On International Woman’s Day, Foreign Minister John Baird personally presented Myanmar’s iconic opposition figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, with honorary Canadian citizenship while visiting the southeast Asian country. The Nobel laureate is the first woman, and fifth person ever, to receive the honour.
Baird is in Myanmar (sometimes called Burma) to acknowledge the glimmer of democratic promise being shown by the country’s military rulers as they allow Suu Kyi and opposition figures to run in by-elections scheduled for April 1. Suu Kyi, who has been campaigning ahead of April’s vote after spending much of the past two decades under house arrest in Rangoon, won a landslide election victory in Myanmar in 1990, but the country’s military blocked her from forming government. The military junta ruled in classic authoritarian fashion until recently, when leadership was transferred to a civilian government headed by President Thein Sein, with whom Baird also met on his visit. Under Sein, the government has released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed increased media freedoms.
The CBC reported that “in a way” Baird is “making history” as the first Canadian foreign minister ever to visit Myanmar. The Conservative government in Ottawa ramped up Canada’s long-standing sanctions against the country in 2008, but Baird said he is visiting “with an eye to re-evaluating the measures that we’ve taken against the government here.”
Myanmar has much to gain by continuing to loosen up its authoritarian ways, but based on Suu Kyi’s popularity—both at home and abroad—its current rulers might have a lot to lose. And if history is any indicator, Myanmar’s supposed march to democracy should be regarded with a hefty measure of skepticism.