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Canadian action on Burma: too little too late

As many as 2 million Burmese cyclone victims stand in grave danger of starvation, exposure and disease because of the stalling tactics of the…

As many as 2 million Burmese cyclone victims stand in grave danger of starvation, exposure and disease because of the stalling tactics of the country’s military dictators.

One of the most brutal regimes in the world, the Burmese generals are blocking relief efforts because they’re too paranoid to let Western aid workers loose among their harshly oppressed people.

The cyclone is a terrible tragedy for Burma, but it’s nothing compared to the tragedy of 46 years of dictatorship, particularly the last 20 years, which have seen fierce repression of dissent.

In addition to all the usual trappings of military rule — illegal arrest and detention, disappearances, torture, and murder — the Burmese generals are well-known for their use of forced labour, in everything from sweatshop factories to road construction.

In 1988, Burma attracted the world’s attention when soldiers shot down thousands of unarmed democracy demonstrators.

Under international pressure the generals held elections in 1990, but when democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was elected with an overwhelming mandate, they refused to acknowledge the results.

Aung San Suu Kyi, now a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, has repeatedly called for sanctions against the Burmese junta. Most countries have been slow to respond, and few imposed strong measures.

Canada took until 1997 to impose some of the weakest and most meaningless sanctions possible.

Canadian companies can and do continue to operate in Burma, where their investments help to pay for the oppression of the Burmese people.

According to Mining Watch, Canadian investment in Burma has tripled since sanctions were imposed.

One of the largest foreign companies to have operated in Burma is Canadian-owned and Yukon-registered Ivanhoe Mining.

Ivanhoe, in a 50-50 partnership with the junta, developed a giant open-pit mine known as Monywa.

According to the International Labour Organization, more than 100,000 Burmese were employed as slaves in the construction of the road to Monywa.

According to Mining Watch, as a Yukon-registered company Ivanhoe is eligible for a wide array of tax incentives, including “flow-through shares … a 100 per cent writeoff and indefinite carry forward on exploration and development expenses and 30 per cent amortization of the cost of acquiring resource properties,” and “accelerated capital cost allowance for capital expenses on ‘greenfield’ mines (a new site) or major expansions.”

In 2007, Ivanhoe announced that it was pulling out of Burma, citing bad PR caused by the junta’s harsh treatment of dissidents, as well as a desire to focus its efforts on another mega-project in Mongolia.

The company placed its half of the Monywa project in the hands of a trust, and Ivanhoe insists it has no interests in Burma today, though it continues to receive money from the trust.

In another Yukon connection, Larry Bagnell, the Yukon’s Liberal MP, is the chair of the Parliamentary Friends Of Burma, an all-party committee, which supports democracy in Burma, and calls for stronger measures against the junta.

Bagnell was the first Canadian MP to travel to the Thai Burmese border to investigate conditions in Burma.

In a subsequent press release he deplored the military’s use of slave labour and its war on ethnic minorities, and condemned foreign investment for providing the funds that will “further oppress the people, and lead to massive displacements, forced labour, and other human rights abuses.”

As a founding member and chair of Parliamentary Friends Of Burma, Bagnell has sounded all the right notes, calling for just the kind of sanctions his own government failed to impose.

It may have been in response to the Parliamentary Friends Of Burma’s lobbying that in 2007 the Conservatives invoked the Special Economic Measures Act against Burma, something the Liberals had declined to do for decades.

Sadly, according to an April 30 article in Embassy magazine, “a document obtained by NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar from (International Trade Minister David) Emerson’s office reads that ‘there is no requirement by companies to advise us of their investment intentions in Burma.’”

In other words, while the Conservatives have done what the Liberals wouldn’t do, and invoked meaningful sanctions, they still don’t enforce them.

Bagnell was first elected to government in 2000. Between 2003 and 2006 he served as a junior member of cabinet. Since both caucus and cabinet meetings are confidential, we may never know if the Yukon’s MP was silent, or simply ineffectual, on sanctions against Burma when his party was in a position to impose them.

But what matters more is where Canada will go from here.

The Burmese junta is not a government, it’s a gang of thugs who have grabbed control of a country.

A succession of Canadian governments have allowed tax-supported Canadian companies to prop up that gang.

Will we finally put a stop to it, or will parliamentarians continue to move air around while Canadian money buys the bullets to slaughter the innocent?

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.