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Myanmar envoy has personal link to religious freedom debate

By Kristen Shane      

Hau Do Suan is a member of the Chin ethnic minority and a Christian in a Buddhist-majority country.

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Religion has been a hot topic lately in Hau Do Suan’s homeland. He’s the new ambassador for Myanmar, the southeast Asian country also known as Burma. 

While his country has been lauded for its democratic reforms in the last three years, it continues to face social unrest.

Last year, The Globe and Mail reported that nearly 200 people were killed and about 110,000 displaced during Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the country’s west. Myanmar’s population is mostly Buddhist. 

And despite the attempts to bring about peace, longstanding conflicts between the central government and ethnic militias in the country’s north and east have refused to die. 

A group from the ethnic Chin minority, which counts many Christians among them, came to Ottawa earlier this year to tell parliamentarians that meaningful change isn’t being felt throughout all of Myanmar. 

The Chin Human Rights Organization, a non-governmental group, recently released a report suggesting that government-funded schools in the country target impoverished ethnic minorities and force them to convert to Buddhism and assimilate. 

Mr. Suan is himself a member of the Chin ethnic group and a Christian Baptist. His wife, Nwe Nwe Aye, is also a Christian. 

But he sees things differently. 

He says he comes from one of the poorest regions in the country, Chin State. But it didn’t get that way because of discrimination, he argued. It’s disadvantaged geographically, he said. Its mountainous terrain makes it hard to cultivate enough food for consumption, and it also lacks natural resources. In that kind of environment, you can’t expect equal development with other regions, he said. 

He says if there were discrimination, he likely wouldn’t be where he is today. 

He rose up through the ranks of the foreign service over more than 25 years through postings at the United Nations in New York, Geneva, Canberra, and Beijing. He was the consul general in Kunming, China for a time. And his last posting before coming to Canada was as director general of his foreign ministry’s political department. That meant he dealt with the bilateral relationship with all countries—a big job. In that role, he came to Canada alongside his foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, last October. 

 

At a critical moment

Mr. Suan is proud of his country’s accomplishments along its transition to democracy in such a short period of time. He lists its progress on press freedom, for example, and parliamentary and judiciary reform, elections, and economic liberalization. 

“We understand that there remains a lot of challenges in the future,” he says. But he stresses that Myanmar has done a lot in a little amount of time. 

He plays down the religious aspects of the communal conflict, but he also says his government will take seriously investigating religious intolerance and hatred among different faiths. 

“This is the least that we want at this critical moment. We are putting our full energy on nation-building…to realize our democratic aspiration by the whole population of the country.” 

To that end, Canada can help, he says. It directs aid money to displaced Burmese and those in conflict areas, as well as for the promotion of democratic values, he said, but he encouraged the government to start a bilateral aid program and help more inside the country. 

Besides humanitarian needs, the Canadian government “should concentrate on helping the country in its economic development as well,” he said, through trade and investment, for instance. 

Canada has loosened sanctions on Myanmar and ramped up high-level visits, including those of Foreign Minister John Baird and Trade Minister Ed Fast. It is in the process of opening an embassy there with the first resident Canadian ambassador, Mark McDowell.

While it still calls the country Burma, the preferred name of democracy activists but not the government, Mr. Suan said relations are now on the right track with Canada. 

kshane@embassynews.ca

@kristenshane1

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