၂၀၁၅ ေရြးေကာက္ပြဲ Irrawaddy.org
INTERVIEW

‘Elections Are the End of the Beginning’

The Irrawaddy speaks with outgoing Swiss Ambassador Christoph Burgener about his country’s support for peace building, elections and his views on politics in Burma.


The Swiss government is among a number of European donors supporting development and human rights in Burma, particularly in the conflict-affected southeastern region. Since opening an Embassy in the former capital Rangoon in 2012, Switzerland has primarily focused its assistance on support for Burma’s peace process and upcoming general election. Switzerland is also the current chair of the Peace Donor Support Group, an aid coordination network formed by foreign governments and NGOs.

Outgoing Swiss Ambassador to Burma, Laos and Cambodia, Christoph Burgener, spent his last day in the post in Chiang Mai, Thailand, catching up with leaders of ethnic armed groups and discussing the nation’s prospects for peace. The Irrawaddy spoke with him at length about his country’s support for peace building, elections and his views on the state of politics in Burma.
Christoph Burgener presented his credentials to then-head of state Sen-Gen Than Shwe on Dec. 1, 2009.

What kind of support does Switzerland provide in Burma?

We opened our Embassy in November 2012 and I had the privilege to be the first resident Ambassador of Switzerland to Myanmar. It’s probably the most exciting posting you can have as a diplomat. From my Government I received the mandate to support the democratization process in this country. We do this through supporting the peace process, the elections, and through our instruments of humanitarian aid and development cooperation with a portfolio of about US$30 million.

How would you assess the recent developments in Burma, with regard to peace, federalism and democratization?

We have to say it again and again that a transition from dictatorship toward democracy is a long process. Democracy doesn’t come overnight. Confidence neither. The expectations are very often too high and that is and will be a challenge for the existing and the new government. Six years ago, when I mentioned the name of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, everybody in the tea shop felt embarrassed. Today the openness, the controversial dialogue and the space for more critical opinions is much broader. I can talk to ministers about everything and I can enter into serious and lively discussions. This is already an achievement, even if more space has to be opened within a framework of a new strong system of rule of law. I further hope that the culture of constructive dialogue between government, Parliament and the opposition will be strengthened and the legislation regarding, for example, manifestations and media created under the dictatorship will be adapted in the near future.

How would you evaluate Burma’s peace process?

When I started my term as Ambassador on December 1, 2009, there was a different political landscape, totally different. Nobody spoke about transition, it was dark. I would not have dreamed that in 2015 the transition to democracy and the peace process would come that far. Regarding the peace process, we have to say that the serious negotiations and a confidence building process are going on in an encouraging way. It is complex and therefore I am not surprised that it takes time. Switzerland tries to build up capacities for all the stakeholders. We are supporting not only ethnic minority parties, but also the government and all the actors in the peace process. When I say support, it is not so much with money. We try to bring in ideas and expertise: How does a peace process work? What exactly is federalism, what is an army in a federal context? Our experts also contribute practical experiences from other peace negotiations elsewhere in the world.

I have to commend the government and the ethnic minority parties for having started such an intense and solid dialogue about peace in this country. After 60 years of war and military dictatorship you cannot build trust within such a short period of time. Whether we end up with a nationwide ceasefire now or not, it’s important that the achievements of this peace process will spill over to the next Parliament and government.

We have to say it again and again that a transition from dictatorship toward democracy is a long process. Democracy doesn’t come overnight.

What are the main challenges in the peace process?

I think at the beginning of the process it was very important to find a structure for the peace process, to have first a nationwide preliminary ceasefire agreement, to create space for a political dialogue. The political dialogue has to be structured in a so-called framework agreement beforehand. The experiences of a lot of peace processes show that. Of course, it is much more difficult to build trust and to have a constructive dialogue when there is still fighting in the country. So I think it is important to create space for the dialogue, by that I mean the weapons are silent and there is a nationwide ceasefire in the country. I know the people on both sides personally and I see that everybody knows that peace is the priority for this country. My thoughts are with the millions of affected people in the war zones and with the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people all over the country in need of basic food, health care and education.

Could you tell us about how Switzerland has been involved in election preparation support?

We have supported a “Code of Conduct for Political Parties and Candidates.” It’s a Code that was created by the political parties with the help of Swiss facilitation. I’m personally very proud that nearly all the political parties were able to reach consensus for such a code of conduct. I’m confident that this code will contribute to peaceful elections: so that there is no hate speech, there are no personal attacks, and a free and fair campaign is possible for all the political parties. This process was very significant for the political parties themselves. It showed them that they can establish such ethical norms themselves. The UEC [Union Election Commission] Chairman [Tin Aye] gave space to political parties to create that. That’s as well a significant symbol of the changes in the country, which would not have been possible four years ago. The elections are the end of the beginning of the transition towards democracy. A credible election is crucial for the further steps in this challenging process. Switzerland furthermore gives financial support to IFES, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, which provides technical advice to the Union Election Commission on how to organize credible elections. We have also been supporting civil society for voter education and media training, as well as training and preparation of smaller political parties.

How will the Code of Conduct be implemented, as it is not legally binding?

There are different legal frameworks in Myanmar for the campaign. This Code contains ethical principles. It is true that they are not binding. But it is a moral obligation to behave ethically during the campaign and to follow this code of conduct. If there is a breach of Code, it will harm the reputation of a political party. If you find now in the Internet or during a rally that there is hate speech against a candidate or against a religion by party members, that’s a breach of code of conduct. Even if you cannot punish the party, the voters probably will think twice if they want to support the political party that is not following fundamental ethical principles during a campaign.

In light of irregularities and errors on the voter lists, what would you like to see happen in terms of assurances that elections will be free and fair?

The elections are very important now to provide the political composition of the new Parliament, and the new government. It is crucial that these elections are fair and transparent and inclusive. They must be credible. In Switzerland we had our first elections of our Parliament more than one hundred years ago. We have our infrastructure, we have our processes, we have our experiences. Myanmar is now preparing for the second election. The infrastructure and the overall capacity will most likely not be at a standard that would allow for one hundred percent perfect elections to take place. The UEC is leading the process, but the political parties have to make efforts as well to contribute to a fair election. It is very important that there is an election without manipulation and politically motivated irregularities, and that the outcome of these elections is reflected honestly in the composition of the Parliaments, and therefore reflect the will of the people.

You recently met with the Burma Army Chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. What was that meeting about?

It’s a matter of diplomatic courtesy. When you end your term as ambassador, you go to the Government and to the authorities of the host country, as well as to major stakeholders, to say farewell. It is very confidential and it’s not a discussion that goes out to the press. But what I can say is that I had very frank discussions with the Senior General and different ministers. That is symbolic for me when I compare it with my first discussion in 2009, when the dialogue was rather difficult. The Commander-in-Chief, as you could read in the press, explained the importance of the Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] in the still not very stable process, and that the trust building process between ethnic minority parties and the government needs to continue. I replied that ongoing fights in different parts of the country are not conducive for a trust building atmosphere. I think that Switzerland can in the near future extend its supporting activities in the democratization and peace process as well more directly to the Tatmadaw leaders that are also important stakeholders in the country, as you know.

You said in an interview last year that the Burmese government’s efforts on improving FDI were “excellent,” do you still see it that way?

Last year when they established the foreign direct investment law, that was a huge and significant step. Now we have to see as well with the Swiss economy, which is still watching Myanmar very closely, but just before the election. With the peace process, where we are until the stable ceasefire is not in place, Swiss companies are still reluctant to come to Myanmar. When once we have ceasefire, once the government comes out of credible election, that situation could be more stable. Now we can’t clearly see what will be in 2016, 2017. That could be a more conducive environment for investors to come to Myanmar.