Until three years ago, Myanmar’s ruling military junta quashed protests, jailed thousands and oversaw a political system propped up by sham elections. Since 2010, however, the country has been evolving towards fledgling democracy. The rapid reforms have opened the gates for diplomat Mark McDowell’s new role: Canada’s first resident ambassador to Myanmar.
“I arrived here at the end of June, and I was struck by the changes to civic freedoms,” says McDowell (BA 1988 INNIS, MA 1990). “Former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi was on the cover of many newspapers, taxis had National League for Democracy stickers. That was unthinkable a few years ago.”
McDowell’s interest in Southeast Asia deepened at U of T, during professor Richard Stubbs’s fourth-year seminar. As a diplomat, he has served in New York, Taipei, Beijing and Bangkok (where he visited Myanmar frequently).
“As ambassador, I’m a matchmaker, helping countries to cooperate,” says McDowell. “I see mutually beneficial projects in a variety of fields from birth to fruition. It’s the right time for Canada to engage. We want to assist with the path to democracy. It’s important to build our network to better understand Burmese decision-makers.”
During his appointment, McDowell will oversee the creation of a full-service Canadian embassy, set to open in the new year. “It’s like a tech start-up,” he says. “We have a large amount of energy and a huge amount of work to do.” That work will also include supporting trade and investment opportunities and advocating for Canadian interests, such as respect for human rights.
“This was the job I wanted,” says McDowell. “It’s a rare occasion to open an embassy, especially in a country that is changing so significantly. It’s exciting to watch those changes unfold, and even more exciting to be a part of them.”
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