a trial which is intended to marginalize her from playing a political role is having precisely the opposite effect—illustrating what a towering figure she is. If she wasn’t relevant, none of this would be happening. She would be the first to recognize that many others, not least the ethnic minorities, need a voice, but there is no doubt she remains central to a meaningful process of reconciliation and that’s why the international community has been united in calling for her release.

Q: Final thoughts?

A: It’s been a privilege to do this job. One day, things will take a turn for the better, and there’s no people in the world who deserve that more than the Burmese.

Mark Canning is succeeded as British Ambassador to Burma by Andrew Heyn, former deputy head of the British Embassy in Ireland.

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