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Tough job awaits Canada's first-ever envoy to Myanmar

A Buddhist monk walks on the grounds of the Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon on March 18, 2013. After 25 years of almost no contact between Canada and Myanmar, Ottawa will launch an era of new and hopefully warmer ties this spring by opening an embassy in Rangoon and appointing a veteran Asia hand as the first ambassador there.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

After 25 years of almost no contact between Canada and Myanmar, Ottawa will launch an era of new and hopefully warmer ties this spring by opening an embassy in Rangoon and appointing a veteran Asia hand as the first ambassador there.

Though Ottawa has yet to confirm the appointment of 50-year-old Mark McDowell, it was announced Saturday in the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper and independently confirmed by The Globe and Mail.

He will take up his post in a country where the inspiring march from military dictatorship to partial democracy over the past 16 months has recently been tainted by communal and inter-ethnic violence. The latest outbreak left at least 20 people dead – reportedly Muslims killed by Buddhist mobs – in central Mandalay province this weekend.

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Mr. McDowell, who is now counsellor and head of the public diplomacy section at Canada's embassy in Beijing, will be Canada's first full-time ambassador to the country formerly called Burma.

Mr. McDowell, who did not comment on his new posting, is known inside the Department of Foreign Affairs as a social-media innovator and a long-time advocate of better ties with Myanmar.

(Like most countries, Canada will have its diplomatic presence in Rangoon, Myanmar's largest city and former capital, rather than Naypyidaw, the new capital constructed by the former junta in 2005. Previously, Canada's relationship with Myanmar was handled through its embassy in neighbouring Thailand.)

The establishment of an embassy is a response to the rapid opening Myanmar has seen since President Thein Sein came to power in November, 2011. Though the military is still by far the most powerful institution in the country – Mr. Thein Sein himself is an ex-general and top member of the former junta – the past 16 months have seen thousands of political prisoners released, the economy partially liberalized and by-elections won by the opposition National League for Democracy, headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the feel-good moments like seeing the 67-year-old Ms. Suu Kyi walking free after almost two decades of house arrest are now being challenged by horrific images of mobs setting entire villages on fire amid rising anti-Muslim sentiment among the country's Buddhist majority. Last year, almost 200 people were killed and an estimated 110,000 forced out of their homes during Buddhist-Muslim violence in the west of the country.

Parts of the far north and east of the country have also seen regular flare-ups of the decades-old conflicts there between ethnic militias and the central government.

Mr. McDowell's primary task will likely be promoting Canada's almost non-existent economic relationship with the impoverished but resource-rich state, after two-way trade totalled less than $900,000 in 2011. Trade Minister Ed Fast announced last fall that Canada would open a trade office at the Rangoon embassy and said he hoped to sign an investment protection agreement with the Myanmar government.

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Despite the long frost in relations, Mr. McDowell knows Myanmar well, having made more than 20 trips to the country while he was head of the political section at the Canadian embassy in Thailand between 2003 and 2007.

David Mulroney, a former ambassador to Beijing who worked closely with Mr. McDowell there, said the promotion "shows recognition with the Department [of Foreign Affairs] that Mark is probably the person who knows the most about modern Burma and has the largest network of contacts there."

Mr. Mulroney described Mr. McDowell as an "unconventional" diplomat who was also willing to speak uncomfortable truths to his bosses in Ottawa. In a 2008 report, Mr. McDowell criticized Canada's hard-line stance against Myanmar's former military regime – which saw Canada impose the toughest sanctions of any country while funnelling aid to opposition forces and civil society groups based in Thailand – saying it made Canada the "outlier of Western countries," and thus unable to have any influence on events inside Myanmar.

Mr. McDowell, who has also been posted to Taipei and New York, is best known in Beijing for helping drag the Department of Foreign Affairs into the Internet age, leading a drive to get the Canadian embassy to open a Chinese-language account on Sina Weibo, China's wildly popular Twitter-like social networking site. The site now has almost 285,000 "fans" that read regular postings from the embassy.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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