The relationship between Burma and Norway has transformed in recent years; one of the most devout supporters of Burma’s democratic opposition movement has warmed considerably to the quasi-civilian government that assumed power in 2011, largely comprising members of the former military regime. The friendship has proven to be mutually beneficial, as Norway has enjoyed a number of coveted business licenses in once-closed, largely unexplored, resource-rich Burma.
On the event of the first state visit by Norwegian King Harald V and his wife, Queen Sonja, we opened up The Irrawaddy Archives for a reflection on the changing relationship between the two governments. This article by contributor Seamus Martov was first published in June, 2014.
The May 16 announcement that Norway’s former ambassador to Burma, Katja Nordgaard, will soon take a position with Telenor, the majority state-owned Norwegian telecommunications firm that signed a lucrative deal with Burma’s government last year, has prompted concern from some quarters about the ethics of what they see as just the latest example of an economic agenda driving Oslo’s foreign policy toward Burma.
Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK, a London-based advocacy group that has been one of the loudest critics of Norway’s Burma policy, is concerned by the potential ethical implications of Nordgaard’s jump from ambassador to telecoms executive and the message it sends to poorly paid Burmese bureaucrats looking to cash in on their government connections.
“The Norwegian government was one of the first to embrace [President] Thein Sein’s government despite ongoing human rights abuses, and were rewarded with a lucrative telecoms contract for Telenor,” Farmaner told The Irrawaddy. “Now we see an ambassador who played a key role in reversing Norway’s policy of prioritizing human rights also reaping the financial benefits of cozying up to the Burmese government.”
Nordgaard, who first introduced Telenor to Burmese government officials in 2012, was quick to deny any suggestion that she helped the firm beat out the other 89 competitors who also put in bids for one of two Burmese telecoms licenses up for grabs. Nordgaard told The Irrawaddy via email that although she participated in meetings between Telenor and the government, “I did not play a role in assisting Telenor to win its contract. I helped introduce Telenor, along with a range of other Norwegian companies, to Myanmar and to government officials—this is a totally normal and important task for any ambassador in any country.”
Nordgaard also told The Irrawaddy that Telenor’s winning bid was a result of the firm’s hard work and commitment to Burma. “Telenor’s successful bid for a national telecommunications license in Myanmar was based exclusively on the overall quality of the bid, underscored by Telenor’s regional experience and commitment to being a long-term investor in Myanmar,” she said, a sentiment apparently shared by Telenor spokesperson Glenn Mandelid, who responded with a near identical answer to The Irrawaddy’s inquiries regarding Nordgaard’s role in the Telenor bid.
“Telenor’s successful bid for a national telecommunications license in Myanmar was based exclusively on the overall quality of our bid, underscored by Telenor’s regional experience and commitment to being a long-term investor in Myanmar,” Mandelid stated in his emailed response, which arrived some eight minutes before Nordgaard’s reply.
Nordgaard, who served as Oslo’s envoy to Burma from 2010 until last November, will take over as head of the firm’s Corporate Affairs unit, a position that she will officially assume on Aug. 4.
Telenor’s announcement of Nordgaard’s hiring is somewhat unusual as she continues to serve as Norway’s ambassador to Thailand and Cambodia. Many other Western governments discourage or forbid their diplomats from signing outside employment contracts until after they have officially left their foreign service posting. Norway does not appear to have such rules.
A spokeswoman with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told The Irrawaddy that Nordgaard’s new position with Telenor complied with the ministry’s ethics policy, adding that measures were in place to ensure that there would be no conflict of interest.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in collaboration with Nordgaard, have made an assessment on her liability in matters relating to Telenor in the remaining period of her service. It is obvious that she will step aside if such cases arise. The same will apply in the event of conflicts of interest in connection with matters affecting an area Telenor is engaged in,” said ministry spokesperson Astrid Sehl via email.
Nordgaard’s new role with Telenor will cover Burma, but not exclusively, the ambassador told The Irrawaddy. “I will not have any direct responsibility for Telenor’s operations in Myanmar, but I will of course be engaged also with Myanmar on an overall level, as I will with the 12 other countries where Telenor is operating.”
This will also include Thailand, where Telenor controls an effective majority stake in local cellular provider DTAC, Thailand’s second largest.
The announcement of Nordgaard’s new role with Telenor before she has even left the Norwegian foreign service is not likely to improve her standing among the Thai-Burma border-based community organizations with whom Nordgaard and her Foreign Ministry colleagues frequently butted heads.
Reached for comment, Tin Tin Nyo, general secretary of the Women’s League of Burma, said she wasn’t surprised by news of Nordgaard’s Telenor move, given the Norwegian government’s keen interest in advancing Norwegian firms in Burma. Tin Tin Nyo said she and many of her colleagues were “very disappointed” with how Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Nordgaard in particular, handled Oslo’s ambitious plans to support Burma’s peace process.
“There wasn’t enough consultation with the community” from the outset, Tin Tin Nyo told The Irrawaddy, adding that Norwegian officials appeared to prioritize pleasing Burma’s government over the concerns of ethnic minority groups.
Much of this tension arose over the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), a Norwegian government-funded project that Nordgaard as ambassador played a central role in getting off the ground. Since 2012, the MPSI has spent more than US$2 million on aid projects in ethnic areas of eastern Burma, territory that was until very recently home to one of the world’s longest running civil wars.
The MPSI, which began in 2012, was supposed to support projects “designed to build trust and confidence,” but many civil society groups representing Burma’s ethnic minorities on the Thai border did not take warmly to the initiative or its lofty goals. Much of the criticism stemmed from what these groups perceived as a deliberate attempt by the MPSI to sideline them and their long-standing cross-border aid networks in favor of Rangoon-based actors closely affiliated with the Burmese government. An internal review completed in March noted that “some ethnic stakeholders have viewed MPSI-supported projects as attempts to ‘buy peace’ in collusion with the Government’s political, social and economic agenda.”
Deputy Foreign Minister to Statoil
Nordgaard is not the only Norwegian foreign affairs official involved in Burma who has jumped shipped to a state-owned Norwegian firm with Burmese business interests. Shortly after his party was driven from office last September, Torgeir Larsen, Norway’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, took a position with the majority state-owned oil firm Statoil, where he now serves as a specialist focusing on government relations and public affairs for international operations.
While with the Foreign Ministry, Larsen visited Burma frequently, including most recently in May of last year, when he traveled to Karen State to observe a Norwegian-funded aid project. On a previous trip to Burma in May 2012, Larsen dropped in on an MPSI-supported project that saw ethnic Karen internally displaced persons (IDPs) receive identity cards in Pegu Division.
At the time of Larsen’s 2012 visit, critics blasted the ill-defined role of the MPSI and its involvement in what many said was a shameless attempt by Larsen and his Norwegian diplomatic colleagues to use IDPs as a prop for a photo op.
“The peace initiative’s policy of using IDPs in order to test the strength of the peace process could put IDPs in danger,” Karen environmentalist Paul Sein Twa told the Myanmar Times at the time of Larsen’s visit. “Troops have not withdrawn, and we cannot clearly see any indicators that the current peace process is durable. There is no guarantee of IDPs’ safety if the fighting begins again, or if the military harasses resettled IDPs.”
During Larsen’s tenure, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs appeared to heavily promote Statoil in Burma, with Nordgaard as ambassador taking part in meetings between Statoil and officials from Burma’s Ministry of Energy. These meetings on at least one occasion in February 2012 included former Energy Minister Than Htay, who was later removed from his cabinet post, reportedly for corruption.
The Norwegian government’s efforts to promote Statoil appear to have paid off. In March of this year Statoil, which is 67 percent state-owned, and its American partner ConocoPhillips, jointly received the rights to operate a 9,000-square-kilometer offshore block. According to a Statoil spokesperson, “Larsen has no particular role with respect to Myanmar, and he has not been part of Statoil’s communication with Government stakeholders in Myanmar.”
While both Statoil and Telenor’s respective bids were being considered, Nordgaard, Larsen and their colleagues at the Foreign Ministry appeared to go out of their way to avoid criticising Burmese government policy. Former Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, who like Larsen left his post last year, went so far as to publicly defend the Burmese government’s right to bar stateless Rohingya Muslims from obtaining citizenship while giving credence to claims that they are outsiders from Bangladesh who don’t belong in Burma.
Responding to a question from a Norwegian newspaper about the Rohingya in early 2013, Eide replied that nations are “not obligated to give citizenship to everybody who is living there.”
“This is not something we are going to demand,” he added. “Some critical voices talk as if all nations would have received people from neighboring nations and made them citizens. We think this is a conflict that can be resolved through economic development and local reconciliation processes.”
The comments were no doubt well received in Naypyidaw, where government officials have been clearly annoyed at being lectured by the likes of US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders on the need to address long-standing persecution of the Rohingya minority.
Oslo’s enthusiasm for Naypyidaw does not appear to have diminished under the leadership of the right-leaning government that took office at the end of last year. Norway continues to support the MPSI as well as the Burmese government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center, and was a major funder of this year’s controversial national census.