Interview

Burmese Diplomat: ‘I Have Taken Up Tough Duties’

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 17 July 2015

BERLIN, Germany — The first woman to be appointed as an Ambassador of Burma in five decades, Daw Yin Yin Myint represents the country in Germany, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland and Poland. The wife of the late General Aung San, Daw Khin Kyi, was her only true predecessor as a politically appointed ambassador to India in the 1960s. During a recent visit to Germany, The Irrawaddy sat down with Yin Yin Myint for to discuss Burma’ diplomatic relations with Europe and her experience as a female diplomat.

Now 59 years old, Yin Yin Myint has been working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) since 1983, when she joined as third secretary. She served as director general of the Training, Research and Foreign Language Department until her appointment as Ambassador to Germany in April of this year. Previously, she served as Burma’s Ambassador to Brunei, taking the post in October 2012.

Looking back over the past two and a half years, what major difficulties have you faced since you were appointed as an ambassador, and which countries have you served in?

I have spent more than 30 years in a diplomat career, and before I was appointed as an ambassador I also served as a charge d’affairs at the Burmese Embassy in Washington, DC. At that time, the relationship between Myanmar and the United States was not that good. There was no ambassador at the Burmese Embassy in the US, and I served as deputy chief of mission. As I have served for a long time with the MoFA, I did not have particular difficulties in discharging those duties.

In line with traditions of MoFA, we have to discharge our duties for three years, alternating inside and outside the country. My first foreign trip was to Hawaii University to study as a scholar from 1985 to 1987. In MoFA, there are two types of diplomatic corps—embassy and missions, like the Permanent Mission to the United Nations, Permanent Mission to New York and Permanent Mission to Asean Secretariat. I served as second and first secretary at the Burmese Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. Then I came back to Myanmar.

After that I served as deputy chief of mission in Rome, Italy. There are UN agencies in Rome like FAO and WFP. I also served as second permanent secretary there. From 2001 to 2005, I served as a director of East Asia and the Pacific Department of MoFA and then as deputy chief of mission of the Burmese Embassy in Washington, DC, for three years.

I returned to Myanmar and served as director-general until 2012. Then I was appointed as the first Burmese Ambassador to Brunei. Though I am based in Germany now, I am also concurrently appointed as Burmese Ambassador to Poland, the Czech Republic, Finland and Estonia. I am responsible for [diplomatic relations] with those countries.

Previously, only men were appointed as ambassadors. Do you think that the government’s appointment of a woman to such a high position signals a shift in the role of women in Burmese society?

I did not face discrimination on the basis of gender while I was serving as the most junior diplomat and rose through the ranks to director general. I was even assigned to perform the daunting duty of the charge d’affaires in Washington, DC, without an ambassador. I was trusted to serve as a charge d’affairs in a country which did not have very a good relationship with Myanmar.

There are a number of reasons why female ambassadors are appointed just now. The government offers women positions up to director general. As for me, I have taken up tough duties. One of the factors is age, when appointing ambassadors. Usually, we are appointed as ambassadors three or four years before the retirement age [set at 60 in Burma]. It is unusual for someone approaching the retirement age to be appointed as an ambassador. So age is one of the factors and is a limit. I found that U Thein Sein’s government has consistently focused on assigning big duties to women. In the time of the current government, there have been female ministers, deputy ministers and ambassadors.

Are you able to make decisions independently as a female ambassador? Have you ever been discriminated against while making decisions?

In the MoFA, the ambassador is the highest echelon of an embassy. Now there is no discrimination against me, as I hold the highest position now. But because we are responsible for carrying out foreign policies adopted by the government, we have to follow the instructions of the ministry and the government, regarding pursuing their policies. We have to report what we need when we carry out the policy based on our experiences.

Mostly, our mother department and the government agree with our suggestions. There is no gender-based discrimination in pursuing policy. If a male [ambassador] makes a mistake in pursuing the policy, then the ministry will give him instructions [the same as it would for a woman].

You said you are also responsible for four other countries. What are the major issues you face in dealing with those countries?

Myanmar embassies are understaffed. Every staff member has to take on extra duties. At the Burmese Embassy in Germany, there are seven staff under me, and five of them are women. The ambassador is responsible for all political, trade and international relations. The charge d’affaires also has to help me. The counselor is kept busy with issuing visas for travelers to Myanmar.

We are also responsible for the interests of Burmese people in the country we are assigned to, and promoting political and diplomatic relations with that country. Germany holds a central position in the European Union. It provides both financial and technical assistance to developing countries. We therefore are responsible for boosting our relationship with Germany. We are working for Myanmar students to get scholarships and learn in Germany. Again, German travelers were ranked third on the list of foreign travelers to Myanmar last year when Myanmar received 3.5 million foreign visitors. So we are simplifying the visa application process. Again, in the economy, Germany seems to be more interested in investing in Myanmar than [some] other counties. But German companies are later than others in entering Myanmar. If they have decided to make investments, they mean it for the long-term. Now the German Chambers of Commerce and Industry is already taking steps [to facilitate] business between the two countries.

Do you think Germany will become significantly more interested in investing in Myanmar? Have any German election observers contacted your embassy to oversee the coming election?

The government of Burma is committed to making sure the coming election is free and fair and it is also preparing for that end. It said it would invite international observers. I carried a message from President U Thein Sein when I was assigned to Germany, that [the Burmese government] would invite international observers, that [Germany] could come and observe, and that the current government will peacefully transfer power to the next government. Challenges are inevitable and we are trying to make forthcoming election a success. The EU will be invited to observe the election, and German [monitors] will also go to Myanmar.

What measures have you taken to ensure that Burmese citizens living in Germany and elsewhere will be able to vote?

We are planning for Burmese citizens in Germany to be able to cast votes. We will inform them who will contest in the election and enable them to cast a vote at our embassy. The voter list is set to be released by August 27. The date for casting the vote has not been set yet.

What measures are you to promote relations between the European Union, particularly Germany, and Myanmar?

Working in Germany is relatively simple because Ambassadors are given access to high ranking officials in the Ministries as well as the Parliament. It helps if you speak German in communicating with smaller agencies.

Again, it is very convenient communicating with government ministries. Sadly, I heard about the migrant crisis in Southeast Asia shortly after I arrived in Germany.

There are rumors that [people] are running away from Myanmar because of bad policies. The Bengal region is a very vast region. Boat people were found in the sea and they were labeled as Rohingya [a stateless Muslim minority] who fled persecution in Myanmar. [Reporters and international agencies] need to confirm it if they say a country is persecuting [a people]. They need to verify whether the boat really came from Myanmar and that those aboard are from Myanmar. Myanmar shares a border with India and there has long been a Hindu society in the country. Since the colonial period, Muslims have also lived in the country. Such is also the case for China. But there is no such issue at the India and China borders. In the case of Bangladesh, the Nat River at the border is narrow. In Europe, even as the Mediterranean Sea separates the countries, the migrant worker issue still can’t be handled. It is very difficult to handle this issue in our country. As an ambassador to Germany, I have to explain this situation.

If the boat people are from Myanmar, then there is a question of why they are leaving. There is no serious problem in Rakhine State so far. Why do they leave? There are many international organizations in Sittwe. If they left Myanmar because they are persecuted, there is no reason those international organizations would not know about it. I am responsible for explaining the situation to Germany. If there were religious persecution against Muslims, it would have a negative impact on other Muslim communities in the country and strain the relations between Myanmar and other Muslim countries. So we are responsible for explaining the situation to them.

How has the situation impacted Myanmar’s relationship with the EU, and how do you explain it to them?

Before I arrived here, I explained the situation clearly to the UNHCR and foreign embassies. Mainly, I explained it to the foreign ministry of Germany. I told them that Myanmar would handle the issue in cooperation with its neighbors.

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