Burma’s Honorary Consul to Canada, Bryon Wilfert, has responded to the controversy generated following last month’s visit to Canada by Steven Law, a Burmese billionaire who US authorities allege is tied to the drug trade, by claiming that it is legal under Canadian law to do business with the controversial tycoon.
In early June, Law (aka Tun Myint Naing) traveled to Canada as a member of the Burmese delegation taking part in an Economic Ministers Roadshow organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). The Burmese delegation was led by Burma’s Minister of National Planning and Economic Development Kan Zaw and included three other Burmese businessmen in addition to Law, who, as The Irrawaddy first reported, participated using his Chinese name, Lo Ping Zhong.
During his stay in Canada, Law and the rest of the Burmese delegation attended a business round table in Toronto that was co-organized by Wilfert, a former Member of Parliament. It remains unclear if this and the other events that Law took part in resulted in Law signing any deals with Canadian firms or individuals.
“[A]nyone who met him [Law] during his time here did not break Canadian rules if they did business with him,” Wilfert wrote in a July 8 article in the Ottawa-based Embassy, a weekly newspaper that focuses on Canadian foreign affairs.
Although the US government specifically forbids US firms from doing business with Law, Asia World and a list of related front companies, Canada does not include Law or any of his aliases on a list of designated individuals with whom Canadians are barred from doing businesses. The spokesperson for Canada’s minister of international trade did not respond to The Irrawaddy’s questions regarding whether Ottawa has any plans to add Law to the list, which includes his fellow Burmese billionaire Tay Za and retired strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe.
Despite Wilfert’s assurances, those Canadian firms that do businesses with Law could still potentially face legal difficulties with the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) which is tasked with enforcing American sanctions. Canadian firms with significant US operations are particularly vulnerable to the scrutiny of OFAC.
Wilfert, who was appointed Burma’s honorary consul to Canada in March of this year, is a former MP representing the Toronto area who previously served in number of roles including as parliamentary secretary to the minister of finance and later as opposition critic for foreign affairs. During his time as an MP Wilfert attended several ASEAN Inter Parliamentary Organization summits where he tells the Irrawaddy “I made forceful speeches against both the Human Rights abuses and need for democratic change in Burma.”
In May 2005, Wilfert and the rest of the Liberal party caucus voted against a motion that called for the Canadian government to “to condemn more forcefully the repeated and systematic human rights violations committed by the military junta in power in Burma” and “impose more comprehensive economic measures on Burma.”
The motion calling on Canada’s then Liberal government, of which Wilfert was part of, to take a more active stance in pushing for the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the restoration of civilian government, passed with the unanimous support of the opposition parties, this despite concerns voiced by the motion’s opponents that a provision calling for Canada to give “tangible support” to Burma’s government in exile was too strong of an approach. Some two years later, Canada’s newly installed Conservative party government imposed comprehensive economic sanctions on Burma, shortly afterwards Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the unprecedented step of meeting the head of Burma’s government in exile Dr Sein Win. The full sanctions were eventually lifted in 2012.
According to an announcement issued by the Burmese Embassy in Ottawa, Wilfert’s role is to assist the embassy in promoting economic investment and tourism.
Canadian Opposition Raises Concerns
Canada’s New Democratic Party, the largest opposition party in the national parliament, says Law’s arrival in Canada as part of the high-level trade delegation is the latest example of the Canadian government prioritizing trade over human rights.
Don Davies, an MP from British Columbia, the first stopover for the Burmese trade delegation, called Law’s visit to Canada alarming. “Given the publicly available information concerning Mr. Law, and the Conservatives’ proclaimed ‘crackdown’ on granting visas to people of questionable character, it is also puzzling,” Davies told The Irrawaddy. Davies, who serves as his party’s international trade critic for the left-of-center NDP, is frequently at odds with Steven Harper’s Conservative party government.
“The Conservatives not only do not balance human rights and trade promotion—they ignore this connection,” said Davies, who added that a recent trade agreement between Canada and Honduras, a Central American state plagued by what rights groups say are government-backed death squads, is further proof that the Harper’s Conservative government is mishandling trade policy.
Last month a spokesperson for Canadian Trade Minister Ed Fast told The Irrawaddy that the Canadian government had no role in the inclusion of Law in the delegation, which she said was the responsibility of the Burmese government. Fast recently spoke out about Law’s visit to Canada for the first time, telling Abbotsford News, a weekly newspaper based in the minister’s hometown, that he was “disappointed and concerned” that Law was able to come to Canada.
“For some reason, this particular individual slipped through the cracks,” the Conservative MP said. “We don’t know why that happened. It concerns us.”
Davies is unconvinced by Fast’s explanation and points out that Law was able to come to Canada while Seng Zin, a women’s activist from Burma’s northern Kachin State, was recently denied a Canadian visa to attend a peace training program.
“The Conservatives immigration policy is one of failure, contradiction and ideological meddling. When millionaire businessmen with suspected connections to the global drug trade can receive a visa to enter Canada, but respected human rights activists and law-abiding citizens cannot, the facts speak for themselves,” said Davies.
Law—whose father, the late Lo Hsing Han—was dubbed by US authorities the “godfather of heroin,”—is the head of Asia World, one of Burma’s largest conglomerates. The firm has been involved in some of the country’s largest construction projects, including the Shwe gas and oil pipelines and the officially stalled Myitsone dam.
Both Law and his father were added to the US sanctions list in 2008. A press release announcing their inclusion claimed that, “In addition to their support for the Burmese regime, Steven Law and Lo Hsing Han have a history of involvement in illicit activities.”
The statement went on to describe Lo Hsing Han as “one of the world’s key heroin traffickers dating back to the early 1970s.” It added that “Steven Law joined his father’s drug empire in the 1990s and has since become one of the wealthiest individuals in Burma.”
Clarification: This story was modified on July 24 after Bryon Wilfert sent The Irrawaddy additional information regarding his term in office.