PARLIAMENT HILL—One Liberal and an NDP MP resigned from the Canada-Myanmar Parliamentary Friendship Group after Conservative MP Bruce Stanton, chair of the friendship group, sent out an email informing members about a pro-Myanmar government rally, adding the Myanmar community would “greatly appreciate your attendance and support.”
First-term Liberal MP Chandra Arya (Nepean, Ont.), and five-term NDP MP David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre, Ont.) told The Hill Times they resigned after Mr. Stanton (Simcoe North, Ont.) sent the email to all 16 Parliamentarians in the friendship group, informing them about a pro-Myanmar government rally on the Hill, scheduled for Sept. 21. Both said the text of the email gave the impression that the group was encouraging members to attend this protest.
“Note: Please be advised, members of the Burma/Myanmar community in Canada will be bringing a demonstration of support for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—tomorrow on Parliament Hill,” wrote Mr. Stanton in an email to members of the friendship group on Sept. 20, which Mr. Stanton provided to The Hill Times, last week. “I know they would greatly appreciate your attendance and support.”
After receiving the email, Mr. Arya and Mr. Christopherson tendered their resignations. In a second email after the resignations, Mr. Stanton clarified that the friendship group neither “initiated,” nor “sponsored” this protest, and it was up to each Parliamentarian to decide to attend or not.
“I wish to clarify this event is organized by the Burmese Canadian community in Toronto and Ottawa,” said Mr. Stanton in the second email. “This is not an event sponsored by or initiated by our friendship group. It is entirely up to Members if they wish to meet with the participants of this rally. I know you would be welcome, if even for dialogue on the current crisis in Myanmar, in particular Rakhine State. But, it is entirely up to you.”
Before these emails, Mr. Stanton and the two vice chairs—Liberal MP Geng Tan (Don Valley North, Ont.) and Ontario Conservative Sen. Thanh Hai Ngo—issued a statement on Sept. 14, in which they expressed “deepest sympathies for loss of life and human suffering” to the victims of the conflict that started on Aug. 25 in Rakhine State in Myanmar. The statement condemned attacks on security forces that resulted in the “deaths of about 90 people including at least 12 police officers.” The three executives also urged Myanmar’s military establishment and the government “to heed the government’s foremost responsibility for the safety and protection of the people in Rakhine and across the republic, and to the path toward peace and a stronger federalism throughout the Republic of Myanmar.”
The recent outbreak of violence in Myanmar was triggered in late August when a Rohingya militant group killed at least 12 people in an attack on more than 24 security sites. In retaliation, the state security forces launched a forceful attack displacing more than 422,000 Rohingyas, an ethnic minority, from their homes. Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, last month, described this crackdown as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.
In a letter and a phone call to Aung San Suu Kyi, the civilian leader of Myanmar and an honorary Canadian citizen, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) said Myanmar’s de facto leader should speak up against the ongoing atrocities against Rohingya Muslim minority and play her role in stopping this repression.
“It is with profound surprise, disappointment, and dismay that your fellow Canadians have witnessed your continuing silence in the face of the brutal repression of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim People,” Mr. Trudeau wrote in his letter on Sept. 18, about the persecution of minority Rohingya Muslims in a Buddhist majority country, which was posted online by The Huffington Post Canada. “I remain deeply concerned about the situation they face and for the protection of all ethnic minorities in Myanmar.”
Since the start of the crackdown about two months ago, a number of Canadians have called on Mr. Trudeau to strip Ms. Suu Kyi of her honorary citizenship for failing to take any action to stop the atrocities.
“Withdraw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Canadian citizenship and avoid such presentations in the future,” wrote former Liberal MP Mario Silva in an article for Postmedia on Sept. 13.
Meanwhile, in an interview with The Hill Times, Mr. Arya said he found it troubling that the friendship group considered it appropriate to inform its members about a pro-Myanmar government rally when that government is being accused of “ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations. He said the wording of the email gave him the impression the friendship group was indirectly supporting the Myanmar government.
“This was a demonstration in support of the government. The very fact the chair and the executives took that it is important enough to be circulated among members itself, for me, is quite objectionable,” Mr. Arya said.
“For me, it appears that we are willing to lend a hand to the people who are continuing to support the government of Burma, which is being accused of ethnic cleansing.”
As for the Sept. 14 statement, he said, the friendship group should have unequivocally condemned the “ethnic cleansing going on in Myanmar,” which it did not.
Mr. Christopherson, in an interview, said the pro-government rally email from Mr. Stanton left a “bad taste in his mouth.” He said he was heartbroken with the ongoing conflict and disappointed that Ms. Suu Kyi failed to stop this crackdown or to speak up against the security force’s role in this bloodshed.
“I got an invite advising me that there was a pro-government rally and they were informing us that it was there if we wanted to go,” said Mr. Christopherson.
“Given that it was a pro-government rally, it left a very bad taste in my mouth. I would’ve preferred they didn’t. I felt what I needed to do was to step down because I’m not in support of, in any way, what’s going on currently. Words fail me in terms of how shattered I am as to what’s going on, given the greatest promise that was there, the possibilities.”
Mr. Christopherson said he understands the Myanmar politics involved, and believes Ms. Suu Kyi could have done more to stop this conflict, but she didn’t. He said some have tried to justify her silence, saying the military started this crackdown and Ms. Suu Kyi has no control over it. But, Mr. Christopherson disagreed.
“I have some sympathy for that situation, but nonetheless she’s the government. This is going on under her watch,” said Mr. Christopherson.
Mr. Stanton said he was “disappointed” with Mr. Arya and Mr. Christopherson’s resignations, and added that, in retrospect, the email could have been worded differently to ensure no one got the wrong impression. As for the Sept. 14 statement, he said, Mr. Arya never shared his concerns with him. Mr. Stanton said that prior to the release of the statement, it was vetted by the two vice-chairs, but not all members of the friendship group.
“[I’m] disappointed but [I] understand,” said Mr. Stanton. “I did send that email out, and it was a very, very general email. I understand that people took that to mean as though I was somehow, or the friendship group was somehow, endorsing this particular event. The email could have been clearer about that. I did send a follow-up just to be sure that members understood that this was in no way an endorsement.”
Meanwhile, at the rally in support of the Myanmar government on Parliament Hill on Sept. 21, about 30 people showed up in the first 45 minutes, all of whom chanted slogans in support of Ms. Suu Kyi.
“We stand with, Aung San Suu Kyi; our hero, Aung San Suu Kyi; our leader, Aung San Suu Kyi,” people at the rally chanted.
The Hill Times stayed at the rally for about 45 minutes and only one Parliamentarian—Mr. Stanton—came to meet with the rally attendees.
In an interview with The Hill Times during the rally, Mr. Stanton said he would, for now, “reserve judgment” on the UN’s description of the ongoing conflict as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
“Really, I reserve judgment on that. I’d like to eventually see the report,” Mr. Stanton said. “I know that term has been used in this case. The facts are really not sufficiently known in an unbiased way to know exactly what’s happened there. That’s one of the sources of the problems.”
He told The Hill Times that he was not there to support the rally, but to meet with people who have a certain point of view on an international conflict. Mr. Stanton said he agreed with the Canadian government’s position that Ms. Suu Kyi should condemn the atrocities on Rohingya Muslims, but said he wouldn’t say it to the people holding the rally.
“No, I’m not,” said Mr. Stanton when asked if he would tell the people chanting in support of Ms. Suu Kyi. “I’ve released our statement, and I stand by that and that’s our position on this, and we’re not going to deviate from that.”
Asked why he wouldn’t tell rally attendees that Ms. Suu Kyi should speak up against the atrocities, when he agrees with that position, Mr. Stanton said:
“Of course, we look forward to having discussions with them and we’ll continue to emphasize these points.”
Zaw Kyaw, a Canadian of Myanmar origin at the rally, told The Hill Times attendees were there to support Ms. Suu Kyi. He said the international community was being unfair to the Myanmar leader and Nobel laureate as “she’s the leader of the government” but does not control security forces.
“We’re showing our support for our leader and our hero Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. She’s being unfairly treated by [the] international community and the Western media. We stand with Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Mr. Kyaw.
“She’s the leader of the government, but people need to understand she doesn’t control security forces.”
Sen. Ngo told The Hill Times that the international community must understand that Ms. San Suu Kyi had no control over the military crackdown. He said he’s against the idea of revoking Ms. Suu Kyi’s honorary citizenship, and that she should be given more time to deal with this situation.
“By revoking her citizenship, what do we gain? …Let her have a chance to try to work [it] out peacefully, democratically,” Sen. Ngo told The Hill Times on Sept. 21.
Last week, The Hill Times reached out to Sen. Ngo to get his reaction about the resignation of the two MPs, but he did not respond to interview requests.
Mr. Tan also did not respond to an interview request, last week, for this article.
Toronto Conservative Sen. Salma Ataullahjan told The Hill Times, last week, she disagreed with Mr. Stanton’s decision to send out the email about the rally. She said she was still a member of the friendship group, and understood the decision of the MPs who resigned.
“It’s better to be engaged, but if you really feel strongly about something, you’re upset, then that’s showing your disapproval. So, that’s up to them, they resigned,” said Sen. Ataullahjan.