April 18, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

Ethnic Stance on Canada’s Burma Policy: BENN-Canada

Burma Ethnic Nationalities Network – Canada
Policy Position
Submitted to the 3rd Burma Forum Canada Conference
6-7 March, 2010
Saskatoon, SK


The Burma Ethnic Nationalities Network-Canada (BENN-Canada) is pleased to be part of this conference and to have the opportunity to present our views at this important juncture in our movement.  BENN-Canada is an advocacy platform composed of ethnic activists from across Canada that was established in October 2009 in Toronto. Our purpose is rooted in the belief that, as ethnic activists based in Canada, we have an important role in shaping the Canadian debate on Burma so that Canadian foreign policy on Burma more broadly encompasses the views, issues and concerns of the ethnic nationalities.

In the context of the shifting paradigm of policy debate on Burma as propelled by the US decision to directly engage the military regime last year , we know that Canada might also be contemplating on new approach, especially in light of the regime’s plans to conduct fresh elections this year. We also know that what comes out of this conference could play a part in influencing any new approaches Ottawa might adopt towards Burma. It is with this belief that the Burma Ethnic Nationalities Network – Canada decided to take part in this conference, hoping that our views would also be reflected in the final recommendations of this conference.

Six years ago, many of the ethnic activists here in Canada were disillusioned by the way in which the Burma Forum’s report was framed, and then presented it as a Burmese-Canadian policy suggestion to the Government of Canada. Being the first compressive policy analysis conducted by Burmese Canadians, it was both a great opportunity to bring attention to the various issues and to voice concerns on some specific areas of Canadian foreign policy on Burma. Unfortunately, certain aspects of that report had led many of the ethnic people here to see the report in a very different light.

As an ethnic advocacy platform in Canada, Burma Ethnic Nationalities Network is committed to working with other Burmese activists, local and national solidarity groups to promote awareness among Canadians and policy makers about the issues facing the ethnic nationalities of Burma. Our being a part of this conference should show our willingness to work together for our common cause no matter our differences in certain areas.


Despite repeated international pressures to undertake meaningful political reforms, Burma’s military regime is intent on implementing its own seven-step Roadmap, one of the last steps of which involve the elections planned for this year. And it is already clear that the 2010 elections will be as flawed as the manner in which the 2008 Constitution was passed in a referendum during the heights of Cyclone Nirgis disaster.

At the end of the new policy reviews undertaken by the United States, the Obama Administration has set clear benchmarks towards reforms, and they include the unconditional release of all political prisoners, an end to conflicts with the ethnic groups, and a genuine three-party dialogue between the democratic opposition, the military and the ethnic nationalities.  This policy represents the US unequivocal recognition of the indispensable role of the ethnic nationalities in Burma’s future. This also reinforces the 1994 UN General Assembly resolution, which calls for a “Tripartite Dialogue” as the only viable means towards peaceful resolution of Burma’s long standing political problems.

Even countries that are traditionally skeptical of the US foreign policy voiced new optimism when President Obama went on record to offer an olive branch to rogue regimes, vowing to seek new relationships with the US adversaries.

However, not only did the Burmese regime fail to grasp that opportunity so that it can rescue itself out of its international pariah status by demonstrating concrete measures towards reforms, it went ahead with its original plans to quash all dissenting voice, including the ethnic resistance groups ahead of this year’s elections. The new military offensives in eastern Shan State, which displaced tens of thousands of civilians last year was only the beginning of what will follow in the months ahead. Renewed attacks by the Burmese military on Karen civilians in recent weeks have displaced thousands more civilians. Ethnic ceasefire-groups now find themselves in a situation in which they are forced to choose between two impossible options: either to be attacked and annihilated or become part of the very army that they have spent a lifetime fighting against, by transforming themselves into the “Border Guard Force.”  These ongoing efforts to annihilate ethnic resistance movements go in parallel with serious human rights abuses committed against ethnic civilians. Rape and other forms of sexual violence against ethnic women, summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrest, forced labor, persecution based on religious identity, are all to common in the ethnic states. These practices have prompted calls from various corners, including human rights groups, academia and politicians from around the world to indict members of Burma’s ruling military regime to answer for War Crimes and Crime against Humanity in Burma under international law.

As one of the leading supporters of democracy and human rights around the world, Canada maintains one of the strongest measures of sanctions against Burma.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon last week said,

“Canada has serious concerns that the 2010 elections will not be conducted in line with international standards but rather serve to legitimize continued military rule. As such, our government has regularly called upon the Burmese regime to free all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and to engage in a genuine dialogue with members of the democratic opposition and ethnic groups of Burma. Canada considers these criteria as essential in order for the 2010 elections to be considered free and fair.

BENN-Canada’s Positions

1.    2010 Elections & National Reconciliation

The elections planned for this year will further entrench and legitimize continued military rule. This means that the various problems facing the Union of Burma will continue. It is already apparent that the elections will not usher in the kind of political and human rights reforms expected by the international community, nor will it result in genuine national reconciliation. BENN-Canada believes that international pressures must be strengthened to bear on Burma so that the regime is forced to a negotiating table. The word ‘national reconciliation’ cannot just be a politically correct and expedient term to be used by the parties involved; it must be recognized as the foundation and only path towards long-term peace in Burma. We believe that the only way forward to achieve national reconciliation is through a negotiated settlement, the kind of solution that is achieved through dialogue, and not the silencing of dissenting voice through the power of the guns.

2.    Forced Integration of Ethnic Cease-fire Resistance Groups

As part of a carefully calculated strategy ahead of the planned elections, the Burmese military regime has in recent months been putting heavy pressures on some of the largest ethnic cease-fire groups to become an integrated “Border Guard Force,” under the command and supervision of the regular Burma Army. The policy of the regime is to ‘quietly’ deal with these groups by forcing them to agree to their terms, or to attack them so that these groups no longer have the bargaining military power before the planned elections. BENN-Canada views this policy to be only a reflection of the regime’s lack of commitment to peaceful resolution of Burma’s political problems. We also consider this to be a direct defiance of international opinion, and complete disregard for the benefit of the doubt given to the regime by the new US administration seeking to bridge a new diplomatic dialogue with Burma.

3.    Humanitarian Assistance & Support for Civil Society

Assistance to the people of Burma and displaced ethnic communities living on Burma’s international borders with Thailand, India, Bangladesh and China, as well as, internally displaced persons (IDP) still stranded inside Burma, should be a key component of the Burma policy. Support for democratic reforms should be complemented with increased financial supports for the building and strengthening of civil society, as well as, humanitarian assistance to both Internationally Displaced Persons (IDP) and refugees along the border areas. BENN-Canada believes that any policy toward a democratic transition in Burma should be conducted in view of the need to address the multi-faceted nature of Burma’s long-standing problems, including the humanitarian side.

4.    Human Rights & Transitional Justice

The issue of human rights remains one of the most pressing areas of concerns for the people of Burma. The State and its security apparatus continue to commit human rights abuses against civilians in ethnic areas with absolute impunity. Many forms of the violations in the ethnic areas, including sexual violence against women, extrajudicial killings, forced labor and other forms of serious violations warrant a closer look as to whether these constitute international crimes under applicable international law. Implementation of the 2008 Constitution will mean that there will be a constitutionally entrenched impunity for violators of human rights. BENN-Canada believes that the international community should be alarmed by the prospect of such constitutionally entrenched impunity for gross violations of human rights.

5.    Coordinated Multilateral Strategy on Burma

The fact that Burma’s military regime can last for as long as it has, shows that there is a lack of a coherent international strategy on Burma. While countries such as Canada, the United States and the European Union have maintained economic and diplomatic sanctions on the regime, neighboring countries such as China, India and ASEAN all have pursued just the opposite approach. BENN-Canada recognizes the inherent challenges in forging a united world policy on Burma, especially in light of the reluctance by Burma’s key neighbors in supporting an effective course of action that can actually affect positive change. But BENN-Canada believes that the case must continue to be made that a stable, democratic and unified Burma is in the interest of all concerned – both in the region and beyond.

Conclusion & Recommendations

While taking principled positions on the issue of human rights and democratic governance, Canada’s policy on Burma has often been one of a reactionary approach. Canada’s occasional public positions on Burma, which usually are some of the strongest in the world, have been voiced in reaction to events inside Burma. The latest of this example was Canada’s condemnation of Burmese Supreme Court decision to refuse to overturn an earlier conviction of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.  While this is greatly welcomed, the fact that the world is only reacting to events inside Burma only means that the military regime is still dominating the agenda and the world is playing on the junta’s turf. An effective and coherent foreign policy which seeks to promote human rights and democratic governance should also be able to proactively influence and produce a desired outcome.

BENN-Canada continues to be grateful to Canada for its principled support for human rights and democratic governance in Burma, and for its continued humanitarian supports that continue to save lives, as well as, empower the grassroots. We, however, suggest the following policy recommendations so that the foreign policy goals of Canada may be better achieved with regards to Burma.

1.    Canada, in consultation with the Untied States, Australia and the European Union and other relevant partners, should absolutely make it clear ahead of time of what is expected of the military regime with regards to its planned elections, and be prepared to denounce any results short of international expectations or failure to meet international standards of free and fair elections.

2.    Canada and the larger international community should demand that all attacks and military offensives must be immediately ceased as a precondition for the international community to properly regard the regime’s seriousness to reforms. In this regard, Canada should specifically make it clear that if the SPDC does not cease attacks on the civilian populations and hold a truly inclusive and credible election, Canada may have no choice but to support calls to institute a Commission of Inquiry into Crimes against Humanity in Burma under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council. In this regard, BENN-Canada believes that enough evidence exists for such an Inquiry to proceed under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council.

3.    Canada should also unequivocally denounce all attempts by the military regime to silence its political opponents, including the continued arrest and incarceration of political dissidents, and the unjustified pressures being exerted on the ethnic resistance groups to become the “Border Guard Force” ahead of the planned elections. The demands for release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, an honorary Canadian citizen, should also be reiterated at every opportunity.

4.    To meaningfully complement its proactive Burma policy, Canada should increase its assistance to the people of Burma in the forms of humanitarian aid, financial and technical supports to civil society groups. Supports to strengthen civil society groups should be regarded as the best long-term investment that can sustain the Canadian foreign policy goals. Given the restrictions placed by the SPDC inside the country on political activities and humanitarian operations, Canada should recognize the importance of providing supports through cross-border activities through groups based along the borders to ensure that the most vulnerable groups and those in the most need can benefit from Canadian assistance. This humanitarian policy should also include the need to substantially increase Canada’s resettlement quota for Burmese refugees currently living in Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia with the view of alleviating the deplorable conditions in which the refugees live in these countries.

5.    Finally, BENN-Canada believes that given its unique position in the world, Canada should take the lead in rallying supports for a coordinated international Burma strategy by more closely working together with its counterparts in the US, the EU and the UN in persuading Burma’s neighbors such as China and ASEAN countries to form a united multilateral approach to Burma. We strongly believe that this effort can best be achieved if Canada appoints a high level Special Envoy tasked with building an international policy consensus on Burma.

Thank You


This paper was submited on behalf of the Burma Ethnic Nationalities Network-Canada at the third Burma Forum held in Saskatoon, Saskachewan, Canada on March 6, 2010

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