Larry Bagnell is fighting for Burmese democracy.
On December 7th, the Yukon’s Liberal MP created the Parliamentary Friends of Burma, a group of 25 senators and MPs that’s already the largest friendship group in Parliament.
“I decided to establish a group because Burma is not in the public focus like a lot of other crises — Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and the Congo,” said Bagnell on Wednesday.
“But people are being murdered and raped, and there’s so many refugees from Burma, but you don’t hear that much about it.”
The small Southeast Asian country, not much bigger than Alberta, has been under military dictatorship since 1962.
In ’88, thousands of students revolted, but the military suppressed the protests, shooting and killing over 10,000 students, and arresting thousands more.
“The whole world knows about Tiananmen Square, but it pales in comparison to this,”
Burmese soldiers arbitrarily torture, murder and rape civilians, expropriate land and force people to relocate. More than 3,000 villages have been burned.
“Tens of thousands of Burmese are forced into labour, and there’s more than five million refugees,” said Bagnell.
“I didn’t want this to be totally ignored.”
In 1990, the junta held a controlled election to gain legitimacy, but lost by a landslide to the National League for Democracy Party.
It’s leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who holds a Nobel Peace Prize, has been under house arrest ever since.
And the military remains in control.
“She’s the only person in the world who holds a peace prize and is under house arrest,” said Bagnell.
“And she doesn’t want to leave (the country) because she’s heard they’ll never let her back in.”
Bagnell began championing Burma’s cause after meeting several Burmese dissidents.
“I actually got one of them recognized by the Speaker, although you’re supposed to be part of an official government to speak in the House,” he said.
“But they would be the government, the junta just won’t let them come home.”
Canada has already taken a strong stand against the military dictatorship, said Bagnell, citing its withdrawal of bilateral aid, imposed economic sanctions and restricted exports.
“Canada was also instrumental in getting Burma’s human rights violations before the UN Security Council,” he said.
In May 2005, Parliament voted in favour of a motion calling for Canada to take comprehensive economic measures against Burma’s military regime, and offer concrete support for Burma’s democratic institutions.
But the government has not fully carried out this motion, said Bagnell.
“And I want to get even more attention and support from the government, because Canada is a big supporter of democracy.”
Beyond its human rights violations, Burma is also Canada’s largest supplier of heroin and opium, said Bagnell.
More than 90 per cent of the heroin arriving in Canada is from Burma, according the Canadian Friends of Burma website.
And although a number of countries have taken measures to curb Burma’s human rights violations, its larger neighbours, especially India and China, have not taken similar steps.
“Burma is strategically located between these countries, and it is rich in resources,” said Bagnell.
“So, our role is to encourage India, China and Thailand to take a position against the dictators.”
Bagnell, who was chair of the foreign affairs caucus, has always involved himself in international issues.
A member of the Parliamentary Friends of Tibet, he’s been encouraging the Dali Lama to visit the Yukon, he said.
And an interest in northern regions has taken the Yukon politician to Mongolia and fuels his Scandinavian focus.
“There’s a great potential for sharing with these regions,” he said.
But Burma’s plight also resonates in the territory, he said.
“Yukoners are generally outward looking,” said Bagnell.
“Many are happy and comfortable in their lives and want to help others have a similar type of life.
“So I feel like I represent the spirit of some Yukoners when I get involved in something like this.”