Canada will be monitoring Burma's elections next month with a keen hope to see reform amid allegations of voting "irregularities," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Thursday, on a historic visit to the isolationist country.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's opposition leader and a Nobel Peace laureate, greeted the minister at the home in Rangoon where she has served 15 of the last 23 years under house arrest for opposing the ruling junta.
Baird came bearing the gift of an honorary Canadian citizenship for the pro-democracy icon. But pleasantries aside, Suu Kyi used the meeting to express concerns about possible vote rigging ahead of the April 1 election in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
"We have just discovered there are many, many irregularities on the voters' lists, and we have applied to the election commission to do something about this," she said, standing next to Baird on her back porch in Rangoon.
"A lot of dead people seem to be prepared to vote on the first of April. We can't have that, can we? And other things like that."
Suu Kyi requested Canadian monitors pay attention to the elections to ensure the process remains legitimate.
Baird said he would be "very thrilled to begin to lift the Canadian sanctions against the current government here, but obviously we want to watch closely the next 3½ weeks of the campaign."
But he said he was concerned to hear about the irregularities and will watch to see how the government and election commission officials investigate.
"We look forward to seeing the results of that," he said.
"They won't be perfect elections, but will they be fair, open and transparent? The whole world will be watching, as will Canada," he added.
Suu Kyi promised her party "would complain loud and long, and we'll make sure that whatever has gone wrong is put right at some time or the other. We don't want to condemn irregularities outright if they can be remedied in some way."
Baird kicked off his visit earlier in the day with a meeting with Burma President Thein Sein at his presidential palace, an opulent structure in the country's new and austere capital of Naypyitaw.
Officials asked Canada for textbooks on democracy.
"They've come a long way. We want to acknolwege that," Baird said. "At the same time, we want to encourage them to go further."
"In a way, he's making history," the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault reported from Rangoon. "He's the first Canadian foreign affairs minister to ever set foot on this soil. In terms of global politicians, he joins a bit of a parade of people who have come through here over the last several months as this country has … started to change."
Foreign politicians are coming to Burma to get a measure of the reforms and to size up the people behind them, Arsenault said. "Is this reform for real, or reform for the sake of merely attracting the attention of the world's investment?"
Suu Kyi is an international symbol of elegant, peaceful defiance in a country that has endured decades of oppressive military rule.
She's running in a significant byelection next month that the world sees as crucial test of Burma's new civilian leadership. Her National League for Democracy won a landslide electoral victory in 1990 but was barred by the military from forming a government.
"We're making clear that we've noted impressive progress to date and reinforcing that the April elections are an important milestone," Baird said.
Baird arrived Thursday accompanied by his chief spokesman and Canada's chargé d'affairs to Thailand. The military has ruled Burma with an iron fist, jailing thousands of critics — including Suu Kyi, who spent most 15 of the last 23 years under house arrest.
Suu Kyi, 66, is now the leader of the opposition, and her party is actively campaigning. She is one of only five people — and the first woman — to ever be granted honorary Canadian citizenship. Baird's presentation to Suu Kyi coincides with International Women's Day.
Burma's military junta stepped down last year and a new military-backed civilian government, dominated by a clique of retired army officers, embarked on a series of democratic reforms.
Suu Kyi was also given more freedom and is now campaigning in a round of byelections to be held on April 1 — a ballot that the world views as a key test for Burma's new civilian leadership.
Over the past year, the pace of change has been dizzying at times in the resource-rich, but somewhat backward, South Asian nation of 60 million people.
The government has released hundreds of political prisoners, and the media has been given more freedoms. Suu Kyi's image is ubiquitous, and her every word is now reported. She attracts huge crowds at rallies.
Canada has had varying levels of sanctions against Burma since 1988. It opened a strategic engagement with the country last summer, but continues to maintain a strict regime of sanctions that were toughened considerably in 2007.
Baird will not be announcing any easing of those sanctions on this trip, as some other countries have done, including the United States.
Baird's itinerary mirrors that of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited the country in December — the first such high-profile visit by an American official in more than half a century, although one of several by Western foreign ministers in the last year.