Relations between Myanmar and France date back to the early 18th century, but ties were largely on hold in recent decades due to Western sanctions on Myanmar’s former military regime. Since the current government introduced reforms after coming to power in 2011, however, the two countries have moved quickly to increase their engagement. The Irrawaddy recently spoke with France’s ambassador to Myanmar, Thierry Mathou, about his country’s growing role in Myanmar’s ongoing political and economic transition.
Question: How would you describe the relationship between France and Myanmar today?
Answer: France-Myanmar relations are growing better every day. The number of French citizens living in Myanmar is booming: It’s now 65 percent more than last year. More and more companies are settling down here. French citizens are the most numerous European tourists to visit the country. President U Thein Sein’s visit to Paris last year, the first ever of a Myanmar head of state to France, was a milestone in the history of intergovernmental exchanges between our two countries. In 2012 we were honored to receive Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for her first trip overseas since her release from house arrest. Many other bilateral visits are in the pipeline. France is eager to engage with Myanmar in a very positive way in sectors such as the economy, culture, education and health, while further promoting democracy and human rights remains very high on our agenda.
Q: The release of political prisoners has been a condition for many Western governments to boost ties with Myanmar. President U Thein Sein promised to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013, but activists say dozens remain behind bars. What’s your take on the situation? Will this affect French engagement here?
A: Obviously this is still an issue. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released since 2011. We have acknowledged and praised this unprecedented trend. Forming the Review Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (RCRPP) was also a significant step. Yet all remaining political prisoners have to be released and arbitrary arrests have to be ended. Freedom of conscience must have no boundary.
Q: The French oil giant Total faced some criticism from the international community for its work in Myanmar during the former military regime. Did the French government ever consider trying to persuade the company to divest?
A: Oil and gas companies are engaged in long-term strategies that involve commitments over several decades that are different from governments’ approaches. In the case of Total, the implementation of the Code of Conduct has always been very important for the French government. I notice that Total’s Socio-Economic Program is now described as an example by many stakeholders, both in Myanmar and abroad. In that respect France has always been keen to promote the principle and values of CSR [corporate social responsibility] that should become the motto of all investors in Myanmar.
Q: What French investment has come to Myanmar since 2011, and what angles are prospective investors looking at now?
A: The number of French companies coming to Myanmar is increasing rapidly. Large companies like Accor, Alstom, Bouygues, Lafarge, L’Oreal, Schneider Electric, Technip and many others are already in place. SMEs [small and medium enterprises] are also studying the market. Others are to come. The French-Myanmar Business Association, which used to be the oldest Western business association in this country, will soon become a full-fledged chamber of commerce under the name of the FMCCI [French Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and Industry]. Yet like others, French companies need improved macroeconomic and sectorial policies, better legal stability and more transparency, to invest in the long term on a larger scale.
Q: Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) has held partnership talks with several international telecoms firms, including France Telecom. Can you tell us more about that?
A: Orange (France Telecom) is a world-class telecoms player which has unique experience in the transformation of incumbents worldwide in countries that face similar challenges as Myanmar. For that reason it has proposed a partnership to MPT that would enhance its strategic and business development which is crucial for MPT to face its new competitors. We have many reasons to think that Orange’s proposal is by far the best for MPT. The decision is up to the Myanmar government.
Q: France co-chairs the sectoral working group in Myanmar on women’s empowerment. Over the past year there have been continuing reports of rape in conflict zones, and women have remained largely sidelined during the peace negotiation process. What steps are being taken to address these issues?
A: France has chosen women’s empowerment as one of its priorities in Myanmar because it is a very concrete way to promote democracy and human rights. The Women’s Forum we organized in Yangon last December was an occasion to highlight the role of women in the peace-building equation. It showed that in a 2013 review of major peace processes around the world, less than 9 percent of negotiators were women. Myanmar is certainly not an exception. I was pleased to notice that thanks to the consistent advocacy of NGOs, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has decided that one-third of its central committee members would be women. This type of decision has to be amplified and implemented in all organizations, including government. But men’s resistance is not always the problem. Women often have to be convinced. We will pursue our gender advocacy as we will defend women’s rights wherever they are in danger.
Q: In the coming year, what can the Myanmar government do to encourage more French engagement?
A: We understand that genuine democracy cannot be created overnight. In that respect we acknowledge the step-by-step approach implemented by the government. But new major steps await Myanmar in 2014. As far as the peace process is concerned, we are looking forward to the long-awaited political dialogue which has to start as soon as the national ceasefire agreement is signed with clear and ambitious objectives that respect the rights of ethnic groups within the framework of national unity.
The ability of Myanmar to amend its Constitution in a way that demonstrates its willingness to further engage on the path of democracy and to implement much-needed changes in the interests of the people will also be closely watched. Any other approach would come as a disappointment both at home and abroad. Creating unnecessary delays and keeping restrictive clauses would be a bad signal.
Last but not least, we are looking forward to knowing the content of the Comprehensive Strategy and Action Plan for Rakhine State that the government has agreed to share with international partners, so that a solution can be found to the current crisis and we can offer our support.
Q: France has signed an agreement with Myanmar to help strengthen freedom of expression in the country by offering technical advice on media laws. How free is the Myanmar press today, and what is your opinion of draft media laws currently being considered by Parliament, including the printing and publishing registration bill?
A: Freedom of expression is coming a long way in Myanmar. Much progress has been made during the last three years, but many challenges lie ahead. France has a very simple stand as far as media laws are concerned: Always protect rights, never restrain liberty. Training is also essential in a world where journalists have to be responsible and independent actors of civil society. This is why France has taken the initiative with other partners to initiate the first School of Journalism in Myanmar that will soon open in Yangon.
Q: When President U TheinSein met President Francois Hollande in July last year, Mr. Hollande reportedly expressed concerns over the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. How would you rate the Myanmar government on its response to reports of violence against Muslims since then?
A: Growing violence between religious minorities is a serious concern, especially in Rakhine State, where fear is on both sides. This situation should be addressed without delay through a “local peace process.” First, bring people around the table and stop violence. Then discuss political issues, with no taboos, with the objective to bring long-lasting peace, stability and development in Rakhine while addressing concerns and respecting rights of both Buddhist and Muslim communities. Otherwise the current crisis could become a major problem for the overall transition process in Myanmar.
This interview first appeared in the March 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.