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Norway has long championed Burma’s pro-democracy movement, and has been a chief source of funding for exiled media and campaign organisations. But while the majority of Norway shares the desire for the same end result in Burma, ministers and policymakers are divided on which path to follow to achieve this.
Erik Solheim, Norway’s minister for the environment and international development, is currently in Burma and has met with members of the now-disbanded National League for Democracy (NLD) party. But his anti-sanctions stance has been criticised by Peter Gitmark, a Norwegian MP and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who tells DVB that the push to lift sanctions on Burma “is a great mistake”.
Why is it a bad idea to lift sanctions on Burma?
The Burmese leadership is leading the people of Burma into dismay; the people are in poverty, they lack democratic rights and we need to see a proper change in the leadership to bring back democracy to Burma before we lift sanctions. I think Mr Solheim is making a terrible mistake; if he lifts Norway out of the block of international countries and orgs that support today’s sanctions on Burma it would have a very negative effect on the whole of the sanctions and in terms of what message Norway would be sending to the Burmese leadership.
Solheim said that there is hope the elections could change the political landscape in Burma. What is your reaction?
We can only hope he’s right, but it’s not credible at all. He should be focusing on reality – the reality is that Burma is ruled by a very dictatorial military leadership that has billions and billions of dollars stolen from the country and put into their own pockets. The people of Burma are living in extreme poverty because the leaders are getting richer, and the people are getting poorer, and the democratic rights, even with this elections, is none existent. So what the minister is saying is just blatantly wrong. We know that this election will be rigged and will be stolen; the only reason why the junta is having this election is because they are absolutely certain they will win, and there is no point in participating if you know the outcome. The second part is also the courageous people of Burma – as we’ve seen on a number of occasions have risen up and will defy the military, and I’m only fearful that those people will be punished once again for taking part in an election and giving their vote for a free and democratic Burma.
So you are pessimistic?
Yes. I think that if a large number of international observers are on the ground and we knew that the military would respect the outcome, then I would urge everyone to participate in the elections, but because we know the outcome, there is no point.
Many reports claim that the Burmese government is skimming Norwegian aid money
It’s one of the systems we’ve seen in dictatorships across the world – they are very interested in getting foreign currency into their country and to help the military leadership. We know that from every dollar that is being taken into the country, the aid agency is being given the official exchange rate, and in reality the exchange is one to two hundredths of that. This is just another argument that money given to Burma should be going to the people, and it can’t be given through the official system of exchange rates – it needs to be money that is going to the people all around the countryside.
So the question is accountability. What is your experience of Burmese accountability?
There is no accountability inside the junta. The only accountability is to the top general for the other generals and the lower officers, and we know that the military leadership is getting richer and richer, day by day. One of the reasons is international trade and Chinese exploitation, and it’s also in terms of development pouring in and being exchanged at a phoney rate. We, as donors, need to look upon how we are to help the people of Burma, and not the junta, for as long as there is money flowing in, the military leaders will cling onto power and never let that power go. And if they see that the people are rising up, that the people are again on the streets looking for a democratic and free Burma, and that no money is coming into the country, then the chance of staying in power will be much lower than it is today.
What about claims that the junta is stashing profits from natural gas sales in international bank accounts?
We know that the military leaders have one priority and that is to stay in power and get more money for themselves. Their priority is not the people of Burma, as a democratic leadership of Burma would have their priority, to make sure the people are taken out of poverty and that there is once more a middle class in Burma, and that people are able to fend for themselves and have a livelihood. And also to set up businesses once again where all the money is going to the family, to the people that work, and not to the top leaders.
Some Norwegian journalists say they are allowed [to go into Burma] and are granted press visas. They call this historic. But if you look in the past you’ll see that a CNN reporter was recently kicked out and that the media inside Burma is running under very restricted rules.
Do you really think the media is needed for Norway’s humanitarian assistance in Burma?
Well first of all, we’d like to say that the Democratic Voice of Burma is doing a fantastic job of getting information both to Burma and out of Burma. It’s very hard sitting on the outside of Burma and getting incredible information about what is going on. So we are completely relying on what the Democratic Voice of Burma is doing. But we’re also relying on international media present in Burma. I think it is good that there are journalists being allowed to operate inside of Burma even though we know that security around them is very tight. That would have potential implications at least to the people that would voice their criticism towards the Burmese government that they need. But it’s also, seen from my point of view, very important that the people of Norway, Europe and Northern America knows what is going on and our media isn’t focusing so much on Burma as it should. So them being able to send their journalists is very positive for educating the people outside of Burma what the situation is.