Thein Sein’s visit: Are Burma’s needs Norway’s priorities?
27 February 2013: As part of his five European nation tour, President Thein Sein’s first stop is set to be in Norway, marking the first official visit ever by Burma’s head of state to an oil-rich nation with a population of about five million.
President Thein Sein’s visit understandably comes as a reciprocal diplomatic relation after the first-ever visit to Burma by Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who opened the Norwegian embassy in Yangon in November. For Burma’s government, however, this exchange alone is undoubtedly a huge step in light of its quest for long-awaited international recognition and active support to accelerate its reform process. For the last two years or so, Burma, as a result of rapid reform initiatives, has enjoyed praise and international support, attracting a series of heads of states to the once-pariah nation.
President Thein Sein, advised by a flock of western intellectuals, must be aware of the important roles Norway plays internationally in relation to peace, development and humanitarian assistance. That is clearly another important reason for choosing Norway as his first stop on his European tour. Thein Sein presumably has a number of important missions during his visit in Norway.
During his three-day stay in Norway, the president will meet the king, the prime minister, the foreign minister, the government minister of industry and trade and some Norwegian technology giants. He is also scheduled to be interviewed by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a once-exiled Burmese media outlet now also operating inside Burma, and he will have an hour-long meeting with the Norwegian-Burmese community at the Literature House in Oslo.
In his meetings with Norwegian officials and business executives, he will likely elaborate on the reforms that his government is making, appeal for more foreign aid and invite more business investments. Interestingly, the president confessed after an interview with the BBC Hardtalk program last October that he had overcome his fear of media. So he might also want to spend more time with media, including the Burmese, to speak about his vision and plan for his country. He should grab the chance and speak more, not only about his government reform plans but also about his personal feelings and views about the crisis and prospects in his home country.
The first priority should be to thank the people of Norway for supporting the democracy effort in Burma, including the award of a Nobel Peace Prize to Aung San Suu Kyi, support of exiled media and acceptance of thousands of refugees from Burma to Norway. Norway is also one of the first western countries that relaxed and finally lifted economic sanctions long imposed against Burma.
Norway recently announced the cancellation of approximately NOK 3.2 billion in debt held by Burma, claimed to be the largest debt cancellation ever made by Norway. Norway also allocated millions of dollars in funding and leads the Burma peace support initiative that actively sponsors peace efforts going on in the country. The list goes on and on, all reasons why Burma’s head of state should be thanking Norway.
In an interview with Stavanger Aftenblad, a leading Norwegian newspaper, Stoltenberg said that the invitation of President Thein Sein to Norway is an acknowledgement and support of the reform process in Burma. The country has made huge progress, but there also remain challenges ahead to secure a further democratic and peaceful development. Norwegian experiences with democracy, inclusive growth and sustainable natural resource management, will be key themes in Stoltenberg’s conversations with Thein Sein.
While acknowledging reform as it goes ahead and giving financial support to stakeholders taking part in the reform process, it’s important for Norway as a major concerned party and stakeholder itself to prioritize areas that are more critical to solving the country’s crisis. Decades-long conflicts in Burma are often showcased by quasi-civilian government as based on economic disparity.
However, long-trodden ethnic groups identify the problem rather as a constitutional or structural political problem. Given that 60 percent of Burma’s landmass and 40 percent of the country’s population belong to ethnic minorities, the problem of ethnic conflicts is not minor but major. Resolving ethnic conflicts is a must if one is to address the country’s political crisis. Norway, therefore, given its influence, has a lot to offer in this regard. Norway can start by consulting ethnic scholars and representatives who could offer various views and advice about making investments or dealing with the government of Burma.
The reform in Burma has earned surprising applause and approval by the international community, though the road to a desired political settlement is still long. In the beginning, many were skeptical about the motive behind the reforms, but as time has passed and the momentum of reform has taken root, even the staunchest critics changed their stance and started throwing their support behind the reforms – the US, the EU and Burmese exiles are good examples. With the return of exile groups and the skills they bring from abroad, they can start up or take part in thousands of civilian organizations, and many are booming.
One might argue that civilian society inside the country is not qualified or can’t be counted on, and thereby not qualified to receive financial assistance. However, the impact they generate across the society is significant in history. They were the ones who defied British colonial rule prior to independence, and who defied the military regime until recently, and who now are again actively participating in promoting democracy, peace and national reconciliation. Civilian society, despite some deficiencies, should be encouraged, equipped with training and financed accordingly. With its vast experience in this area, Norway can do an effective job in promoting a much-needed civil society in Myanmar.
Recent news reports said that Norwegian companies, such as telecommunication giant Telenor and oil and gas firm Statoil are interested in investing in Burma. There are concerns and risks that corruption can strain the reputation of these companies. But the risk is not only about the corruption but the likely increase in the gap between the rich and the poor, along with the animosity of ethnic groups as a result of lack of participation in business decision-making processes.
Burma’s needs are many and sundry. All needs are practically impossible at this stage to fulfill, that will require years and years of careful deliberation and effective management by all stakeholders. To prioritize and properly select what might be the best options is also a challenging task. There are risks everywhere across the socio-political and economic spectrum in Burma society. Rules and regulations are being improved but there is still no guarantee that the people and especially the officials will abide by them.
As an important stakeholder, the Norwegian government is expected to prioritize the ethnic peace process and economic development by inviting views and advice from various political and ethnic backgrounds. It’s not too late yet to start thinking about strategies that serve the best in the context of a multi-ethnic Burma. Investing in ethnic areas as well as empowering a weak and downtrodden population and civilian society where the needs are most desperate, increasing financial assistance to the ongoing peace process, and consulting and allowing more ethnic inputs in dealing with the Union of Burma are imperative towards an ultimate political settlement desired by the people of Myanmar.
The author, Peter Sang, is a Chin community activist and a student working on his master’s degree in public administration at the University of Agder in southern Norway.