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When Norway’s deputy foreign minister, Espen Barth Eide, returned from a visit to Burma this month, he told the Financial Times that he “almost left the country thinking they’re moving a little too fast”. DVB asked him to qualify this statement, and get his opinions on the pace and quality of change underway in Burma, as well as the extent to which Norway’s policy towards the government, the opposition and exiled groups will change over the coming years.
You left Burma in October almost thinking that they were moving a little too fast on the reform path. Can you qualify this statement?
Let me first make it very clear that it is definitely not too fast for my taste. I am very positive to the changes and I hope many more changes will happen. My point in this context was that since we know that there are reformers and hardliners, that I hope that reformers are aware of the danger that there could be a backlash because they are pushing on many fronts at the same time. I think it is very positive and I think it is very important now that the international community tries to support that process and tries to lock it in so that a return to the same regime, to the old habit, becomes increasingly difficult. And my point has never been that this is enough, because this is far from enough. But we are seeing the beginning of change which seems to be real.
Can you go into more detail about the changes you have seen?
When I was there in May, I heard many good statements, a lot of good declarations and policy, but we were yet to see that this could actually turn to reality. What I saw now when I visit[ed] last week was, of course, that there is a parliament in place. We have stated again that elections were not free and fair as we prefer them to be but there was a kind of election – there are opposition parties in parliament; the parliament seems to be working, and there is much more press freedom. I checked, for instance, both in May and in October, whether I could access the DVB webpage and in May I could not, and in October, I could, with no problems. We also could sense through talking to industry and civil society and opposition people that there is a new optimism among those who used to be rather pessimistic when it comes to the future of the country. So these are examples of the change and so I left the country with the sense that these are early states, and there is a long way to go, but the direction is good and the change seems to be for real, not cosmetic and just to give a better impression.
Despite signs of change, some in the opposition say that the international community should not lift sanctions or pressure yet. Do you agree?
Well, a lot of times I would agree with that because I have been saying very clearly to the government and several of the ministers that we recognise positive change. We are willing to start talking about a change in the sanctions policy, but we are not ready to do it right now. So there will be no immediate changes, but that the discussions should now begin and we should also talk with the opposition and with the government about where we could begin. And one of the areas where I do think that we should start to move is to increase the work done by international organizations like the World Bank, like the International Monetary Fund, like the United Nations Development Programme. At least they are making the assessment of what future support could be, so that when further change happens, we are ready to move.
So our argument has not been that we are ready to remove sanctions today, but that there must be the beginning of reciprocal policy where we say that given, for instance, the further release of political prisoners, we will start to move from the international community side. After Nargis, I have talked at length both with key people in the United States administration and European Union and also ASEAN and the Indonesian foreign minister about how to work together to start that debate on the international side.
After the trip to Burma this time you went to Indonesia and Thailand. How is Norway going to play the Burma issue internationally?
Although Norway is a small country and quite far away, it is relatively rich and it has a long tradition of supporting democracy in Myanmar or Burma. We do have a role to play and we have to play because we are already there, we are already engaged. We were heavily engaged in the support to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to this radio [station]. We are also one of the few European countries who have at the same time had some political dialogue with the government in Naypyidaw, even before it was the military dictatorship. So the role is there. Now the question is, how do we work with the other key players, like for instanceIndonesiaand ASEAN, to find a way to look into the process so that we reward positive developments and by doing that also try to help prevent a return to old practices? ASEAN is important – Burma is part of ASEAN. It may get the chairmanship in 2014 and I think that the experience a country like, for instance, Indonesia has a key player, has in its own history, could be relevant also to Myanmar. You should remember that only thirteen years ago, Indonesia had a military dictatorship. They were taking early steps and for 10 years now, Norway has had human rights dialogue with key people in Indonesia. We think that that has been successful. Something like that could now be done when we see these changes going on in Myanmar.
Back to your trip to Burma: you met various government officials, ministers and so on. What did you discuss, and what was their response?
I saw the foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, and the minister[s] of industry 1 and 2. I saw the environment minister, the deputy minister of tourism, and I also went to the parliament and spoke with U Shwe Mann, who is the speaker of the parliament. We obviously has some different discussions … but what was consistent was that I sensed that this is a reformed government. We all know that many of the members were of the old regime, and explicitly or implicitly there is a real will to move on, probably by the recognition that the old practices don’t work any longer. And I told them that you know you have a long way to go; you are not there yet. But we recognise what you have been doing. And on the more specifics, we have been discussing, for instance, support to an Inle Lake [Shan state] conservation programme. We have been talking about possibility for forest preservation programmes. We talked to the ministry of industry about the possibility to help with privatisation of industry, and building small and medium size businesses, and different opportunities that Norway could have to step up our support.
Since 2008 and Cyclone Nargis, Norway has been increasing its presence in Burma, holding high-level meetings channeling more aid. What areas will Norway invest in in the future?
Let me first make clear that we are not talking about giving money to the Naypyidaw government, that’s obviously not on the cards now. We are talking about support for specifics, concrete programmes. I mentioned Inle Lake, I mentioned forests. Maybe joint thinking about responsible tourism, and when I was visiting Yangon [Rangoon] the last time, I had the chance to speak to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, about tourism. We agreed that tourism is a good thing – it opens up the country and exposes the country to contacts from abroad. But there is a need for the country to think about what kind of tourism they want; the mass tourism that we see in Thailand with all its negative implications, or more environmentally-friendly sustainable tourism. Interestingly, the minister of tourism is exactly of the same view, that there should be an increased opening but they should take care to look at what kind of tourism.
The other step that we should would be to work through the international organizations where we are on the Board, like the World Bank, and to try to increase the emphasis of the World Bank in thinking about the future of economic development. The government ministers were very honest about the fact that there is will, but not so much capacity, to reform, and I think that should be understood. [Burmese] have been closed off from the world for decades. There is, even if you want to privatise, not that many people who know how to do that inside the system. So external support should, at best, not come from individual countries but from strong monetary institutions which have experience in development.
What did you discuss with Aung San Suu Kyi during your trip?
Well let me first say that, obviously, she’s a very important voice. She has a tremendous amount of followers and support in Norway. And it’s very important to listen to what she says and how she assesses the situation. She is perfectly able to speak for herself, her position. But the way I understood is that while she is very eager to underline that there is a long way to go, she also sees that things are moving and she describes her dialogue with the president as positive and constructive. And it was a very different feel I got this time from the first time we met. So we will see her as strong partner for dialogue, but it’s also very important for me to establish contact with other opposition parties, because there are several parties in parliament. Some of them national parties, others from ethnic minorities, and it’s very important that we listen to the totality of views, not only the government and Aung San Suu Kyi.
As Norway’s engagement with the government increases, will its support for exiled Burmese groups change?
What I really hope is that dialogue with democratic parties, not the least the National League for Democracy [NLD], can actually bear fruit, so that the conditions expected in order for the NLD to re-register can be met when that happens. And I say when, because I think it will happen, whether either now or later. It is logical that more of the work of the opposition should take place inside of the country, simply because the reason that it happened from the outside was that it was impossible to do on the inside. Obviously any country would prefer to conduct its politics at home, and not inOsloandWashington. But we have a long-term perspective on that, so there is no immediate, dramatic change. But overtime, I guess it will be natural for democratic forces to work from [inside] the country. And now the support should be adapted so it supports natural democratic process happening in the country itself.
So gradually Norwegian support will move inside Burma?
Yes, definitely. But of course, this is not something we will be pushing; this is much more a natural adaptation to what I believe is a logical process, because you know we can discuss whether the political space is broad enough. I think it has to be opened up more, but relative to where we were a year ago. Of course, that means that everyone who is engaged in the future of Burma needs to redraw their mental maps. And the old generals have to think very differently from how they used to do, as do the old opposition groups and the ethnic groups and the international community, because what I do know is yesterday’s policies will not work in the future. So, there is a new landscape and let’s see how we can look at them.
Finally, what changes does Norway want to see the government make in the near future?
First and foremost, I would demand the full release of political prisoners. Together with the EU and US, we will be willing to discuss with the government and opposition forces who these political prisoners are, and how many there are. Maybe the number is somewhat reduced from the 2,000 list that we all used. What’s interesting is that the government is willing to talk about the number. Only months ago they did not even recognise the existence of political prisoners. That’s a change, but they have to release more political prisoners.
We also want to see a continuation of the establishment of the parliament as a real independent force. We have seen the relaxation on censorship laws, but ideally censorship should be abolished completely. That has been promised, but let’s see if it happens. But there is room for gradual adaptation, and I think that the international community and the process going on in the country should now be more in unison so that we build on what is already happening and try to help it go in the right direction. This is an opportunity for political change that happens without much violence, where elements of the old system are able to be continued into a new future, very different from the Arab Spring where we’ve seen very violent revolutions, systems collapse, and even wars. And so if it [Burma’s reform] works, it could be an example for others to follow. If it does not work, it will disappoint a lot of people including myself, and I’ve been disappointed before. So I know it can happen. But right now I am quite optimistic that key people in opposition and in government are working to make this real.