Toronto-based lawyer Paul Copeland has played an active role in a number of international Burmese pro-democracy pressure groups, including Canadian Friends of Burma and Euro-Burma Offce. He tells DVB about how he first gained interest in Burma and why there is such sharp divisions over Western sanctions on the country.
Why were you denied a visa to visit Burma earlier this year?
I have been too active on Burma issues and there are a lot of things on the internet about me – I have a Wikipedia entry about me and it mentions my activities on Burma. Recently I was given an award by the government of Canada, and it was publicised a fair bit by various Burmese groups so I assume that they Googled me and decided I wasn’t a suitable candidate to visit Burma.
Which Burma groups are you affiliated with?
I think I was at the founding meeting of the Canadian Friends of Burma – I’m on the advisory board of that organisation – and I’ve just come on the board of the Euro-Burma Office although I haven’t actually been even involved in a meeting of that yet, but I have known [founder] Harn Yangwhe for a long time. There was another organisation that he used to run that I was part of – I think it was the Associates for a Developed Democratic Burma. And we’ve got an organisation in Toronto called the Canadian Campaign for a Free Burma and I was quite active with that organisation.
How did you first become involved with Burma?
I went on a trek with a guy out of Chiang Mai [northern Thailand] and he was one of the student leaders in 1988. He had been a student leader in 1962 and fought with the Red Karen [Karenni] Army and we pumped him for a lot of information. I then went into Burma and was then allowed one week; that was in February 1988. I wrote to him for an article on Khun Hsa [former Shan drugs warlord] he had, and didn’t hear back from him.
Then after all the killings in Burma I wrote to him again and said I’m sorry to hear about what happened in his country and asked him if I could help. I got a letter from him saying he was supporting 300 students on the border and asked if I could send some money, and then someone came and knocked on my door and said “I’m from the Committee for Restoration of Democracy in Burma, I understand you’re a friend”. After checking them out and thinking they were an OK group I started working with them. Since then I have done whatever I can do. I have done most of the Burmese refugee claims in Toronto, and do some political work, some work to lobby the Canadian government, attended conferences, went back to Burma a couple more times and wanted to go back this time just to update my knowledge and maybe get to talk to some people, if anybody felt comfortable talking to me in Burma.
What was your first impression in that week in 1988?
I loved the country, but it was a total sprint around it. One of the nicest things about the country was how cut off it was from the west. I mean, coming out of Chiang Mai – Chiang Mai now and Chiang Mai then were totally different – it was just a wonderful country and the people were interesting and the history was interesting. I actually sent a postcard back to some of my friends saying “the country’s wonderful but if this is socialism, I’ve gotta find a new political belief” and the postcard never made it out of the country. Or it never made it to Canada anyway.
That trip was in February 1988, so just before the tea shop incident [a brawl which sparked the early protests] and before things escalated over the summer. So I watched as much as there was coverage of it from Canada.
Sanctions are a big issue now. Obviously Canada has some of the strictest sanctions. What’s your perspective on that, given the recent elections?
Over the years there have always been people arguing that they should remove sanctions; various different people from Burma – Dr. Zarni was one for a while who called for the end of sanctions. I have always thought that the decision should be made by the National League for Democracy (NLD), which is the group that I think most represents the democratic forces in Burma. I have not changed my position – they’ve said sanctions should remain in place I think they should. I think that’s one of the few instruments that the NLD and the democratic forces have to put some pressure on the military dictatorship, which is still what Burma is, and I find the call for the removal of sanctions from Germany and from Mark MacKinnon’s article in the Globe & Mail yesterday [Saturday] quite distressing.
It’s like they are saying to the NLD: “Give up the only instrument you have that might put some pressure on the government. They’re really nice people, and will move the country on. You’ve now got a parliament and an elected government.” It’s just a joke to think that the military dictatorship, even in its new form, is going to make any changes or allow any freedom. There are still 2,200-odd political prisoners – people are serving huge, lengthy sentences; there’s no freedom, there’s no democracy, there’s no right to organise; the judicial system is a joke and it is way too premature to remove sanctions.
Canada has been very strong. I should say the conservative government has been very strong on sanctions; the liberal government before it had very good rhetoric on Burma but refused all attempts to get the Canadian government to impose economic sanctions. Canadian economic sanctions are not a big deal in the context of Burma but they are an important symbol and one of the things we have been urging the Canadian government to do is to take more of a leadership role in helping the democracy movement in Burma. We suggested to Prime Minister Harper that he adopt the role that Brian Mulroney did with regards to sanctions on South Africa. Sanctions on South Africa are different to those on Burma, but it is my view that those who are calling for removal of sanctions are serving the interests of the generals.
A lot of the debate around sanctions is about whom the sanctions affect. What is your view on this?
Again I would rely on the NLD rather than my reading of what is going on in Burma. Sanctions were effective on South Africa; they don’t seem particularly so on Iran and their nuclear program. It is hard to tell what effect they will have on Burma. There are many countries – Thailand, China, India – that are doing economic stuff on Burma. There is now an Italian project going into Tavoy, so there are many countries that are making investments in Burma. But I think both the symbolism of the sanctions and the effectiveness of the sanctions again are the only instrument for the democracy forces to try and put some pressure on the generals to actually have something meaningful happen in the country.
And the people?
I think there is not much that is drifting down to the people. The generals are the ones who are making all the money. If you look at Than Shwe’s daughter’s wedding, it is just an obscenity to be spending that kind of money. You look at the creation of the new capital. There’s money floating around but it doesn’t seem to be getting to the people in the country.
Some have been critical of the level of sanctions, that they are not complete enough. Are they just a token gesture?
To a large extent. Ivanhoe [Canadian mining giant] has been carrying on there –Robert Friedland [CEO] made this claim that they sold their stake to some un-named trust but it is very hard to see any clarity with what’s going on. I would presume that Ivanhoe is still benefitting from those copper mines. It would be interesting to see the Canadian government actually take steps to increase the sanctions and say it’s illegal for Canadian companies to carry on with business in Burma until there is some movement towards democracy.
Again, that’s my view. There have been some successful campaigns. There was a campaign a long time ago to get Petro-Can, when it was a government-owned oil company, to stop doing work in Burma. I have an acquaintance who up until 2003 was doing oil exploration with the Chinese National Petroleum Company and with the MOGE [Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise] and he pulled out after the Depayin massacre, but again I think even stronger sanctions would be useful, from the Americans particularly and the Europeans. Most of the Europeans are good on sanctions but the Germans now are basically saying, ‘let’s get rid of sanctions’. I think Amgela Merkel’s calls for the removal of sanctions are serving the generals.
Why do you think countries like Germany are keen to remove sanctions?
My general thought would be that the big companies in that country want to exploit Burma like companies in many other countries are exploiting Burma, and that they don’t want to have their foreign competitors come in and either take advantage of or do development in the country. They think there is money to be made; Burma is rich in natural resources, certainly a lot of oil and gas is around, and a great need for development generally, so I presume that the business class in Germany want to be part of that and don’t want sanctions interfering with that.
Do you think it is hypocritical that somewhere like Israel has no censure yet Burma does?
There was a vote at the Security Council on Friday, vetoed by the US, criticising Israel on the continued building in the occupied territories and continued developing in the occupied territories. There aren’t sanctions against Israel at a national or international level; there is, I think, the BDS campaign which is being organised by the Palestinians as well as a number of other people saying that there should be boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel because of their policies around the Palestinians. So it’s different in each case – the Israelis have the Americans protecting their interests at the Security Council, whilst China and Russia, and at one point South Africa, all voted to block something at the Security Council dealing with Burma issues.
With regards to international pressure on Burma, there have been calls for the generals to be tried at the ICC. What’s your position on that?
Certainly the generals and the military dictatorship in Burma have killed less people as things have gone along; I mean in 1988 they killed at least 3,000 people, whereas during the Saffron Revolution [in 2007] the numbers generally floated around 100. But what they have managed to do is use huge prison sentences to intimidate the people rather than mass killings.
But I think an investigation by the ICC is important. There have been calls for it from various countries. The Canadian government supports the call for an investigation by the ICC and I think it should go ahead – it’s one of the few ways in which the international community has some ability to impact on national leaders. Charles Taylor from Liberia, Milosevic from Serbia, Bashir from Sudan – now [the latter’s] has had no affect at all but it will probably make it very difficult for him to travel internationally. So it’s a way for the international community to influence the behaviour of governments or key players in governments, so that they’re bound to actually follow international norms and not slaughter and kill people indiscriminately.
A lot of our readers have been very engaged on the issue of whether an enquiry should include different ethnic armies and rebel groups. What is your perspective on that?
Well first, the scale of what has been done by the various ethnic groups does not compare to what has been done by the military dictatorship in Burma. Secondly, generally speaking the ICC stuff is reserved for very large players on the scene. The ICC does not have the capability of investigating every criminal offence in the country. I am not aware particularly of the type of killings or imprisonments for trying to express democratic values, of that having been done by the ethnic minorities.
So I am not in favour of the ICC looking at the ethnic minorities. I think it is beyond the scope of what the ICC can do and would in many ways waste the resources of the ICC. What they should be looking at again is national leaders and trying to ensure that national leaders follow human rights and social justice norms and international law norms in how they run their countries and treat their people.
How should people now respond to the elections?
[The choosing of people] allowed to compete in the elections was a very flawed process. I think when any reasonable observers look at it they can tell it was a total sham. What’s been produced, what little functioning that has happened, doesn’t resemble any form of democracy that anybody in the world knows. Its’ a charade put together by the military government to maintain their continued power. And it’s done really in a process that was laid out by a US PR firm a long tome ago, the so-called ‘road map to democracy’, and if the road is a mile long they have gone about a centimetre. The firm was called DCI and operate out of Washington. They received about a quarter of a million dollars to rebrand the SPDC.
Nobody should be paying any attention to this and think it is a sign of democracy unless there is some sign that there will be some meaningful discussion, or unless there are splits in the military hierarchy. If the military are serious about demonstrating to the world that they were trying to move the country forward, they should release all political prisoners. That would be a first step in moving the country forward but until that happens nobody should be taking the government of Burma seriously.
What is the most striking thing that the people you represent in Canada are fleeing from?
It’s international law and they have to have a well-founded fear of persecution by reason of political belief or religious belief or other things, and it’s really easy to qualify as a refugee from Burma. The government is so repressive that if you say anything in regards to democracy, you are subject to arrest. If you are a Christian, certainly in some areas you have major problems. There are problems based on ethnicity – the Karen are mistreated in certain parts of Burma – and the SPDC army’s treatment of people in eastern Burma has been horrendous. So it’s not very difficult to qualify. Some of the people have been very involved in the political stuff, some less so. Some of the case law out of Britain says that even making an unsuccessful refugee claim from Burma will result in you being persecuted when you get back to Burma, so that making a claim by itself is almost the basis for being a refugee.
Is Western governments’ inability to reign in companies such as Total, Chevron and Ivanhoe an indictment of the failure of sanctions?
The main Canadian company in Burma was Ivanhoe, but they had operations in Burma before sanctions. But the mining lobby is quite powerful. There have been attempts by an MP named John Mackay to have the Canadian mining companies held accountable in Canada for what they were doing internationally. That piece of private members’ bill failed in the House of Commons, but Canadian mining is a huge international operation. And again some of them aren’t exactly helpful to the local people. In the Philippines there is some litigation going on and in places in South America.
Mining is a big part of the economic activity in Canada. One of the things about Ivanhoe is that that are incorporated in the Yukon [Canadian federal territory]. The Yukon has a law which states that shareholders cannot bring issues of social justice to shareholder meetings.