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Comparing the Canadian Government and Media Response

Burma and Haiti

by REGAN BOYCHUK

In a recent speech, Canada’s foreign minister informed the United Nations that his government was "guided by unshakable principles", shared by Canadians ­ "values such as freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law." He said it was these principles that lay behind Canada’s presence in places like Haiti and went on to declare: "These are not abstract concepts. They are concrete, with effects both immediate and profound. Promoting them is not enough. They must be protected and defended, particularly when they are under assault."[1] Recent events offer an opportunity to test the sincerity of such official claims.

If you have picked up a newspaper or seen the television news in recent weeks, you’ll no doubt be aware of what’s going on in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), one of the world’s most repressive states. In September, large pro-democracy demonstrations were sparked when the government doubled the price of fuel. Predictably, the military regime moved to crush the demonstrations, but they have persisted for weeks despite the repression.

There is not need for a detailed review the media’s coverage of the events in Burma; it has been extensive and sympathetic, as it should be. There has repeatedly been front-page coverage, editorial condemnation, and serious efforts to uncover the details of the Burmese government’s repression.

The Canadian government’s initial response to the Burmese government’s repression was to condemn the arrest of pro-democracy activists, to request their immediate release, and to call on the Burmese government "to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the protestors" and "to engage in genuine dialogue with the members of the democratic opposition."[2]

A few days later, when Burma’s narco-dictatorship resorted to deadly force against the pro-democracy demonstrators, they were again condemned by the Canadian government, who reminded the Burmese regime of their "obligation to promote and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its people as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."[3]

In its latest symbolic flourish, the Canadian parliament unanimously declared the leader of Burma’s democratic opposition an honorary Canadian citizen.[4] But the Canadian government’s rhetorical posturing is not expected to have much impact.

With the support of China, the Burmese generals are "firmly entrenched in power, and not overly worried about condemnation by the West."[5] The Canadian government’s press releases also avoid the limited options available to it if it were sincerely concerned with limiting the abuses of Burmese human rights. After the military’s last crackdown left thousands dead in 1988, Canada banned the export of arms to Burma.[6] Today, the Canadian government could ask its trading partner Israel to cease its current military and intelligence support to the Burmese junta,[7] but it chooses not to.

So, when it comes to military dictatorships backed by China, the Canadian government makes its voice heard but avoids the limited options available for meaningful action. Meanwhile, the media delivers extensive, high quality, and sympathetic coverage. But how did the Canadian government and the media handle similar attacks on pro-democracy demonstrations in Haiti throughout 2004 and 2005?

The Canadian government played important roles in overthrowing Haiti’s democratic government in February 2004 and in the events since, so it carries significant responsibility for what happened there during Haiti’s foreign-imposed ‘vacation’ from democracy. The government and media records are revealing.

Leaving aside the carnage that immediately followed the Canadian-backed February 2004 coup, numerous opportunities to defend democracy and human rights in Haiti passed with silence, or worse. Demonstrations for the return of ousted President Aristide by Haiti’s poor majority were violently suppressed, not unlike the pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma our government and media are so vocal about.

The CBC reported in mid-May 2004: "Police used tear gas and fired assault rifles to break up a massive rally in support of Haiti’s ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide." US marines helped the Haitian police disperse the crowds; at least one protestor was killed.[8] Canada’s leading daily, the Globe and Mail, did not report this political repression. The Canadian government had nothing to say and chose to do nothing despite having hundreds of troops on the ground in Haiti.

In September 2004, a gang (financed, armed, and protected from the police by a wealthy sweatshop owner and leader of the elite political group that agitated for the overthrow of Haitian democracy) opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators who had left their poor neighborhood to join a march on the National Palace. Several were killed and only a few were able to join march.[9] In the Globe and Mail, these attacks by an elite-backed gang on supporters of the ousted government were reported as "political clashes", where "Gunfire erupted in a Haitian slum teeming with loyalists of ousted ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide."[10]

A year after the coup, such state repression of peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrations had become both regular and more deadly:

o On 1 March 2005, the Miami Herald reported, "Haitian police opened fire on peaceful protestors Monday, killing two";[11]

o Days later, when UN forces protected Haitian pro-democracy demonstrators, the coup regime’s justice minister accused the UN of violating its mandate;[12]

o Three weeks later, the Haitian police opened fire on a march demanding Aristide’s return, killing at least one and injuring two others;[13]

o A month after that, police wearing black masks opened fire on a demonstration calling for the release of political prisoners, killing five.[14]

And the repression wasn’t limited to attacking demonstrations either. Not unlike Burma’s monasteries, the Haitian capital’s poor neighborhoods were regularly targeted because they were home to overwhelming support for Haiti’s ousted government and were the origin of the many pro-democracy demonstrations:

o In early June 2005, police raids on poor neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince left as many as 25 dead. "The police killed a lot of people and set several homes on fire", said one resident.[15]

This is only a small sample of the political repression occurring in Haiti but every one of these were reported by the major wire services, so the editors at the Globe and Mail cannot claim to be ignorant of them-they simply chose not to report them. It is also interesting to note how poor even these news wire reports were. The reporting had no depth. Reporters never bothered to speak to the sort of groups that were quoted in droves when it came to Burmese repression.

One Associated Press report, chosen at random, is illustrative of the quality of reporting on Burma. It cites Human Rights Watch in the third paragraph, followed by the US Campaign for Burma (a Washington-based pro-democracy group), the Democratic Voice of Burma (a Norway-based dissident news organization), the 88 Student Generation (a pro-democracy group operating inside Burma), and the National League for Democracy-Liberated Area (another dissident group).[16]

Much more evidence of the repression being carried out by the Western-backed coup regime in Haiti could have been uncovered if the media had talked to the same sort of groups cited when it came to Burma ­ but such sources were ignored when it came to Haiti.

When it came to the Chinese-backed repression in Burma, the Canadian government praised the UN’s efforts aimed at bringing an end to the violence.[17] But when it came to Canada-, US-, and French-backed repression in Haiti, Canada joined in calls for UN forces to unleash greater violence against Haiti’s poor majority.

In December 2004, the Brazilian head of UN forces in Haiti told a congressional commission, "We are under extreme pressure from the international community to use violence". He cited the US, France, and Canada as among the countries pressing UN peacekeepers to use more force. Six months later, US officials continued to call on UN troops to be more aggressive. By the end of June, UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan was calling for more foreign troops to aid in the UN mission in Haiti. "We want scarier troops", one senior UN official told the Washington Post.[18]

On 6 July 2005, the UN got scarier, launching "Operation Iron Fist". According to a confidential UN account of the raid, 1,400 heavily armed UN peacekeepers backed by two helicopters fired over 20,000 rounds of ammunition in the densely populated Port-au-Prince neighborhood Cité Soleil.[19] In the final tally, human rights investigations determined that the UN’s 12-hour raid had killed 63 Haitians.[20] Not one UN soldier was so much as injured.

The first mention of this massacre in the North American mainstream press came nearly a month after the fact, when Canada’s leading newspaper dedicated an entire paragraph to the massacre. It is worth quoting in full:

"The US-backed interim government has been unable to re-establish order, and the 7,400-member United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or Minustah, has been criticized for failing to quell the violence." (On July 6, however, Minustah did show its muscle in an eight-hour operation in the slum of Cité Soleil that left six armed gang leaders dead.)[21]

So there are some seeming contradictions in the Canadian government’s response to the repression of pro-democracy demonstrations. In Burma, we find rhetoric but no action with extensive media coverage, while in Haiti we find official silence and much destructive action with a virtual media blackout. All this raises serious questions about the role of the media and suggests there is something rather different than democracy and human rights driving Canadian foreign policy. Canadians should make it their business to find out what makes their media and foreign policy tick.

REGAN BOYCHUK contributes to HaitiAnalysis.com

References

[1] Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, "Notes for an address by the honourable Maxime Bernier, minister of foreign affairs, to the United Nations General Assembly", Speech no. 2007/30 (2 October 2007).

[2] Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, "Canada calls upon Burmese regime to engage in dialogue with democratic opposition", News release no. 129 (24 September 2007).

[3] Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, "Canada condemns violent crackdown in Burma", News release no. 131 (26 September 2007).

[4] "Burma’s democratic heroine named honorary Canadian", CBC News, 17 October 2007.

[5] Beril Lintner, "The Burmese way to fascism", Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong), vol. 170, no. 8 (October 2007).

[6] Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, "Canada’s policy on Burma", 19 September 2007.

[7] William Ashton, "Myanmar and Israel develop military pact", Jane’s Intelligence Review (Coulsdon), vol. 12, no. 3 (March 2000).

[8] "Haitian police break up pro-Aristide rally", CBC News, 18 May 2004 and Amy Bracken, "Haitians call for return of Aristide in demonstration that leaves one dead", Associated Press, 18 May 2004.

[9] Thomas M. Griffin, "Haiti human rights investigation: November 11-21, 2004", University of Miami School of Law Center for the Study of Human Rights, 8 February 2005, p. 3.

[10] Associated Press, "Pro-Aristide protests marked by gunfire", Globe and Mail (Toronto), 4 October 2004, p. A11.

[11] Joe Mozingo, "Two killed as police fire on Port-au-Prince rally", Miami Herald, 1 March 2005, p. A10.

[12] Stevenson Jacobs, "Haitian official criticizes UN actions", Associated Press, 5 March 2005.

[13] Stevenson Jacobs, "Police open fire during pro-Aristide protest in Haiti, killing at least one, witnesses say", Associated Press, 24 March 2005.

[14] "Gunfire kills five people in demonstration in Haiti", Associated Press, 27 April 2005.

[15] Joseph Guyler Delva, "Up to 25 people killed as police raid Haiti slums", Reuters, 4 June 2005.

[16] Michael Casey, "Groups struggle to tally Myanmar’s dead", Associated Press, 1 October 2007.

[17] Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, "Canada welcomes statement by the United Nations Security Council on Burma", News release no. 141 (12 October 2007).

[18] Andrew Hay, "Brazil rejects US call for Haiti crackdown", Reuters, 2 December 2004; Chantal Regnault and Joe Mozingo, "US official: Troops must be proactive", Miami Herald, 10 June 2005, p. A10; Colum Lynch, "Annan makes plea for troops in Haiti", Washington Post, 30 June 2005, p. A18.

[19] Lynch, "UN peacekeeping more assertive, creating risk for civilians".

[20] San Francisco Labor Council, "Growing evidence of a massacre by UN occupation forces in Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Cite Soleil", 12 July 2005. The total of Cite Soleil residents killed was determined in follow-up investigations by Seth Donnelly, principle author of the SFLC report; email to REGAN BOYCHUK, 15 January 2006.

[21] Marina Jiménez, "Haiti’s spiral of violence picks up speed", Globe and Mail (Toronto), 1 August 2005, p. A3.