‘There is No One-Size-Fits-All Federalism’: Swiss Ambassador

By Nyein Nyein 19 August 2016

A landlocked, mountainous country in the Alpine region of Europe, Switzerland, which has been a federal state for centuries, presents an interesting example to Burma as it plans to devolve power equitably to its states and divisions under a new peace settlement.

With the opening up of Burma after the launch of reforms in 2011, Switzerland was the first European country to open an embassy in Burma, in 2012.

Switzerland has funded humanitarian and development programs in Burma over several years, for instance the building of schools and healthcare centers in Karen and Mon states in southeastern Burma. It has been among the international backers of Burma’s peace process, which began under President Thein Sein five years ago.

The Swiss Ambassador to Burma, Paul Seger, currently chairs the multinational Peace Support Group, which advises peace process stakeholders and channels donor money.

Prior to arriving in Burma last year, Paul Seger was Switzerland’s permanent representative at the United Nations in New York.

Irrawaddy senior reporter Nyein Nyein spoke to the Swiss Ambassador earlier this month about Switzerland’s development assistance, its role in Burma’s peace process, and growing trade relations.

What kind of support has Switzerland been providing to the peace process?

We started supporting the peace process around 2012 by establishing contacts with both ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw [Burma Army]. We tried to bring the parties together, to pave the way for the signing of bilateral ceasefire agreements.

We try to reach out to as many ethnic armed groups as possible. We host meetings, we organize preparatory events, etc. I think that it was quite useful, leading up to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA] signing in October 2015. But our support did not end with signing; we continue working both with the Tatmadaw and with both signatories and non-signatories [of the NCA] in support of the current national dialogue.

Multilaterally, we have been chairing the Peace Support Group since May 2015. We would like to maintain the principle of rotation. But, as long as the group wishes us to continue chairing, we are happy to go along with that. Besides, we are donors to the new Joint Peace Fund, which has a clear financial focus. We have been working directly with actors on both sides, under full transparency. At the same time, we try to contribute financial and material support.

What is the Switzerland’s place on the peace table?

Our role is in providing support that is effective, but discreet. From my personal experience of other peace processes, confidentially and confidence are the key elements. At the same time, we are transparent in what we do. It is not about sitting at the peace table, but being an active partner.

In the upcoming union peace conference, stakeholders will discuss establishing federalism in Burma. Since you come from a federal country, what is your message to them?

Look at as many examples from abroad as possible. There is no one-size-fits-all type of federalism. Every country has to find its own political system, which is suitable to its own tradition, to its own culture and to its own history.

We have been inviting armed groups and the Tatmadaw, and women’s groups and others to explain how federalism works in our country. The idea is to allow people to see how federalism works and what are its limitations and difficulties.

Federalism may be much more complex than it looks. It is not only about the relationship between the union and federal states, but also, within the federal states, to lower levels, such as townships and communities. In Switzerland, federalism has three tiers: communities, cantons [equivalent to states/divisions in Burma] and the federal level.

How important is it to protect the minorities in individual federal states, along with power sharing?

One of federalism’s main purposes is the protection of minorities. Cultural identity and language are part of that. Another important element, at least from our experience, is financial autonomy. In Switzerland, it is very important for cantons [equivalent to states/regions] to have their own budgets because, when you have money, you can decide. You can build hospitals, schools, and pay the teachers. Let’s take the example of language: if you want to teach the local languages, obviously you need local teachers. Do you want to pay them locally or do you want the federal government to pay them?

To touch on Switzerland’s humanitarian and development support in southeastern Burma, what is the specific assistance given and how is it benefiting local people?

Our main area of support is in the southeast, in Mon and Karen states. We have been there about six years. We started with rebuilding schools destroyed by natural catastrophes, particularly Cyclone Nargis [in May 2008]. Since, we have been rebuilt about 100 schools in the region, both directly and in cooperation with others. We have also been working to promote local health projects, providing basic health services to the people. This has the added advantage of bringing people from ethnic armed groups together with people from the government, which in turn may help the political dialogue in the peace process.

Is your assistance delivered through civil society groups or the government?

Our main partners are nongovernmental and civil society organizations, because we want to get close to the people. For us, local ownership, local participation and local impact are very important. So far our experiences with local nongovernmental partners have been proving very successful. But we consult with the government and we keep it informed of what we do. One of our main principles is transparency.

Is your humanitarian support reaching displaced people, especially in northern Burma, where fighting is continuing? Do you face any limitations in supporting them?

We are supporting displaced people in the areas of conflict, mostly through the international organizations, like UNHCR, UNICEF and ICRC. We have strategically decided to concentrate on areas in the southeast to create the best impact within our means. We have a total budget of US$150 million over four years. That may sound a lot, but if you really want to do something concrete, it is better to concentrate.

What are the trade relations with Burma, especially under the new government?

The potential for Swiss investment is there, but there is room for improvement. With democratization, the changing of laws, the furthering of the rule of law and the practical administration of justice, conditions are improving. We have to look down the road a few years. Swiss companies usually are rather prudent. Our main products are mostly high-end, with high added value, usually for clients already at an advanced economic level. Pharmaceuticals, machinery and watches are not cheap products.

We already have some working here, like Nestlé, pharmaceuticals, and some construction companies. We also have some small firms working in tourism, one of the big growth sectors in Myanmar. During my short presence here, there is growing interest. More people are coming here for business opportunities. My hope is that, over the next years, this will only increase.

How do Swiss companies approach corporate social responsibility? We have been hearing about the involvement of Swiss firms in a dam project in Shan State, which environmentalists are campaigning against.

I heard about the accusations and we take them seriously. Together with the company, were have looked into the matter. We found that the company takes environmental, social and cultural concerns seriously. For us, corporate social responsibility is important. We cannot allow ourselves to work in situations where there are violations of human rights or of environmental standards. We are also an active financial supporter of the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business.

What is your impression of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi after she met with diplomats?

Shortly after the election last year, she convened a diplomatic call on November 19 to give an overview of her intentions and goals. I had only one opportunity to meet with her. But I have to say, that one time was enough to be very impressed. She is a very charismatic person.