Norway: Getting Ahead of Itself in Burma?

Harald Bøckman, the chairperson of the Norwegian Burma Committee (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Harald Bøckman, the chairperson of the Norwegian Burma Committee (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

When Aung San Suu Kyi visited Norway earlier this month to belatedly receive her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and other awards, she was given a hero’s welcome. During her trip, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg also announced that he would now encourage Norwegian companies to invest in Burma. This comes as Norway takes a leading role in “The Myanmar Peace Support Initiative,” an effort to end Burma’s decades of civil strife.

Harald Bøckman, a senior researcher at the Centre for Environment and Development at the University of Oslo, has been the chairperson of the Norwegian Burma Committee (NBC) since the death of his  predecessor Hallvard Kuloy in 2001. As one of the founding members of the NBC, which was formed in 1992, Bøckman has long been a close observer of Burma-Norway relations. He spoke with The Irrawaddy recently about his views on recent developments in Burma and Norway’s role in encouraging the country’s transition toward peace and democracy.

Question: Aung Sann Suu Kyi has finally had a chance to come to Norway to receive her Nobel Peace Prize and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has said that Norwegian companies should invest in Burma. Do you think the Norwegian government’s involvement in Burma has been positive? How much confidence do you have in current developments?

Answer: Basically speaking, Norway is following the EU. For the past three years or so, since Cyclone Nargis [in May 2008], there have been some initiatives that the Norwegian development minister has been very active in. But I felt that they were more interested in talking with the generals than with the opposition. So our advice was that if you want to have change in Burma, you have to talk with the generals but you must not forget the opposition.

I think there was a period internationally where a number of diplomats expressed that perhaps Daw Suu didn’t have support among the people anymore. I see that as a type of what I call Burma fatigue. Politicians and diplomats were getting kind of tired of waiting because nothing happened. In the case of the Norwegian minister of development, I think it went too far.

Norway now feels that it wants to be a little ahead of others by presenting a peace initiative aimed at  getting negotiations with ethnic groups started. I think the intention is good, but I’m not convinced that the execution will be very good. We Norwegians have very good intentions, we are very righteous, but we are not always very well informed and we don’t always understand the complexity of other parts of the world. For example, the Sri Lankan peace process commissioned by Norad [the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation] was largely a failure in terms of bringing an end to the civil war there. I won’t say that the result in Sri Lanka was due to the Norwegians, but it shows very well the complexity of the situation there.

Q: Norwegian businesses have very high ethical standards. So what obstacles will they face if they choose to invest in Burma?

A: Again, the main challenge is to understand what kind of political and economic landscape they are moving into. You have to have regional knowledge but in addition you need specific knowledge about Burma’s political, economic and cultural conditions. So that will be a major challenge. On the other hand, as you said, [Norwegian companies] hold themselves to high ethical standards, and have departments dedicated to what they call corporate social responsibility.

I think that the first companies to go in will be big companies such as Statoil and Telenor, which have operations all over the world. In India, they are having some trouble at the moment. They are also in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. They have high ethical and operational standards and I think they are aware of the fact that they are going into a very demanding and difficult landscape. For example, the Norwegian oil industry has valuable experience in how to control multinationals. Some will say multinationals control the government—I mean if you look at Norwegian practice, we have lots of experience, 50 years of experience now on how to deal with multinationals.

But we have also been working in conjunction with other donors to Burma, international donors with whom we have been cooperating through what we call the Burma Donors’ Forum. We will also help the Burmese to build up competence and how to control and monitor the multinationals when they come into Burma. I think we can play a role here by monitoring companies and giving advice.

Currently, we are also in a process of discussing among ourselves what our role should be. Because until now it has been more or less advocacy and support work. Now, the conditions are becoming more positive. It parallels the Norwegian popular support for South Africa during the apartheid era. When  change came to South Africa, they were a little lost as to what to do because conditions had changed. So we have to figure out the situation and continue without political support under the new condition. That is a lot we can do, not necessarily at high levels, at the grassroots level.

Q: Aung San Suu Kyi mentioned “donor fatigue” in her Nobel lecture and appealed to donors not to cut funding. Norway is one of the biggest donors to the Burmese refugees and exiles. What is your comment to them?

A: As chairman of the board of the Democratic Voice of Burma since 2006, I can say that DVB is also facing the same sort of challenge, just like all Burmese exile media—you find yourself in a transition position, where everything is floating and funding is getting more insecure. So far, DVB has the same donors but we would like to negotiate with them how to facilitate the transition without jeopardizing the security of the radio and TV.

But when it comes to more official state donors, state-level donors and development aid donors, it is right what they say—they are being pushed by their respective governments to rush into Burma. And I guess the Norwegian Peace Initiative is part of that movement into Burma. So we and many others have been voicing concerns that one should not just cut down what has been built up and rush into a situation where you don’t really know how efficient you can be.

I think one aspect which has not been brought up very much is that through having to live in exile on the Thai-Burmese border, many Burmese intellectuals have now had 20 years of experience in interacting with people from other ethnic groups and I think that it is very important that one has this deep experience or understanding about complex ethnic relations in Burma.

Q: Recently the British government announced that President Thein Sein has been invited to visit the UK. Would you agree with the Norwegian government if it also invited him?

A: Definitely. In fact, there has been a series of visits to Norway by Burmese delegations. [Lower House Speaker] Thura Shwe Mann has been here already. There has also been another delegation of parliamentarians, and officials from the ministries of industry and information have been here, touring Scandinavia to study public broadcasting service principles. The whole idea is if you want to negotiate you should talk to the government. I think it will be very useful if Thein Sein came.

I am sure that most Burmese politicians and bureaucrats would be happy to be able to travel since they haven’t been able to do so for a long time. But it must not end there. For example, during her travels, Daw Suu has responded to people’s concerns and sought European help to improve Burma. I know that the reception Daw Suu has been given will make Naypyidaw very unhappy. But it has basically been good for Burma.


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