Will the Norwegian Government able to persuade Burmese Generals into a “U” turn?

by Jonathan Thang, Office Assistant at Sørlandet UN Office, Norway

(Jonathan Thang har jobbet som praktikant ved FN-sambandet Sør. Han er selv fra Chin-folket, en av Burmas etniske minoritetsgrupper. Foto: Privat)

Burma has been moving forward in terms of democratization and international relationships.  Unexpected moves followed by releasing a lot of prominent political prisoners, allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to contest by-election to be held in April, start doing cease-fire talks with ethnics arms groups, and so on.

International perspective on Burma

UN special rapporteur Toma`s Ojea Quintana said “This is an important and necessary development to advance national reconciliation and deepen Myanmar’s transition to democracy by releasing of many prisoners of conscience, individuals who have been imprisoned for exercising their fundamental human rights or whose fair trial or due process rights have been denied.  Ending discrimination and ensuring fundamental rights for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities is essential for national reconciliation and will contribute to Myanmar’s long-term political and social stability” (UN News Centre, January 16, 2012).

He also said, “I renew my call on the Government to develop a comprehensive plan to officially engage ethnic minority groups in an inclusive dialogue to resolve long-standing grievances and deep-rooted concerns.   All parties to this dialogue must ensure that investigations and accountability for past gross and systematic human rights violations are on the agenda.”

The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon delivered a statement, saying that “He welcomes these efforts and encourages all concerned to build on recent progress and to work, through an all-inclusive dialogue, for an end to hostilities throughout the country, national reconciliation, stability and development for all the people of Myanmar”  (UN News Centre, January 13, 2012).

The voices from UN echo the position from most ethnic minorities.  But what is Norway’s stand on this?

Recently, Norway’s current defense minister, Espen Barth Eide, visited Burma and delivered remarks that drew critical attention. He told the Financial Times (October 11, 2011) that he “almost left the country thinking they’re moving a little too fast.”

What are the viewpoints of different ethnics groups in current political process in Burma?

Espen Barth Eide og Aung San Suu Kyi. Foto: UD

Espen Barth Eide og Aung San Suu Kyi møtte pressen etter samtalen nobelprisvinnerens hjem i Yangon 8. oktober 2011. Foto: Kjetil Elsebutangen, UD.

Not only is this a very slow way to proceed toward establishing ceasefires, but it is also an effort to break the unity of the ethnic minority groups. By keeping ethnic organizations separate, the regime can continue its policy of divide and rule, using pressure and military might to dominate us.

This problem dates back to our struggle for independence from Britain, after which the federal union of Burma was created through negotiated agreements that included the principle of equality for all ethnic nationalities.

Despite this principle being enshrined in the 1947 Panglong Agreement, successive regimes have been subordinating the non-Burman nationalities, seizing natural resources in the lands of ethnics, and suppressing languages, literatures and cultures by various means. It is because of these injustices that national unity of Burma is in irrecoverable state of devastation.

If the government really wants peace for the country, the government must declare a nationwide ceasefire, solve the root cause of the six decade-long conflicts, and begin to reconstruct the country with multi-ethnics’ rights.   The ceasefire agreements are supposed to be made by the central government, without it there is no guarantee of their effectiveness.  To be proved truly:

a)    The government must be genuinely willing to address the demands of Burma’s ethnic minorities and recognize their rights, and immediately issue national wide ceasefire to start peace negotiation in collective manner.

b)    The government must release all political prisoners without exception.

c)    The government must reconsider and rewrite the constitution before any election can take place.

d)    Allow UN Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma.

Until the above mentioned controversial issues are met, there will be no guarantee for peace in Burma, which is also harmonized to what the UN Secretary is addressing.

Conclusions

It is important for everyone to take a sober and objective look at what has actually been achieved, in a concrete and irreversible sense, and what remains to be accomplished.  For example, it does not help the optimists in the international community to prematurely reward the Burmese leaders for actions that are preliminary and possibly ephemeral.  The reality is that engagement has been recently effective to a certain extent, but has been effectively manipulated by the Burmese leaders in the past to prolong and extend their grip on power.

And while in the long run sanctions are clearly not in the best interests of the Burmese people, the new government leaders’ desperate attempts to get them lifted (now that many businesses have been privatized into the hands of their cronies), as well as to avoid a UN Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma, shows that these tools have played a part in motivating the generals and ex-generals to change.

Since the 1990′s, Norway has established itself as a firm friend of the oppressed people of Burma and has given generously to the cause of Burmese democracy and human rights.

In January 2009, Norway’s minister of international development, Erik Solheim, visited Burma and afterward called for a review of Norway’s Burma policy with more emphasis given to economic engagement and less to isolation.

The Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jonas Gahr Støre, paid a two-day official visit to Myanmar on the 25th and 26th of January.  Then the Norwegian Government has decided that it will no longer urge Norwegian companies to refrain from trade and investment in Myanmar after new government has shown some reform to international communities.

While we understand the points that both Norwegian diplomats were trying to make, they have to understand that the degree of tone-deafness their remarks demonstrated regarding the plight of the Burmese people left some wondering whether Norway had conveniently forgotten the oppressive and manipulative history of the men still in charge of Burma, and whether Norway is now pursuing interests that did not necessarily coincide with those of the ethnics groups or Burmese population.

This is exactly the result that the military regime dreams of when they court international diplomats with their divide and conquer strategy.

Is Norway keeping a distance to the ethnics groups and UN expectation – by applying a different approach to military backed Thein Sein’s government?

My question is: Is Norway moving too fast on political engagements in Burma?

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