From the Archive

‘We Have Always Supported the Democratic Process’

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 3 June 2019

Working closely with the late president Vaclav Havel, former Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg championed democracy movements, including the one led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, during his time in office. To mark the State Counselor’s visit to Prague this week, The Irrawaddy revisits this interview with Schwarzenberg, which was first published in March 2014.

PRAGUE — Karel Schwarzenberg, a former deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs for the Czech Republic, has long supported Burma’s pro-democracy movement, together with his former President Vaclav Havel, who was the first to nominate opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Schwarzenberg, a candidate for the presidency in 2013, spoke recently to Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy magazine’s English edition, at his office in Prague. He shared his views on Burma’s reform and explained the Czech Republic’s dedicated support to the country’s democracy process.

When you met with Burma’s President U Thein Sein and Lower House Speaker U Shwe Mann in Naypyidaw in 2012, what kind of promises did you hear from them, regarding the country’s reform process?

They spoke quite openly, saying they needed to start with rule of law and democracy, and they have been partially successful in this, but not fully. Of course, the main problem seems to be that these things are impossible as long as you have wars with ethnic armed groups and conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists, as is the case in the western part of the country. It’s important to end all this fighting in different states. It’s impossible to have it [rule of law and democracy] as long as soldiers and armed conflicts dominate.

In the two years since you visited, have you seen any political progress in Burma? Last year you said the reform process was moving slower than expected. What’s your assessment now?

The reform is rather slow. They are making some progress, but it’s too little.

Ahead of Burma’s 2015 election, Aung San Suu Kyi and other political leaders are trying to get the 2008 undemocratic Constitution amended. Do you think it will likely be changed?

It’s necessary to change the Constitution and to remove privileges for the armed forces, which are really extraordinary. But it’s clear to me that it will be very difficult as long as there are existing armed conflicts in Burma. Of course there is always a danger that some people are interested in prolonging armed conflicts, which justify the strong presence of the army and the special privileges granted in the present Constitution.

What role did the armed forces play in the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution in 1989?

Not a special role. There were civil commands, and ministers were not members of the armed forces. Ministers of defense have not been members of the armed forces since the 1970s. There were only two exceptions. Normally our defense ministers are civilians. And we don’t have such a big armed force because we are not facing any armed conflicts at the moment. Our armed forces are perfectly integrated into the democratic state.

Kyaw Zwa Moe, left, editor of The Irrawaddy magazine’s English-language edition, speaks with Karel Schwarzenberg, a former deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs for the Czech Republic, in Prague. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)
Kyaw Zwa Moe, left, editor of The Irrawaddy magazine’s English-language edition, speaks with Karel Schwarzenberg, a former deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs for the Czech Republic, in Prague. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Aung San Suu Kyi contested the by-elections in 2012 and became a parliamentarian. It is believed that her mission is to collaborate with the government and military. Is she on the right track?

She has to cooperate with them. Otherwise, things could turn again in the wrong direction. I think we need to see the military slowly give up its special privileges, which again is always difficult as long as you have armed conflicts.

The European Union has offered a lot of support to Burma, including by supporting the government’s peace process. What kind of policy should the European Union take against the Burmese government if they don’t keep their promises for the reform process?

Well, first of all, the European Union has problems which are more urgent than the situation in Burma. That’s why we have to have a good relationship with Burma, for economic and security reasons. Burma is an important country and has economic potential. Of course, the EU would prefer democracy and rule of law in Burma. But they know, anyway, that they have much less influence than big powers that are neighbors of Burma. Burma is not so much economically dependent on the European Union. That means, compared with China, India and then the United States, the EU has less influence.

Currently, in which areas and sectors does the Czech Republic support Burma?

Thanks to our former President Vaclav Havel, we have supported Aung San Suu Kyi. As you know, it was Havel who nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. We have always supported the democratic process in Burma. It’s quite clear we are still trying to help. That’s our position.

Vaclav Havel and the Czech Republic, as you said, have been quite supportive of Burma’s pro-democracy process, perhaps more so than other countries. Why is that?

Haval was convinced that when we achieved a free and democratic country at the end of 1989, it was our duty to help other nations which didn’t yet have that privilege. It was our duty, for the other people who were still under dictatorial regimes. That was a conviction of Vaclav Havel, and it’s my conviction, too.

You were in exile for more than 40 years. Burma also has a large diaspora community across the world. What kind of experiences or message do you want to share with them?

Never give up. I was outside for 41 years. All that time, I always hoped to get back and was always very interested in what was happening in the country. You never should give up the fight for democracy and freedom.

In 2015, we will have general elections. The past general elections in 2010 were rigged and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won by landslide. What’s your take on the upcoming elections?

I think it will be better than the last time. It probably won’t be perfect yet—that would be a miracle.

In the past, Czechoslovakia and socialist Burma had a business relationship. Do you think the Czech Republic should start doing businesses now in Burma, like some other foreign countries have?

Of course. I’ve always said they [Czech businesses] should urgently compete in Burma. I know Chinese [businesses] have a very strong position in Burma. Also, Japanese and other European countries are in strong positions. We were there in the ‘70s. But I still think it’s worth fighting for. So they [Czech businesses] should be there today.

The Czech Republic has started establishing its diplomatic mission in Rangoon. What should be at the top of the agenda for the Czech government and its mission?

To travel more around the country so they can know the whole country, not only Rangoon and the capital [Naypyidaw]. They also can and should encourage Czech businessmen, entrepreneurs and industries to enter Burma and see their opportunities to invest there. Because Burma, if it is wisely ruled, has a great future.

Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly said she wants to be president in 2015. Can you comment on that?

She is the best candidate and hopefully she will make it. Fingers crossed for her.