Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg says that European Union economic sanctions against Burma will likely be ended permanently in the next few years when democratic reform is deemed “irreversible.”
Schwarzenberg spoke to The Irrawaddy journalists on Wednesday during a four-day visit to military-dominated Burma and said President Thein Sein was “very impressive” during a meeting in Naypyidaw and is striving to tackle the various obstacles towards further democratic reform.
“I was so impressed with the meeting with your president because he was very frank and very open and we had a very open discussion,” said Schwarzenberg. “[Thein Sein] was very expedient and clear and matter of fact.
“I think sanctions will be [permanently] lifted if the EU is convinced after two years or something the way [of reform] is irreversible. I think developments are better than we could have imagined. There are always some dangers looming but for the moment it looks for me very hopeful.”
Schwarzenberg said he discussed a raft of different issues with Thein Sien including relations with the Czech Republic and the potential for bilateral trade.
“We spoke most about the fact that 30 years ago we had very good relations … and now we have the chance to resurrect that,” he said. “We spoke about what this country needs very much and how we can help—investments to create good jobs.
“With my colleagues we discussed health problems and hospitals here, doctors in our own country and cooperation between universities. These are very practical and necessary steps. I told him that we shall send in October a delegation here with commercial companies and entrepreneurs who will seek to invest here.”
Schwarzenberg also spoke about his own country’s transition to democracy after decades of Soviet-imposed communism. Born in Prague, his family fled Czechoslovakia after the coup d’état in 1948 and he later became a leading voice against communist rule after the Prague Spring of 1968.
“We discussed reforms in the Czech Republic after the end of communism and I told him about the pitfalls, what can be achieved and the difficulties in democratic work,” he said.
“I am convinced that the Constitution has to be changed … to create a Parliament where all members are elected and a chief minister who is elected there and not chosen in Rangoon by generals. But it is clear to me that to change a system that has been growing for 60 years is a heavy task.”
The issue of remaining political prisoners was also discussed with Thein Sein and Schwarzenberg used his experience of democracy activists imprisoned under bogus charges in Czechoslovakia before the fall of communism to relate to the Burmese problem.
“I discussed this with the president and there’s a process as most of them were sentenced for criminal offences,” he said. “So [Thein Sein] told me that each case would be checked. Of course, he has to be careful that real criminals are not let out. I understood that he understood the problem.”
Schwarzenberg also met opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during his trip and described the Nobel Laureate as “wonderful.”
“I have admired [Suu Kyi] for many years,” he said. “I followed her way and how brave she was but I never met her so she was a distant woman who I admired. But then I met her and I was charmed by her.”
Schwarzenberg presented the 67-year-old opposition leader with a dried yellow rose from the coffin of Czech democracy hero and former President Vaclav Havel who died last year.
“She was surprised and touched,” he said. “You must know that Havel had enormous respect for Aung San Suu Kyi. He very much supported her and the whole time [of her house arrest] there was some contact between the two. He admired her very much and [the rose] shows how much he longed to see her.”
Havel, himself a Nobel Peace Laureate who nominated Suu Kyi for the prize she won in 1991, died in December. Burmese democracy activists laid the rose on his coffin which was later preserved by a Czech artist.
“I am very sad that I never had the opportunity to meet [Havel] but I feel very close because his thoughts and his writings guided me during the years of struggle,” said Suu Kyi upon receiving the rose on Tuesday.
Schwarzenberg said he was sure that Burma would be a truly democratic country in the near future with foreign investors flocking to take advantage of the country’s plentiful natural resources, low-paid workforce and enviable geographic position.
“I have met in the last days people from the different NGOs here and opposition parties and so I understand their concerns,” he said. “But I do believe that we are close to a point to no return [towards democratization].
“I don’t think that an army has to play a political role. The army has to obey what the citizens decide. An independent role of the army is always disastrous. You have seen it in South America … and we see the very problematic role in Egypt. I understand that they are defenders of the nation but the army in its commanding structure must come within democracy.”
The Irrawaddy reporters Hpyo Wai Tha and Aung Thet Wine contributed to this report.