The going was tough when Mark McDowell became Canada’s first resident ambassador to Myanmar in 2013.
“We started by working out of two converted changing rooms in the British embassy,” he said. “The British were very nice to give us those changing rooms, but it was pretty grim.”
Before McDowell’s three-year tenure comes to an end today, he spoke with The Myanmar Times about his time since these modest beginnings.
Canada’s diplomatic corps has since moved to the ritzy Centrepoint Towers in downtown Yangon. And, as this interview took place on a Friday, the ambassador wore a green chequered longyi.
“If I had to make a list of my 10 greatest achievements here, ‘longyi Fridays’ at the embassy is definitely number one,” he said laughing.
More seriously, he added this was part of a personal crusade to “encourage local staff to uphold the beautiful aspects of their culture” in the face of lightning-fast modernisation.
“For example, you never see women wearing thanakha in this building,” he said. “It’s sad.”
The ambassador seemed unlike a typical cookie-cut diplomat. There was much more time spent chatting about lessons learned and the sheer excitement of a democratic Myanmar than any preapproved talking points from Ottawa.
But whatever the subject – his views should hold water. McDowell was head of the political and economic section at the embassy of Canada in Bangkok from 2003 to 2007, which included 20 visits to Myanmar before being picked as his country’s inaugural ambassador here.
Regarding the new National League for Democracy-led government, McDowell is optimistic: “We need to cut them some slack,” he said. “Remember that democratisation doesn’t always end well. Aung San Suu Kyi understood that the absolute most important thing was … a peaceful transition. And she achieved that.”
He also said the new government should be applauded for wading as far as it has into third-rail topics of the peace process and the situation in Rakhine State this early into their term.
On the role of sanctions: “I’ll go out on a limb. I’ve been on the side that is not very pro sanctions,” he said. “My experience coming here in 2003 to 2007 and certainly in 2009, well … I think that over the course of the sanctions era we saw the decimation of the middle class.”
On challenges ahead: “Resources. This is going to be one of the really difficult issues in Myanmar federalism – who gets the money from the rocks under the ground.
“The resources sector has huge promise here. I just hope that Myanmar can avoid the mistakes of other countries [at this stage of development] and put that capital to use for broader development.”
Looking back, McDowell said the fact that the Canadian embassy is not a heavy-hitter here meant it had to be a “niche player”. This saw it focus on a set of issues including the support of federalism projects, LGBT organisations – saying the Canadians were “one of the earliest embassies” to get behind these groups – and freedom of expression events like the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival.
He sees freedom of expression as a chance for “what I’d like to trademark ‘from worst to first’ in Southeast Asia”.
Canada now looks set to double down on the early foundations put in place by McDowell and his team. On a recent visit, Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion announced a new U$44 million aid package.
But the next steps for McDowell are far less certain. Love of his newfound home seems far greater than any professional aspirations.
“I want to stay here in Myanmar. It’s like I’ve been watching a really exciting TV series year after year and I just want a few more seasons of it. I want to see what happens next.”
In what capacity will he stay?
“No idea,” he laughed. “You may see me on Yangon streets with the sign – ‘Will Conduct Diplomacy For Food’.”
Canadaphiles can continue to follow Ambassador-maybe-turned-vagabond Mark McDowell on his Facebook account: facebok.com/ambassadormm.