Guest Column

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Lackluster Visit to Canada

By Tin Maung Htoo 29 June 2017

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counselor and de facto leader of the government, made a five-day visit to Canada earlier this month—long overdue after already visiting the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia.

The question is: What has been achieved, other than a photo-op with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? Some might say that the announcement of US$8.8 million of aid will boost humanitarian assistance and peace building efforts in Myanmar. This financial assistance, however, doesn’t appear to be anything new, and may actually be part of a $44 million aid package announced when the previous Foreign Minister Stephane Dion met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar in early April 2016.

Others might add that she brought with her a team (independent from her entourage) to learn from “Canadian Federalism.” Is there any point, however, of drawing comparisons between the two countries when it comes to federalism? The Canadian Confederation is straightforward, whereas Myanmar’s federalism is complicated by a number of ethnic armed organizations at war with the central government—there is nothing to be adopted from Canada.

Interestingly, major Canadian media had no clue about her visit. Canadian media requests—including from Canada Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), CTV, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star—for interviews and official requests for public meetings went unanswered. Global Affairs Canada and the Myanmar Embassy threw the ball into each other’s court when inquiries were made. The Canadian public barely noticed her visit or talked about the lack of media coverage in Canada.

Why did such a high-profile figure visit in such a low-profile way? And why only in Canada? The State Counselor held a press conference with the Swedish Prime Minister when she visited Sweden directly after her Canada visit.

She also wasn’t able to meet with key Myanmar supporters, including former politicians and ministers who played important roles in Myanmar affairs, as well as representatives of Canadian civil society organizations that pioneered campaigns for her freedom. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi once said: “I look forward very much to the day that conditions in Myanmar will allow me to be free to visit Canada myself and thank the Canadian people in person.” She apparently failed to realize her stated goal.

She was, however, able to meet with members of the Myanmar community in Toronto and Ottawa. The Myanmar Embassy planned a community meeting in Toronto with only 250 people, when there are thousands of Bamar, Karen, Chin, and Kachin living in the city.

Originally, there was no community meeting planned for Ottawa. It was only when she was challenged in person that she immediately instructed her staff to arrange a meeting. She admitted in the Ottawa meeting attended by more than 100 community members that she wasn’t aware how many people from Myanmar lived in Ottawa, and also apologized for not being able to meet with Canadian supporters.

It is quite clear that she wasn’t fully aware of or well informed on the conditions of the country she visited. The State Counselor received a special invitation from the previous Conservative government to visit. However, she revealed in the community meeting in Ottawa that she was visiting Canada under the arrangements and invitation of the Forum of Federations, a group I have not come across in the last 25 years of campaigning for Myanmar in Canada. It appears the Canadian government hastily tried to arrange some appropriate meetings with her including a photo-op with Prime Minister Trudeau and a brief meeting with Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.

The failure on the part of Canada is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wasn’t invited to address the joint-chambers of the Parliament, although she is a recipient of Honorary Canadian Citizenship and an inspirational leader of the democracy movement. All major western democracies that supported Myanmar invited her to address their Chambers of Parliament—Britain even opened its historic Westminster Hall so she could address both houses of Parliament, a rare occasion for a non-head of state. The Swedish Parliament also welcomed her immediately after she left Canada.

It was only the respective speakers of the two houses that met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. When an inquiry was made, a key adviser on international relations to the Canadian Parliament responded it was the job of the government of Canada, in this case the Prime Minister’s Office, to take the initiative.

Obviously, the Liberal government’s welcoming gesture has been less than enthusiastic—in some cases it even appeared casual. The previous Conservative government went to an enormous effort to bring her to Canada but to no avail. In fact, the previous government was more proactive and receptive to calls and approaches from the Myanmar activist community when it was in power.

Currently, the pressing issue among Myanmar communities across Canada is a deportation order issued to Ye Yint  (also known as Than Soe), who braved his life to draw the world’s attention to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrest in the late 1980s by redirecting a Myanmar airplane to Thailand. He served a jail sentence for his action, and was hailed a hero. When released, he decided to pursue education in the US. However, the political weather changed after World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and he sought political asylum in Canada in 2006. It was, however, denied due to his previous conviction.

In light of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit, the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) assumed it was safe to send the asylum seeker Ye Yint back to Myanmar and a deportation order was issued on June 19—coincidentally Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday.

It would have been interesting to see if Canada’s immigration minister could have used his “ministerial power” to overrule CBSA’s deportation order—the previous immigration minister Jason Kenny used this power to save two people from Myanmar from the same fate. The community are currently circulating a petition asking the Liberal government to intervene.

This, of course, makes the timing unfortunate—there is no happy ending to her visit. The smiling photos are taken in a moment, and only exist for a moment. There will be everlasting damage if we take the missed opportunities of her visit lightly, with Ye Yint’s case just the latest episode.

Tin Maung Htoo is on the board of directors of the Canadian Friends of Burma and served as executive director from 2005-2013.