TORONTO - After years of imposing tough sanctions, Canada announced a push Wednesday to open up economic relations with Myanmar, saying International Trade Minister Ed Fast and a delegation of business leaders would travel to the strategically-placed Southeast Asian nation in September.
Fast will be the first cabinet minister to visit the country since trade sanctions were eased at the end of April and Canada announced it would open an embassy in the capital, Rangoon, in recognition of Myanmar's moves to improve human rights and democracy.
But despite Ottawa's optimism over a trade relationship, some pro-democracy and human rights groups are warning that the country formerly known as Burma is still facing serious human rights issues
Fast tried to counter those concerns by saying he remained committed to helping the country on its path to reform and modernization as Canada pursued an open relationship with the region.
"The reason we're engaging is because the trade and investment ground in Burma is shifting," he said. "Slowly but surely, the circumstances, the investment climate and the business environment is changing and we would like to see that change continue."
Fast added that Canadians have long supported Myanmar's "struggle for democracy and freedom."
Fast made his announcement after participating in a closed-door round table meeting in Toronto with numerous Canadian firms who he said are "eager" to do business in the country.
Firms at the meeting included Research In Motion (TSX:RIM), SNC-Lavalin (TSX:SNC), Bombardier (TSX:BBD.B) and consulting firms Nextep Strategy Inc., Prudential Consulting Inc. and Deloitte.
"After almost three generations of relative isolation, Burma is in desperate need of improvements to its infrastructure," Fast said. "With continued economic reforms and a path towards openness, I am encouraged by these recent developments."
But Tin Maung Htoo, director of the Ottawa-based non-governmental organization Canadian Friends of Burma, said Canadian investors should be wary of entering certain investment sectors in Myanmar.
"I'm still cautious in terms of investment, especially in the extractive areas in Burma like mining and others like oil and gas," he said.
"Burma's environmental laws are not fully (functional) and in many instances not in compliance with international standards because of a lack of mechanisms, implementation processes and community participation."
Maung Htoo also said investment decisions in Myanmar are often made by high-level government and military officials, and former military leaders, without adequate consultation with affected communities.
"They are mainly focused on profit and in the past we've seen that when it gets monopolized by the military cronies, there wasn't any transparency ... of how they generated their income from all of these natural resources."
Amnesty International also said foreign investors need to be aware of human rights violations occurring in Myanmar.
It released a report earlier this month that outlined rampant violence against ethnic minority Muslim groups along the country's border areas, specifically in the western coastal region of Rakhine State, six weeks after a state of emergency was declared in the area.
The report included allegations of physical abuse, rape, destruction of property and unlawful killings carried out by both Rakhine Buddhists and Myanmar security forces against the Muslim groups.
Amnesty researcher Benjamin Zawacki said in an interview from Bangkok on Wednesday that the situation had improved in recent days, but the reforms in Myanmar that are applauded by the international community have largely neglected the country's ethnic and religious minorities.
"Clearly there's been a political and economic opening up in the country and that's obviously what the minister's visit speaks to," he said. "Unfortunately that opening up has not extended to the ethnic minority areas and the situation in Rakhine state is simply the latest and most dramatic example of that."
Zawacki said it may be possible to promote social and cultural rights through more economic initiatives, but urged the international community to push for Myanmar to better its human rights record.
"Countries, including Canada, should very much raise their voices and apply political pressure for the security forces of Myanmar to cease these human rights violations," he said.
"We don't feel like investing in a country and pressuring a country to improve its human rights record are mutually exclusive."