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Ka Hsaw Wa is a Karen refugee. In Canada, a nation with some of the most stringent sanctions on Burma’s ruling generals, it has now been revealed that he and others were spied on by a university for having a meeting about his homeland.
Ka Hsaw Wa, one of the founding members of the US-based EarthRights International (ERI), was due to speak at the University of Ottawa, along with members of the Canadian Friends of Burma (CFOB), about the French oil giant Total and its business activities in Burma, which include the Yadana pipeline project.
Rights groups have said that human rights violations have surrounded the project, accusations which landed Total in court, although the case was eventually settled out-of-court. The 5 December 2007 meeting was called ‘Burma Blood Profits: was Ottawa U’s Desmarais building paid for with cash tainted by the blood of innocent Burmese citizens?’
However the university had other ideas. In a email dated 30 November 2007 circulated to colleagues by Victor Simon, University of Ottawa vice president for resources, he cautioned that “we should prohibit the use of our facilities for this event, on the grounds that the program material includes allegations and accusations that may be libellous . . .I know that this kind of action thinking flies in the face of many principles we hold dear in the University world, but I think we have others interests at stake here.”
The university was concerned because the building Ka Hsaw Wa was going to talk in, the new $15 million Desmarais building named after the family of the same name, was bankrolled by Paul G. Desmarais, who sat on the board of Total.
The information, disclosed to CFOB through the freedom of information request, “implicates a corporate interest at the university”, according to former Ottawa University student and now-prominent human rights lawyer, Yavar Hameed.
However the release of this information was delayed for more than ten months as the university sought to prevent disclosure of their relationship and bias towards a benefactor.
“They tried everything they could to delay and prevent us from getting the documents. They said we couldn’t see the documents because of an attorney client privilege, but we eventually got that disclosed,” says Kevin McCleod, on the board of directors of CFOB.
Despite Simon’s feeling that the action “flies in the face of many principles”, the university president, Giles Patry, as a result of the ‘other interests’ that Simon speaks of, suggests in the emails that “We should monitor to see if they [Ka Hsaw Wa et al] are exposing themselves with libellous comments.”
Indeed after the event, CFOB were suspicious of a number of members of the audience who, according to McCleod, “were acting rather strange…like writing down everything that was said – they really weirded people out”.
This prompted CFOB to request the access to information and, through multiple appeals and a previous case in which a professor was sacked based on evidence from a student spy from the university’s newspaper, they realised that the activities of discussing the impacts of large corporations on Burma was, as Hameed puts it, a “sore spot for the university administration”.
On receiving, drip by drip, the transcripts of the emails that senior university staff sent between each other, some with redacted areas, CFOB also came to learn that as requested, the social networking site Facebook had been used to find out which students were attending the meeting. One message, sent on 30 November 2007 by Steve Bernique, assistant director of operations at the university, said “I love this programme [Facebook]! Now we know who is going to attend.”
A screen shot of the list was distributed amongst the higher echelons of the university as they discussed possible ways of blocking the event, including making use of university facilities out of the financial reach of groups such as ERI and CFOB.
“I think it’s quite incomprehensible; I don’t understand the actions of any academic institution spying on students and the community expressing their academic right and freedom; it’s preposterous,” says Hameed. “It wasn’t clear to me who the spies were but all the same it was quite distressing that students could be induced or paid to spy on fellow students and human rights activities.”
One member of the audience had deeper reasons for feeling distressed: octogenarian Harvey Su is the oldest Karen refugee in Canada. He was “appalled” by the surveillance, a phenomenon he thought he had fled.
“Who are these University of Ottawa presidents, vice presidents and security staff working for exactly? The people of Ontario? Or are they working for the Desmarais family, the oil companies and the Burmese military regime? This I really want to know.”
He has since forbidden his grandchildren from attending the University of Ottawa and called for the resignation of the chancellor of ‘Canada’s university’, as their slogan goes.
The University of Ottawa was unavailable for comment.