John Baird, Foreign Affairs Minister: Myanmar Visit Would Make History

John Baird

First Posted: 03/ 5/2012 10:08 pm Updated: 03/ 6/2012 8:00 am

BANGKOK - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is planning a landmark visit to Myanmar, a country that has suffered for nearly half a century under the tyranny of a military junta.

Baird, who is expected to arrive in the capital Naypyidaw later this week, is the first Canadian foreign minister to visit the southeast Asian nation, formally known as Burma.

The military ruled Myanmar with an iron fist, jailing thousands of critics, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of the last two decades under house arrest.

The military junta stepped down last year and a new military-backed civilian government, dominated by a clique of retired army officers, embarked on a series of democratic reforms.

During his visit, Baird is expected to meet with Suu Kyi, 66, who was given more freedom and is now campaigning as the leader of the opposition in a round of by-elections.

Suu Kyi, one of only five people to be granted honorary Canadian citizenship, addressed Canadians through an Internet link last week, to thank them for supporting the pro-democracy movement in her country.

Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide electoral victory in 1990 but was barred by the military from forming a government and she was placed under house arrest.

"Minister Baird will go to Burma to reaffirm the importance of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law," a source close to Baird told The Canadian Press Tuesday.

"Minister Baird's visit will underscore Canadian support for the embrace towards democratic development in Burma."

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Ottawa is "cautiously optimistic" about recent changes in the country.

"While we're not at a point of lifting sanctions, we want to make sure advances made are not reversible," the official said.

Canada opened a strategic engagement with Myanmar last summer that included the exchange of ambassadors, but continues to maintain a tough regime of sanctions that were toughened considerably in 2007.

The United States and European Union have praised Myanmar's progress but say they will be closely watching how a byelection in April, to be contested by Suu Kyi's party, is conducted before deciding whether to lift sanctions.

Democracy efforts in Myanmar received a major boost when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country in December, the first such high-profile visit by an American official in more than half a century.

Clinton, one of a series of foreign ministers to visit Myanmar, met with President Thein Sein and also made a memorable stop to Suu Kyi in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma.

International observers here in Bangkok, Thailand are watching developments in neighbouring Myanmar with great interest and caution.

"Everyone who goes there sees that there are changes," one Western diplomat, whose foreign minister has travelled to Myanmar recently, told The Canadian Press.

Baird’s itinerary was not yet known, but a visit to Suu Kyi, who's become a global symbol of peaceful resistance to oppression, would be an obvious stop.

"Canada has helped us greatly with regard to our movement towards democracy," Suu Kyi said last week via an Internet link with students at Carleton University in Ottawa.

It was the first time that Suu Kyi had addressed Canada.

Baird met Myanmar’s foreign minister at a security forum in Indonesia last summer and stressed the need for his government to release thousands of political prisoners.

Suu Kyi’s own direct message to Canada was equally reserved.

"The way in which you can continue to help us is to keep up your awareness of what is happening in Burma. Don’t be too optimistic. Don’t be too pessimistic. Try to see things as they are and try to keep contact with the ordinary people of Burma. That is how you will learn whether or not we are making any progress under this new government."

Loading Slideshow...
  • Here are a few details of the major investment deal coming soon between Canada and China, as well as a list of what CBC chief political correspondent Terry Milewski calls a "small blizzard of incremental agreements," signed in Beijing. <em>With files from CBC</em>. (Diego Azubel-PoolGetty Images)

  • The Big One: FIPA

    Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the foreign investment promotion and protection agreement (FIPA) between Canada and China the first "comprehensive economic agreement" between the two countries. In fact, what was signed by Harper and Chinese Premier Wen Jaibao in Beijing is not the final deal, but a declaration of intent: Now it must be legally reviewed and ratified by both governments, which for Canada will mean a debate in the House of Commons. Once both countries complete this process, it will need to be formally signed to take effect. This deal will protect Canadians investing in China, as well as Chinese investors in Canada, from "discriminatory and arbitrary practices." Once in place, investors can have more confidence that rules will be enforced and valuable business deals will be subject to predictable legal practices. Harper told reporters in Beijing he "absolutely" expected that it will make a "practical difference." "The agreement does not override existing Canadian law in regard to foreign investment and foreign investment review," Harper said. "Those laws remain in place." Negotiations for this agreement took 18 years, and key players in manufacturing, mining and the financial sectors were consulted to get to this stage. It's not unusual for Canada to have this kind of an agreement with a trading partner. FIPAs are in force with 24 other countries that trade with Canada, and active negotiations are underway with 10 other countries, according to the government's announcement. (Diego Azubel-PoolGetty Images)

  • The 'Blizzard' (By Sector):

    (AP Photo/Valentina Petrova)

  • Agriculture

    - A new protocol, building on a 2010 agreement to restore Canada's market access to the Chinese market for Canadian beef following the 2003 BSE outbreak and resulting border closures, to allow industrial beef tallow (fat) to be imported for the first time in almost a decade. China used to be Canada's top export market for tallow ($31 million in 2002), and now Canada has a shot at a share of the $400 million in tallow China imports from around the world. - A memorandum of understanding (MOU) on canola research, to address a recent fungal disease in canola and rapeseed that threatens Canada's valuable trading relationship with China in canola. - On Tuesday, Chinese aquaculture feed company Tongwei announced it will increase its purchase of Canadian canola by up to $240 million per year by 2015. (DAVID BUSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Natural Resources:

    - A MOU between Natural Resources Canada and the Chinese Academy of Sciences to collaborate on scientific research on sustainable development of natural resources. The government release touts benefits including new technologies for resource firms, carbon emissions reduction strategies, reduced environmental impacts and natural hazards from resource development, and new opportunities for Canadian suppliers of equipment and services. - A MOU spelling out a "framework" for Parks Canada and China's state forestry administration to collaborate and share scientific expertise in the management of national parks, natural reserves and other protected areas. The agreement includes language around ecological restoration, conservation measures for endangered wildlife, wetlands development, and the preservation of forests and wetlands. (<a href="" target="_hplink">Flickr: eleephotography</a>)

  • Energy

    - A continuation of the MOU, first signed in 2001 and renewed in 2006, on energy co-operation to "engage China on energy issues" through a Canada-China joint working group on energy co-operation, chaired by Natural Resources Canada and China's national energy administration, which is responsible for Chinese energy policy. The working group oversees joint research projects, exchange of expertise, and co-operation between energy companies in both countries, including the promotion of energy efficiency and renewables. It aims to both attract capital investment and improve market access for Canadian energy resources and technology. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Science and Technology

    - Approval of seven projects, valued at $10 million, under the Canada-China framework for co-operation on science and technology and innovation, including: a diagnostic kit for acute kidney injuries, a wind energy seawater desalination system, a waste heat-recovery system to help oil refineries consume less fuel, new solar cells for renewable energy panels, a real-time multi-sensor navigational tracking device for hand-held devices, a blue-green algae bloom warning system and "next generation" large-scale geographic information systems. - Two more calls for proposals, valued at $18 million ($9 million from each country) for joint research under the same framework. These proposals are for the development of "innovations with high commercial potential" in the areas of human vaccines and clean automotive transportation. The Canada-China joint committee on science and technology, made up of individuals from industry, academia and government, sets the priorities and oversees these projects. (To date, 21 projects ranging from nuclear power to AIDS drugs, to clean technologies for pulp and paper have received some $28 million in funding.) (TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Education

    - A renewed MOU extending and modifying the Canada-China scholars' exchange program, which has seen 900 students travel between Canada and China since 1973. New eligibility rules and scholarships will be in place for the next round of competitions in 2012, including eight to 12 Canadian scholarships for Chinese professionals and 20 awards for Canadian university students. (<a href="" target="_hplink">Flickr: Plutor</a>)


Filed by Christian Cotroneo  |