On February 4, around twenty people attended a talk given by the Canadian Ambassador to Burma (Myanmar) Mark McDowell about Burma’s democratization, development, and relationship with Canada. The lecture was part of the Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID)’s Global Governance Program Speaker Series.
McDowell began by giving a brief history of the country. Burma – renamed to Myanmar by the ruling military junta – was one of the most authoritarian countries in Southeast Asia. In 2010, a new government was elected, which, according to McDowell, surprised observers by enacting a “triple transition.”
This triple transition meant there were reforms in terms of politics, the economy, and the peace process.
But Burma has experienced the world’s longest running civil war between several ethnic groups. Despite an agreement with the government, tensions still exist, such as the conflict between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State.
Many students and faculty at the talk asked questions regarding the current political and economic situation in Burma, and emphasized how beneficial McDowell’s visit was in providing a greater understanding of contemporary Burma.
“It’s a pretty rare occasion and we’re very fortunate to have an ambassador […] who has real experience in terms of Canadian and international diplomacy.”
When asked why she attended the lecture, U2 student Gabrielle Denis remarked that her initial interest came from a political science class on Southeast Asian politics.
Shirley Zhang, a U3 Arts and Science student, speaking to The Daily, said, “It’s a pretty rare occasion and we’re very fortunate to have an ambassador […] who has real experience in terms of Canadian and international diplomacy. [It’s] a lesson we cannot learn from a classroom setting.”
In an interview with The Daily, McDowell added that the lecture was lent depth by students’ and faculty’s questions, remarking, “There were certainly more questions than we had time for and a lot of pretty spot-on questions about some of the more complicated aspects of reform.”
Lack of awareness
Despite the interest shown by attendees, McDowell emphasized that there is a lack of awareness in Canada about politics in Burma. He further added that the media has often portrayed Burma’s move toward democracy as a very unsure process.
“I think now is the time for people to be focusing on Burma as a country that seems to be leading a very dramatic democratic transition.”
McDowell told The Daily, “I think Burma is a country that has been sort of exoticized and only known through a few tragic events in the past 25 years. I think now is the time for people to be focusing on Burma as a country that seems to be leading a very dramatic democratic transition.”
McDowell added that when he started in this position, there were few economic ties, little developmental programming, or contact with high level politicians, but the embassy is building relationships in the country.
Regarding the need to raise awareness, McDowell said that he has visited five universities. He stated, “[We’re] not just publicizing what we’re doing. It’s a chance for us to listen to what Canadians are interested in, what their concerns are. It’s us studying as well.”