‘The Election Is a Game-Changer Both Domestically and Internationally’

By Saw Yan Naing 15 December 2015

The Norwegian Burma Committee (NBC), a nongovernmental organization based in Oslo, has invited a group of leading Burmese activists to Norway to talk about the Southeast Asian nation’s political transition, peace process and ethnic affairs. The activists include Ko Ko Gyi of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and Naw Zipporah Sein, the vice chairwoman of the Karen National Union (KNU), one of Burma’s largest ethnic armed groups. The Burmese delegation arrived to Norway over the weekend and will conclude their visit on Dec. 17.

 The Norwegian government and NGOs based in the country have been involved in Burma’s pro-democracy movement for more than 20 years. Under the reformist government of President Thein Sein, Oslo began shifting its policy toward Burma, channeling financial support to the Burmese government and government-associated organizations while reducing or cutting support to exiled democratic forces.

 The Irrawaddy this week interviewed the director of the NBC, Audun Aagre, about the Burmese delegation’s trip, the role of the Norwegian government in Burma and its evolving policy toward the country following its historic election last month.  

What is the purpose of inviting these Burmese activists to Norway?

We are really glad that Ko Ko Gyi, Zipporah Sein and Khine Win [director of the Sandhi Governance Institute] accepted our invitation, as we wanted to introduce the Norwegian public and policymakers to actors in the democratic transition. There will be open seminars, a session with the Myanmar Network at the parliament, several meetings with political leaders in the government and parliament, and a session with the leadership of the Liberal Party. There will also be lectures at the University of Oslo with introductions to the Scandinavian model of welfare state and social democracy, political transitions and peace processes, as desired by the delegates.

What issues will they talk about during their trip?

We will mainly discuss the post-election period, and the path to peace and democracy. The political process is in a crucial phase, where we expect to see a transition to a democratically elected government. We are now in unchartered waters, where it is crucial that the military decide to go with the people, and not work against them. Only then can we see democracy and peace. To see that happen, we depend on brave civilian and military leaders.

Who will they be meeting during the trip and how many countries are they visiting?

Khine Win and Zipporah Sein will visit Norway only. Ko Ko Gyi attended the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on Dec. 10, and has visited Belgium, the Netherlands and France. They will meet the NBC Board; Myanmar Network at the Norwegian Parliament; former Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik; the general secretary of the Liberal Party will talk about the party’s responsibility; and professors at the University of Oslo will have an exclusive lecture.

There will be meetings with the deputy minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Tore Hattrem, and meetings with the Norwegian team involved in the peace process in Colombia. Besides that, there will be several meetings with the Burmese community in Norway, and we are happy that Mun Awng [a prominent Burmese singer] will play some songs too.

What issues will the KNU’s vice chairwoman talk about during her trip there?

Both Zipporah Sein and Ko Ko Gyi are involved in the peace process, representing the KNU, NCCT [Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team] and 88 Generation Peace and Open Society. Zipporah Sein will surely focus on the next steps in the process—how to make it more inclusive; how to get a better balance in the international support of the process; how to hand over the leading role of the process to an elected government, from an outgoing government and the Myanmar Peace Center.

We cannot have a setup where representatives of an outgoing government and Parliament have more influence than an elected [incoming] Parliament and the next government. It is positive that the current government and President Thein Sein have said they will secure a responsible handover.

How does the NBC view Burma’s historic election?

The election was extremely important, despite the obvious limitations, and the government and UEC [Union Election Commission] deserve credit for that. The election proved a strong mandate to NLD [National League for Democracy]. The results in 1990 and 2015 were almost the same. It is more than impressive. This alone is a game-changer both domestically and internationally. Still, the election doesn’t change the military’s political influence.

The Constitution secures a kind of coalition government of the elected party and the non-elected military. The military has the power to work against an elected government, from the parliament, from the government and on the battlefield. To put it the other way around, the military has the power to work with the process and with the people. We should believe in the power of doing good, but it must be proven by the military. It might be that the NLD will fail to live up to the expectations; we need to carefully assess whether this is to be blamed on the NLD or the military. This comes with the responsibility the military has granted themselves.

How will the outcome of the Nov. 8 vote impact Norway’s policy on Burma?

NBC is a nongovernmental organization. We are not under the influence of the government, and it is not a secret that we have been critical of the shift in EU and Norwegian policies, as too one-sided, and more supportive of a pro-military government than an opposition that undoubtedly the people wanted to lead. This understanding is not political rocket science. It has been obvious for years.

Now the international policy needs to change, thanks to brave political candidates and the people’s voting on Nov. 8. It is legitimate to argue that a policy change at this time is not very honorable, but still is important.

Since the NLD will form the new government, how will the NBC cooperate with the party?

NBC has worked on Burma/Myanmar issues for 23 years. Our founder was an important player in the nomination process for Aung San Suu Kyi for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. We were co-founding DVB [Democratic Voice of Burma], and even shared an office in the early days. We have a good network with the ethnic organizations and parties, the NLD, but also the current government and USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party].

I believe we have one of the most important assets for foreign organizations in Burma/Myanmar politics: trust. It doesn’t come easily. We will continue to contribute in a way our partners believe will benefit the Burmese people the most. I have to stress that NBC is not a part of the Norwegian government, and one of our main tasks is to work for an improved policy from our own government.

And what about the peace process in Burma?

For the peace process, other actors have been given a more prominent role than the NBC, but we have a good political understanding. I would like to say that it is time to rethink the process, to ensure that all groups in the NCCT and UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council] are included. The single text is agreed upon, and it should be easy to make the process inclusive if there is a will.

The international setup for the process has been based on a weak understanding of the complexity of the process. You cannot support an MPC [Myanmar Peace Center] under the government without supporting a peace center under the ethnic armed organizations. You cannot put the money for well-functioning education and health systems in the ethnic states, and channel the money to Naypyidaw, and let the MPC be the gatekeeper for these funds. When international monetary flows in reality are strengthening a centralized structure, weakening federal structures, it is about the worst signal you could send to the ethnic minorities.

And it is about time to stop calling ethnic armed organizations ‘rebels,’ including journalists. The ethnic groups are not the aggressor. They are not fighting to conquer Burman territory. They are not fighting for separation from the union. They are legitimately defending ethnic territory and defending their people.

I hope to see a positive development, with mutual respect between the Burmans and the ethnic minorities. The suffering in the ethnic areas has been immense and beyond belief for many.

Aung San Suu Kyi will lead the next government. How do you see Norway’s Burma policy shifting under her government compared with the outgoing administration?

I hope Norwegian policies will change for the better. Many of the projects Norway has supported and invested in the last years are good, and should continue. The problem has been a weak and one-sided policy, and a problematic understanding by some diplomats. Norway had a prominent role in Burma/Myanmar in the ’90s for the right reasons. The Norwegian political U-turn was problematic, and hailed by the military and criticized by Aung San Suu Kyi and many ethnic organizations.

Norway obviously needs to improve their policy again. Not very honorable and brave at this time, but still very important. The international community should be more willing to support a weak elected government, than a strong non-elected government. And we should understand the opportunities and constraints for an elected government.

The NBC is also known by its Norwegian name, Den Norske Burmakomité.