Canada involved in plans for controversial Myanmar summit

Canada involved in plans for controversial Myanmar summit

Where Perspectives Connect

Steven Edwards ,  Canwest News Service

Published: Thursday, May 15
A woman carrying a bag of food and a pair of shoes walks past a house destroyed by cyclone Nargis on the outskirts of Yangon Thursday.
A woman carrying a bag of food and a pair of shoes walks past
a house destroyed by cyclone Nargis on the outskirts of Yangon Thursday.

UNITED NATIONS – Canada risks being pulled into a growing controversy over UN hopes for a global conference on Myanmar after privately hosting a luncheon for mainly western ambassadors who included organizing such an event in their talks.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Thursday an emergency UN summit would take place in Asia, but his office later played down the comment by saying he was actually referring to a gathering by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

But it also emerged Thursday a senior British official had proposed ways to get a UN gathering off the ground when Canadian ambassador John McNee quietly received the ambassadors of the United States, Japan and other leading western powers the day before.

The British hope a planned UN visit next week by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband can serve as a catalyst to organize some sort of meeting at the world body, said people familiar with what was discussed.

But the British are also worried about being accused by the reclusive Myanmar government of pushing a political agenda supposedly aimed at toppling it.

Brown’s office said Thursday the British PM had – when he spoke publicly of the emergency summit – merely been lending his support to a conference proposal made the day before by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The diplomatic manoeuvring is taking place against the backdrop of intense Western efforts to increase pressure on Myanmar’s military rulers to admit more aid to help two million people in dire need after Cyclone Nargis hit two weeks ago.

The central problem has been Myanmar’s poor political relations with the West – not least with Britain, the one-time colonial power in the former Burma.

But at the UN, China has also used its muscle as a veto-bearing Security Council member to effectively relegate efforts to discuss the Myanmar disaster to the agenda item “Other Matters” – instead of allowing the topic to be discussed in its own right, as Western countries want.

This has happened because of China’s general aversion to what it sees as “interference” by the international community if the target country says it doesn’t want help.

UN emergency services co-ordinator John Holmes told guests at the Canadian-hosted luncheon that increasing amounts of aid were arriving, but no one knew how much was reaching the people most in need, said those privy to the meeting.

Holmes plans to travel to the country in the coming days to seek access for aid workers.

The Japanese ambassador told the luncheon that even his country’s emperor had written to the Myanmar junta to ask that it allow in more help.

Other ambassadors present included those of the European Commission, Australia and Finland.

Absent from the discussions, it is said, was talk of applying the “responsibility to protect” principle, which a number of opposition and other commentators have been proposing – and which could involve using force to deliver aid.

“The best way to get aid to the people of Burma is (to) make sure that we can work with the government of Burma to get it through,” Brown said during his monthly news conference in London. “Everybody agrees . . . the best way . . . is to pressure the Burmese government,” he added.

The UN says some 27 flights have delivered aid and another 32 are planned. A Canadian Forces cargo plane with 40 tons of relief supplies left for Thailand Wednesday, while Canada has also set aside $2 million in aid for the Burmese Red Crescent Society.

The cyclone and its aftermath has so far claimed the lives of an estimated 71,000 people, but aid officials fear there will be a far greater death toll if disease causes a second wave of deaths.



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