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Symbolic Myanmar visit signals Harper's shifting worldview

Stephen Harper's foreign ministers have preferred to divide the world into the black hats and the white hats. Now John Baird is riding into Myanmar as things have turned grey.

Mr. Baird arrives Thursday in the remote capital, Naypyidaw, choosing to signal Ottawa's interest in reforms with the first-ever visit of a Canadian foreign minister. The issue is no longer hitting a bad guy with sanctions. Mr. Baird faces the far more complex question of how to pace offers of aid, and ease sanctions to nudge Myanmar, the former Burma, further along the path to reform.

The visit is a symbol of a changing approach in a majority government. The Harper government's foreign policy is moving beyond the short list of countries it cared about in its minority years, like the United States, China, Afghanistan and Israel. And with Mr. Baird, the majority's foreign minister, it's willing to be seen delving into complicated affairs, like those in Myanmar.

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Mr. Baird's mission is to gauge commitment to reforms and, if encouraged, to signal Canada will ease sanctions if Myanmar's reforms become entrenched.

The interest in Myanmar is, in part, linked to the government's trade-driven ties to Asia and to Southeast Asian nations in the 10-country ASEAN bloc. Myanmar is a member and others in the group have urged Canada to become more active in the region's affairs as Ottawa seeks closer ties.

Mr. Baird's trek seemed impossible a year ago; events in Myanmar have moved quickly. But Ottawa's willingness to venture into complex diplomacy in far-off places is a change, too.

Last March, Myanmar's new ambassador slipped quietly into Ottawa to reopen communication after six years of silence. But it looked like Kyaw Tin would be the Maytag repairman of ambassadors, as Canadian officials didn't rush to open doors.

"There were some events ... they did not want me to attend," he said in a telephone interview. But that changed. Last fall, he was invited to a lunch Mr. Baird hosted for ASEAN ambassadors. Myanmar's man could shake hands with the Harper government again.

It was a sea change. Myanmar's regime was one the Harper government had loved to shun.

Influential figures like Immigration Minister Jason Kenney had long seen Myanmar's brutal repression as an important cause. Myanmar was, along with a few others countries like Iran, persona non grata. The regime's crackdown on 2007 protests sparked Ottawa to ban nearly all economic ties.

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But Myanmar's recent change prompted quiet shifts. Its 2010 election was so restricted Ottawa called it a sham. But new President Thein Sein's inaugural speech in March, 2011, pledged reforms. Canada quietly exchanged ambassadors.

Ottawa changed a little, too. With a majority, the first Harper foreign minister who started with a keen interest in international affairs was mandated to broaden foreign policy beyond a few priorities. Mr. Baird drew up a longer list of countries and issues that mattered, and met foreign diplomats who'd found his predecessors inaccessible.

In July, at an ASEAN meeting in Bali, Mr. Baird became the first Canadian foreign minister in years to meet Myanmar's. Reluctance to resume contact gave way as signs of reforms became more concrete.

Canadian officials who sought progress on ethnic conflicts and political prisoners saw Myanmar negotiate a series of ceasefires. In October, 200 political prisoners were released; in January, 650 more. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest in 2010, was allowed to run in by-elections in April. Power won't change hands, but it signals change.

Canadian officials began to meet more frequently with Kyaw Tin, Myanmar's ambassador, and Canadian diplomats travelled there.

Importantly, Myanmar's opposition leaders started to signal they believed Thein Sein is committed to reforms – while Canadian diplomats heard rumours of resistance in the military. It changed the question from pressuring for change to encouraging it.

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Kyaw Tin said Ottawa can do that by offering aid programs in areas like education and health, even without lifting sanctions. And if not lifted, sanctions can be eased, he said, perhaps after April's by-elections.

"The speed of the changes have surprised everyone, including those who have been critical," said Kyaw Tin. "They are irreversible."

Mr. Baird has, according to officials, not decided that yet. He's not the first Western foreign minister to go in recent months, following a handful like U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who signalled an opening. But for Stephen Harper's government, he's travelling off the beaten path.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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