Farewell, Mister McDowell! An interview with the outgoing Canadian Ambassador

Alec J. Wilmot 

Ambassador McDowell in the meeting room of the Canadian Embassy, Yangon.
Ambassador McDowell in the meeting room of the Canadian Embassy, Yangon.

MISTER Mark McDowell has acted as Canadian Ambassador to the Union of Myanmar since August of 2013 (though this tenure only represents a small part of his connection with the country). Having completed his tour of duty, I took the opportunity to visit him at the Canadian Embassy on the ninth floor of the northern tower of the Sule Centrepoint building. I wanted to get a sense of how he feels about his work here, the growing Canadian presence in Myanmar and the incredible transformations that have occurred over the last few years. Mr. McDowell is a tall, affable man who speaks of his work with a certain reserved joy. He admitted at the top of our conversation that he was feeling a little worn out – it was after office closing on a Friday afternoon.
No matter, he said, let’s begin.
So, Ambassador McDowell, when are you leaving your post?
My last day is the third of September. I have had my farewell calls with the President and (Senior General) Min Aung Hlaing so I have five more days of work. My plan is to stay in Myanmar for a while in some capacity because I’m optimistic about the country and I want to see how it develops politically and economically. Also, because I have a chance to be a part of it in some way. Maybe someone reading your article will think ‘give this man a job!’ (he says with a cheery laugh). I almost feel like I’ve been watching Myanmar as a TV series for thirteen years and I can’t stop watching it – I can’t turn it off now just when there’s all of these exciting things that are developing.
Of SG Min Aung Hlaing’s private demeanour, Mr. McDowell said:
Surprisingly, he is very keen to converse and the meeting was pretty long. We talked about a lot of stuff. A lot of people think about the military – that you’ve got to be very standoffish, that they don’t want to answer questions but he seems very keen to talk and we talked about a lot of issues. I think, like a lot of people, he understands more (English) than he speaks. They have an interpreter there but when you’re talking he knows what you’re talking about.
So, who will be the new ambassador to Myanmar?
The new ambassador has been named. It’s Karen MacArthur.
Does Mr. McDowell know her?
I’m afraid I don’t know her because we’ve never been posted in the same area.
How did you end up being posted to Myanmar? Did you have any choice in the matter?
In the Canadian Foreign Service, we apply for jobs. A list of postings comes out around this time of year in the autumn for the next summer and we apply for them. My first choice was definitely Yangon. They (Global Affairs Canada) don’t always give you your first choice but if they do give you your first choice you have to be grateful for it. I don’t think they care whether it’s your first choice, (you will be selected) if you happen to be the person they want.
What led you to want to work in Myanmar and do you have expertise that made this choice obvious?
Yes, that’s the second part of it. I speak Indonesian quite well. I started a PhD in political science in Indonesia and I have always applied to go to Indonesia as my first choice but I’ve never been sent. So, I thought I was quite well prepared to apply for this job in Myanmar but that made me pessimistic about my chances. I was posted to Bangkok from 2003 until 2007 – I was the head of the political section there and as the head of the political section I was also in charge of (relations with) Myanmar because we didn’t have an embassy here. I was the person who basically ran the relationship with Myanmar and I visited every couple of months. In fact, I think I made over twenty trips here during my tenure in Bangkok. So, I got to know the country quite well and I got to know people in the NGO sector as well as democracy activists. I then took leave from the Department of Foreign Affairs for two years, from 2007 until 2009, and one of the things I did during that period was come back here to do a research project about Myanmar – looking at civil societies and the aftermath of (Cyclone) Nargis. So, from 2003 until 2009 I was quite closely involved in Myanmar issues. I was very pleasantly surprised when I got the job as ambassador in 2012.
What were relations like when you were communicating with the Myanmar government from Thailand?
Very strained. The word I always use is ‘frosty’. Our former government was very fond of saying that they had the toughest sanctions in the world on Myanmar. We had very, very tight trade sanctions. We basically had no senior contact. I was really the only person from the Canadian government for four years. The ambassadors used to come once a year, something like that. The relationship was really very minimal. It was too bad. We weren’t even involved, really, because we didn’t have an embassy here unlike other countries like the UK or the USA who also had very tough sanctions.
The UK had very good contacts with the democracy movement here. When I arrived in 2013 it was really a start-up situation. We had almost no trade, which now makes our trade statistics look very good because trade has gone up by something like one thousand, one hundred per cent in the last three years (he chuckles). We had no high level contacts, we had no development cooperation programme, we had no people to people ties because it was so difficult to get a visa. So, it was really starting from scratch but I kind of enjoyed that – (there was) nowhere to go but up. It was just really fun. It was a great challenge and it was fun to start things from scratch.
Have you always been in this building?
We moved in here (Sule Centrepoint Towers) in May, 2014. We held our official opening in August, 2014. For about a year previous to May, 2014, we were located in a temporary space in the UK embassy – we were located in what was actually a former change room for the guards – but I don’t say this with irony, the British were actually very generous to let us use those rooms because all the embassies were building up at that time and they were very cramped and I felt a little bit guilty for taking those two rooms. It was a very difficult situation for us because, as you can imagine, we couldn’t really hire staff. There was only space for three desks. We had four or five people in there.
In that case, how did sending secret cables work?
I couldn’t. I had to go to Bangkok. The one benefit is that I got to go on a lot of trips. I would go one morning, do some work, stay overnight and then come back the next day.
How has your relationship with the Myanmar government changed since the NLD took power?
I would say that it’s different, but good. We have to give the former government some credit – they were very eager to engage with western countries after such a long period of poor relations. There were all kinds of misgivings in Canada about engaging with a semi-democratic government but actually it was a very productive relationship and they were very tolerant of us as a brand new embassy that had very limited capacity.
In terms of our engagement with the current government – when you have a complete change of government you have to learn how to deal with all the new personalities. The thing that’s a little bit complicated now is that I think the state and region governments are going to become increasingly important and that’s something we, Canada, are very interested in. We are very interested in helping Myanmar develop its federal system because they have said that they’re interested in a federal form of government and that is really something we’ve come back to over and over again over the last three years. I haven’t had the time to visit all fourteen states and regions but I’ve been doing my best to talk to state and region governments.
Of Daw Aung Suu Kyi’s role in the relationship, he said:
Daw Aung Suu Kyi has been pretty generous with her time. She met with Minister Dion twice during his visits here. She does think about Canada. I was very happy when she said in a press conference (he paraphrases) that Canada understands better than most other countries the challenges that Myanmar faces in its current situation in developing a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious society. She is an honourary Canadian citizen. In fact, she has an aunt who lives in Canada.
On the topic of communication, or lack thereof, between Canada and the Tatmadaw, he said:
Canada is unusual in that we still don’t have a defence attaché accredited here – that’s a legacy of the sanctions period and I believe in the interview with (Senior General) Min Aung Hlaing he raised the issue of more interaction, more relations between our military forces. At the moment, we still have none.
Meetings of that nature are described as simply being to ‘improve relations between the armed forces of the two nations’. What does that mean in practical terms?
The military here wants to become more of a modern, professional force and that means having access to international standards of training and I think also (the military) has suffered from isolation in the same way some sectors of the economy did. They want to have access to global standards of hardware and software, and I think that would be a great thing if they become more of a cosmopolitan organisation.
One area of cooperation came about because Canada has significant support for counter-terrorism and anti-crime capacity building. We’ve funded a lot of projects which are ASEAN wide and because of that we’ve had a lot of Canadian funded projects on things like container security, border security, border management, police training, fraudulent document (spotting) training, money laundering training and that is a very interesting area.
Can you tell me about the embassies’, or your, most valued projects?
Well, I’d say number one is federalism. On the political side it is the big issue we want to engage on. It’s not just selling the Canadian model but about having a dialog and showing how the Canadian model works. By no means do we want to push our model but the interesting thing about Canada’s model is that we are dealing with multiple languages, unlike some other federal countries. We’re also dealing with the issue of a country where natural resources are extremely important – that’s very relevant to the Myanmar situation. Canada’s federalism is actually very, very complicated because we have this linguistic issue – we also have an issue with aboriginal people and their special rights and privileges – there are different types of arrangements with different groups. It’s like a series of experiments (in governance) that you can take a look at. We also want to continue supporting some grass roots organisations that we have been supporting for the last three years like Pen, for example, or the Human Dignity Film Institute and other small organisations. We’ve been very active on LGBT rights and we’ve been very active on freedom of expression issues so those are things I think we would be very happy to continue to support.
On the development side, we launched a development cooperation progamme about a year ago and we’ve now delivered a few programmes. One that’s of great interest is a programme to support women entrepreneurs in rural areas. Given that seventy per cent of the population here lives in a rural area and it’s going to be that way for a while to come, it’s really important to try to raise incomes in rural areas. We don’t have expertise in growing tropical crops but we can help with things like marketing, transport – those types of issues. We’re agriculturally focussed. The one area that’s gone more slowly than we expected is trade and investment. There was a lot of expectation, when the opening of this embassy was announced in Canada, that there was going to be a boom in natural resources, for example. That hasn’t happened here in the mining sector yet. Part of it has been political uncertainty, part of it has been sanctions but the main issue has been mining legislation and the concerns that mining companies have about making an investment that will be secure. I think there is still a lot of potential for Canada here and it’s going to be very interesting when that boom occurs – it will happen at some point. We’re strong in IT and in financial services but, again, the market is closed (for now) so that is an area where my successor will be very busy.
What’s going to be very interesting is Myanmar’s peace process. We are interested in supporting it in any way possible and that’s kind of a work in progress.
What did you think of the mixed responses to the results of the 21st Century Panglong Conference?
Well, I mean, not everyone is going to get what they want. You’ve got twenty parties taking part – ethnic armed groups, the government and the military. I don’t know, it’s going to be a long discussion but I’m not pessimistic about it in the long run. I think there’s an understanding that some kind of federal system is the answer. I think what you’re referring to is that the military alluded to the fact that what’s in the 2008 constitution may be enough but there will some kind of long term accommodation reached. In the last five years if you had bet on optimism, you would have made a lot of money by now because there was pessimism about the original opening back in 2011. Pessimism also around the elections and the handover but if you look at the big picture over the past five years, it’s been fantastic.
What are your day to day activities like?
The really good thing about being an ambassador is that you don’t have a ‘normal day’. That’s my favourite thing about it. In a small embassy like ours I spend a certain amount of time in administration – dealing with finances or personnel or property, that’s unavoidable. Since I supervise the sections – development, trade, consulate, I have to know what’s going on. We don’t have a political section here so I do all of the political reporting and meeting. That’s an unusually large amount of my time as ambassador. Normally, at the very start of the day, I have meetings with the sections to make sure I’m assisting them in whatever way they need and that I know what’s going on. Then, I might have a meeting with the UN where they inform us on the situation on humanitarian disasters (prevention, aid stockpiles) and then I would be in contact with headquarters talking about getting Canadian aid through our development section. I might talk with people in grass roots organisations. I meet with the other ambassadors a lot because we share notes on what’s going on. I’m trying to travel to Nay Pyi Taw more often than I used to. A typical day in Yangon and a typical day in Nay Pyi Taw are very different. In Nay Pyi Taw, we have very good access and we can meet ministers and senior people in the government. I meet with commercial contacts, too. I get a real variety.
What has been the most interesting or memorable day?
Definitely election day. For Canadians and Americans, it’s like championship day. There’s a lot of tension and a lot thinking ‘which way is the day going to go?’. On election day, in our embassy, we didn’t have an election team from Canada because we had just had our own election. What we did is – we mobilised everyone in our embassy. We organised ourselves into several teams. Two teams went to Mon State, two teams went to Bago, two were just in Yangon and I went to Bogle, Ayeyarwady Delta. That was the city I did my little study on after Nargis and I thought it would be interesting to go back there. It was a hive of activity at the polling stations (but) everyone was very calm and patient.
What was your reaction to President Obama agreeing to lift the final sanctions?
The last two countries with significant sanctions (on Myanmar) are the US and Canada. Let’s just say we (Canada) have been considering raising sanctions for some time and we’ll see what happens.
Ambassador McDowell’s closing remarks.
I’ve always been interested in Myanmar, even since university. We always had this image of Myanmar as this very strange and exotic country and it is a very unusual, exotic country in a good way. So, Myanmar is in this period of extremely rapid change and the one thing that I hope is that Yangon doesn’t just try to become another Kuala Lumpur (example South East Asian metropolis). There is something that Myanmar – the one benefit of the fifty years of being detached from the global system – is that a lot of aspects of its physical, material and non-material culture is still intact. Colonial buildings, the skyline here (Mr. McDowell gestures out of the 9th floor window westwards toward Lanmadaw), the flowers and trees and water everywhere. It’s such a beautiful built environment and a beautiful natural environment. People are a little bit different here from other places. People are sweet here and I just hope all of that isn’t lost in the rush to develop. There’s such a unique culture here and because of their late development they understand that they have the chance to avoid all kinds of mistakes. Don’t give up your longyi – that’s my symbol of it.

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