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Bringing Democracy to Burma: A Strengthened Resolve  


Remarks spoken to by

Hon. David Kilgour, P.C., M.P.

Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific) and MP (Edmonton-Southeast)

On the occasion of the 15th Anniversary of 8 - 8 - 88 Uprising in Burma

Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers

Edmonton, AB

8 August 2003

Permit me to recognise and thank Burma Watch International for its excellent work in raising awareness and generating ideas about how we can bring democracy back to Burma.  Today, as we remember those freedom-fighters who died 15 years ago in the streets of Burma’s cities, we MUST  also remember the recent passing of one of Burma Watch’s founding members: the Mahadevi of Yawnghwe, Sao Nang Hearn Kham, who lived in Edmonton for many years.    

The Mahadevi of Yawnghwe

She was a shining example of  the resilience and courage of Burma’s peoples.  She fought through great adversity, always remaining true to the land she loved.  She was a pillar of strength, no more so than when Burma gained its hard fought independence in 1948.  With her passing and particularly today, we are reminded of the need to persevere and remain vigilant until Burma is a truly free and democratic country.

Visualising Burma as free and democratic is difficult during these trying times.  Fifteen years ago, the population rose up and demanded change.  Twenty-six years of Ne Win’s authoritarian rule had exhausted their tolerance;  they refused to stand by passively and watch another unelected government take root.  And so, fully conscious of the auspicious nature of striking on the eight day, on the eight month, of 1988, Burma’s population, by the millions – led by its young people – peacefully protested.  The tragic outcome, we know all too well.

The 8-8-88 Massacre

Dr. Alice was there 15 years ago.  If I can quote something she published in 1998, recalling that day’s horrible events,

The killing started [at] midnight [on] August 8th, in front of the city hall in Rangoon, Burma.  When I went to the Rangoon General Hospital where I worked, on the next day, August 9th, we received hundreds of injured people and dead bodies for the whole day until night.  I witnessed the incidents and was actively involved in taking care of these injured people.  We faced many problems in the hospital...We had no more blood in the blood bank and no bandages and plaster for wound dressing.  We could not save them.  It was really a very sad and horrifying incident.  We felt so helpless.

Helpless: it’s what the people in the streets of Rangoon felt when the soldiers opened fire on the crowd;

Helpless: it’s what  the families of the estimated 6000 innocent men, women, and children felt when they found out their loved ones had been killed by the government;

Helpless: it’s what many of us probably felt a little over two months ago, on May 30th, when Aung San Suu Kyi was rearrested. 

Yet, even August 8th, 1988, had its silver lining.  That month’s tumultuous events catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi onto the world stage and gave Burma’s opposition a unified figure to stand behind – 80% of whom had voted for her two short years later.  Similarly, perhaps May 30th, 2003, will be a day that truly galvanizes the international community and Burma’s neighbours to once and for all tell General Than Shwe and his regime that enough is enough: Burma must be free.

I have to admit that preparing for this talk was challenging and quite frankly something of a reality check.   Newspaper reports filed during and shortly after the massacre of 8 - 8 - 88 could well have been filed again last week without changing much except for some names.  Replace Ne Win with Than Shwe and you might not even realise that we’re talking about an event that happened 15 years ago  

A Reuters story published on August 11th, 1988 quotes some of the protestors as chanting “Shoot us. We can’t get rice and curry and so we might as well be dead.”[i]   The story goes on to talk about how food and fuel shortages, bad planning, and massive inflation catalysed the protests.  A Washington Post story published soon thereafter talked about how Burma’s main export industries, namely rice, minerals, and even oil, had atrophied after a quarter century of economic mismanagement.[ii]  And even back then, according to the Associated Press, analysts and Burma experts in the region were not optimistic about meaningful change in Burma.[iii] 

Canadians responses since 8-8-88

Similarly, the language being used by Canada and other nations in response to these events, for better or for worse, hasn’t really changed much either.  In September of 1988, then Secretary of State for External Affairs, the RT. Hon. Joe Clark “condemned the use of violence by the military forces against those protesting” and “ called upon Burmese authorities to cease such activities and begin the process of creating a dialogue with the people of Burma.”[iv]  A little more than three years later, Secretary of State Barbara McDougall “deplored the treatment.” of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and called for her immediate release from prison.[v]  

In 1992 and 1997, Canada publically called on the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take more ownership of the Burma situation, and convince the generals to hand over power to elected officials.[vi]  Last October, some of you may have heard me make these very same statements in a speech at a Canadian Friends of Burma conference in Ottawa.  Finally, several weeks ago, Minister Bill Graham again “deplored” the actions of Burma’s generals and called, yet again, for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s immediate release from prison.

Is the situation that different today?  On the surface, it doesn’t seem like it.  There are still over 1300 political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, languishing in Burma’s notorious jails.  The country remains desperately poor.   No one has suffered more than Burma’s peoples.   Once the breadbasket of SE Asia, Burma has become one of the least developed countries in Asia  -- not because it lacks the resources or the means to be prosperous –  but because of the nature of the regime that rules it; a regime that shows no regard for the well being of the population and ultimately, a regime that has changed little, except in name, in the last 40 years.  All of us activists, politicians, Canadians of all backgrounds, have grown frustrated and angry at this situation.  Following the terrible events of Friday, May 30th, I firmly believe that our resolve has strengthened and that the days of Burma’s ruling generals are now waning.  

Canada’s response to May 30th, 2003

There are a number of reasons why I am convinced of this.  First, none of us has sat by passively and watched this happen.   Canadians have consistently responded in a strong manner to the regime’s actions.  We were one of the first countries to suspend bilateral aid and official commercial relations in 1988.  We were also one of the first countries to implement export controls and, post-1997, call on Canadian companies to suspend further investment.  Burma is not eligible for Canada’s Market Access Initiative for Least Developed Countries.  This is no token gesture.  For instance, Cambodia, which was one of the first countries to sign on to the initiative last summer, has shown a 132% increase in exports to Canada between the first quarter of 2002 and first quarter of 2003.

On July 10th, in response to terrible events of May 30th, we announced new measures against Burma.  These measures are in response to complete lack of a genuine commitment by the regime to initiate a transition to democracy.  What we’ve tried to do is target the officials responsible who perpetuate this regime.

Senior officials of the government and military are now banned from entering Canada.  Canadian immigration officials will ensure that those responsible for egregious human rights violations will not receive visas to Canada.  We have imposed travel restrictions on Burmese diplomats in Canada.  They are now required to notify the Canadian government before leaving the Ottawa region.

We have tried to raise the profile of what doing business in Burma means, whether through tourism or investment.  Minister Graham and I have gone to great lengths to remind Canadians that tourism in Burma provides direct financial support to the regime who benefit from foreign exchange, government run hotels and travel operators.   We’ve reiterated to Canadian companies NOT to engage in further investment agreements or commercial ventures in Burma until there is marked improvement in the political situation.  In a meeting a few months ago with a senior executive from Ivanhoe, I told him in no uncertain terms that we do not support its continued investment in Burma.

Some observers argue that Canada should go further, banning trade and investment altogether through the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA).  We examined this possibility, but determined that acting without the rest of the international community would be fruitless.  The government of Canada firmly believes multilateral efforts are the best way to resolve situations such as we face with Burma. 

Consequently, we are making every effort to the have the region’s conduct raised in international fora.  We are working at the United Nations with other concerned countries to make clear that the latest actions by the regime and their continued failure to engage in democratic dialogue are not acceptable to the international community.

Minister Graham delivered this message clearly in June at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia.   There has been movement on this front.  For the first time ever, ASEAN has chastised one of its members for its actions, it will send a delegation to Rangoon to press for Aung San Suu Ki’s release.[vii]  Governments in the region are speaking up like never before:   ASEAN’s elder statesman, Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahatir Mahamad, has said that Burma should be threatened with expulsion from ASEAN if it fails to release Aung San Suu Kyi.  Japan, one of Burma’s largest sources of economic assistance, has suspended new funds over recent events.  These are the sorts of action and statements we need if we ever want to see real change in Burma.

In the meantime, Canada and other like-minded countries have announced that we’re all looking at how we can better support and encourage democratic development.  And of course, we will continue to support the work of true heroes like Dr. Cynthia (Maung) and Dr. Alice (Khin) in the refugee communities along the borders.

Democracy in Burma’s future?

  I’d like to close if I can on a positive note.  As we remember those who lost their lives 15 years ago in the name of Burmese democracy, it’s important to recall just how much the world has changed in the last 15 years.  The manner by which Burma’s ruling generals  govern is a dying form.  The greatest achievement of the last century is that democracy has spread and taken root across most of the planet.  At the 2nd ministerial meeting of the  Communities of Democracy Conference held last October, former-Korean President Kim reminded us that, “Out of 200-odd countries in the world, 140 have adopted a multi-party system. This is significant progress, considering the feat that only about 30 countries were rated as democracies up until the mid-70s.”  In other words, there are few places left in world where the concepts of democracy, the rule of law and freedom do not prevail.  Burma is one of them.  Burma’s generals will get the message that their totalitarian rule is unsustainable.  Only government of by and for all the Burmese peoples will bring prosperity and freedom.                                                      

Working together, I know we can get this message across and bring freedom back to Burma.

Thank you.


[i].David Storey, “Hunger for food, leadership sparked Burma riots,” Reuters New Service, 11 August 1988.

[ii].Keith B. Richburg, “Burma’s Drama Could Affect Region; Nation’s Abundant Untapped Resources Could Attract Investors,” Washington Post, A20, 24 September 1988.

[iii].Peter Eng, “Rangoon Quiet; People Search List of Casualties,” The Associated Press, 15 August 1988.

[iv].”Situation in Burma,” News Release: Department of External Affairs (Canada), 19 September, 1988.

[v].”Mrs. McDougall deplores treatment fo Burmese Opposition Leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate,” News Release: Secretary of State for External Affairs (Canada), 15 November 1991.

[vi].  Hon. Barbara McDougall, “An Address to the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference Six plus Seven Meeting,” External Affairs - International Trade Canada, Manilla, the Philippines, 24 July 1992. 

“Canada Announces Further Actions on Burma,” News Release: Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (Canada), 7 August, 1997.

[vii].Andrew Perrin, “Burma Feels the Heat,” Time Asia, 29 July 2003. Online at


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