The federal government is strengthening Canada's trade and investment ties with Myanmar, while warning that Canadian businesses should have their "eyes wide open" to the ongoing risks in the country that is still struggling to emerge from decades of brutal military rule.
International Trade Minister Ed Fast announced on Monday that Ottawa will be appointing a full-time trade commission in the soon-to-be-opened embassy, and is in talks about a possible foreign investment promotion and protection agreement with Myanmar, formerly called Burma.
"Our decision to open the trade office in Burma signals that Canada stands ready to play a significant role in helping the people of Burma secure a freer, more prosperous future," Mr. Fast said in a conference call from capital city of Naypyidaw.
As part of the government's more aggressive Asia strategy, Mr. Fast visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar to strengthen Canadian presence in southeast Asia. On Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will travel to Vladivostok, Russia, for the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group.
Mr. Fast was accompanied by executives from nearly 20 companies who are looking to do business in Myanmar, including the Bank of Nova Scotia, Skywave Mobile Communications and Manulife Financial. After meeting with President Thein Sein, several ministers and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Mr. Fast said any Canadian company looking to do business there needs to approach it with "eyes wide open."
"The market situation in Burma is still fluid and subject to government policy and regulatory changes," the minister said. "They are undertaking comprehensive economic reforms here – many of those reforms have not been concluded. That's why we strongly encourage Canadian companies to exercise great caution and ensure that if they enter this market, they have trusted partners that show the highest level of integrity."
Myanmar held multi-party elections in April as the ruling military loosened its grip on a nominally civilian government, and Ms. Suu Kyi – who emerged from house arrest in 2010 – led her party to a significant breakthrough by winning seats in parliament. After the election, Mr. Harper lifted blanket sanctions against Myanmar to encourage reforms and in July, announced Canada would open an embassy in the capital.
"While there is still a long way to go, I was encouraged by what I've seen here and by the steps the Burmese government has taken to move to democracy and to the recognition of basic human rights," Mr. Fast said. The Myanmar government recently released its grip on the press, ending the requirement of newspapers to submit articles for prior approval and allowing opposition politicians to be figured prominently in coverage.
As part of its Asian Pacific strategy, the Harper government is looking to strengthen its ties with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations .
Mr. Fast said the developing countries are desperate to build out their information and telecommunications sectors, their financial industries, and their educational systems, all areas where Canada has a business advantage.
But several of the countries are also noted for their religious persecution. Islamic communities in Myanmar are facing persecution from the Buddhist majority, while Christians are targeted in Vietnam. Mr. Fast said Canada will encourage respect for human rights even as it builds commercial relations with the Asian countries.
"We've made it clear that as we engage in trade and investment relationships around the world that we also expect our partners to respect basic human rights, respect democratic processes," he said.
Myanmar takes more steps toward press freedom
Myanmar's new information minister may allow private daily newspapers in the coming months, the government said on Monday, marking the boldest media reform yet and meeting a central demand of advocates for press freedom.
The quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein has liberalized media regulations since taking over from a military junta in March of 2011, abolishing direct censorship last month, but private groups are still not allowed to publish daily newspapers.
Information Minister Aung Kyi – who took over from a hard-liner in a cabinet reshuffle last week – wants to introduce a new media law soon and set up a press council acceptable to all, deputy information minister Ye Htut said.
"Our minister would like to see private dailies early next year," he told Reuters.
There are about 200 private weeklies and four state-owned dailies in Myanmar. The one English-language daily and two others are run by the Ministry of Information, the fourth by the Ministry of Defence. All carry much the same propaganda-laced content.
The change follows a decision on Aug. 20 to end direct media censorship. Journalists no longer have to submit reports to state censors before publication, ending a practice strictly enforced during nearly half a century of military rule that ended in March last year.
Changes have gathered steam since June last year when the Ministry of Information decided to allow about half of Myanmar's privately run weekly journals and monthly magazines to publish without submitting page proofs to a censorship board in advance.
Over the past year, Myanmar has introduced the most sweeping reforms in the former British colony since a 1962 military coup.
Newspapers have been testing the boundaries, often putting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on front pages and giving coverage to government critics. Editors say this was unthinkable before the middle of last year.