Switch to Telenor by Ex-Ambassador to Burma Provokes Criticism in Norway

By Paul Vrieze 4 June 2014

RANGOON — The recent appointment of Katja Nordgaard, Norway’s former ambassador to Burma, to Executive Vice President at the Oslo-based telecommunications firm Telenor Group has come under scrutiny in the Norwegian media, with critics questioning whether she is using her public position to gain advantages for the private sector.

As ambassador to Burma, Thailand and Cambodia from 2010 to 2013, Nordgaard oversaw the normalization of relations with Burma’s reformist government and helped secure deals between the government and Norwegian firms, including for the multinational company that that she will be joining in August.

Telenor won a hotly contested bid last year for a US$500 million license that will allow it to develop telecommunications infrastructure and operate mobile phone services in Burma for 15 years.

Telenor and Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs have said that the move by Nordgaard, who is currently Norway’s ambassador to Thailand and Cambodia, does not violate any ethics policy.

However, Norway’s major newspapers, Dagens Naeringsliv and Aftenposten, ran critical articles last week about her switch from diplomat to Telenor executive, saying that it blurred the line between Norway’s public and private sector interests in Burma.

Audun Aagre, director of the Norwegian Burma Committee, told Dagens Naeringsliv, “Nordgaard has maintained good and close relations with Burmese authorities and has been one of their strongest defenders internationally.

“There can be little doubt that this is one of the reasons why Telenor is hiring her.”

Halvor Leira, chair of the research group on foreign policy and diplomacy at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, told the paper, “I find this [move] a bit peculiar.”

“When you are an ambassador, you represent Norway abroad. When you go from representing Norway’s interests abroad to representing Telenor’s interests abroad, you use the contacts that you have built up as a public person for private gain,” Leira said.

Critics said Nordgaard’s position as a supporter of President Thein Sein’s government, and her subsequent move to a company that was granted Burmese government licenses, could damage Norway’s reputation with the democratic opposition, ethnic groups and human rights activists.

Aagre said, “Our experience is that an increasing number of Burmese organizations are questioning Norway’s strategy in Burma. It is important that Norwegian authorities distinguish clearly between the political goals of democracy and human rights, and the goals of Norwegian business.

“It would be sad if a mixing of roles were to undermine the trust that Norway has built up over 20 years” when it supported the democratic opposition, Aagre said.

“MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] can say whatever they want, but this is about reputation, about how this will be perceived in Myanmar—this is something that MFA cannot control,” Leira said.

“Norway is a country which in recent years has gone from having a close relationship with the democracy movement to a close relationship with the authorities,” said Camilla Buzzi, Norwegian Church Aid’s country program manager in Burma. “Katja Nordgaard has had a key role in the normalization of the relationship between Norway and Myanmar and has opened doors for Norwegian businesses wanting to enter the country.

“This creates uncertainty about Norway’s motivations in Myanmar,” she said.

Norway has long supported Burma’s democratic opposition and the ethnic minority refugees stranded on the Thai-Burma border. When it launched the $2 million Myanmar Peace Support Initiative in 2012, however, the project drew the ire of border-based civil society groups, who said it had failed to properly consult them and was closely aligned to the Burmese government’s peace process objectives.