Thein Sein Talks Sanctions and Trade in Vienna

By Patrick Boehler 5 March 2013

HONG KONG—President Thein Sein called for an end to European Union sanctions against Burma and welcomed investors to his nation during a two-day visit to Austria, which ended on Monday.

Fighting with the Kachin Independence Army had ceased, he said at a press conference with the Austrian President Heinz Fischer, adding that he could accept additions to the 2008 constitution to appease ethnic conflicts that have been ravaging the country for half a century.

Thein Sein met with the Austrian president as well as the Chancellor Werner Faymann and the Speaker of the Lower House Barbara Prammer on Monday during what has been the first visit of a Burmese President to the central European country.

After the talks, in which he has been pressed on the Kachin conflict and the plight of stateless Rohingya, Thein Sein participated at a business conference organized by the Austrian Chamber of Commerce.

A delegation of 40 Austrian companies had met up with Thein Sein in Naypyidaw a month ago, where an invitation to visit Austria had been extended to the president. During the visit, the Austrian turbine manufacturer Andritz opened a representative office in Rangoon. Thein Sein reinforced proof of Burmese interest by visiting two hydropower stations in Austria on Sunday, a day ahead of formal talks.

Bilateral trade with the landlocked European Union member state has been marginal at best and has reached around US$13 million last year, according to the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. The country is, however, a stakeholder in the European Union, where sanctions against the former military regime are still being partially enforced.

Thein Sein’s visit is “about drumming up business and, along the way, presenting a new face of the government of Burma to the Europeans,” said longtime Burma-watcher Sean Turnell at Macquarie University in Sydney. “Europe doesn’t carry much weight politically for Burma, but it remains the home of some vibrant companies. Of course, it’s a lucrative source of tourists too.”

The European Union’s representative to Burma, Andreas List, expected the sanctions to be completely lifted by the end of April, the Austrian daily Wiener Zeitung reported on Monday.

Thein Sein has left Austria for Belgium, where he is expected to hold talks with European Union representatives. Yet, as of Monday, an appointment with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso had not been guaranteed, according to Austrian media reports.

The president will conclude his 10-day trip through Europe in Italy at the end of the week. He has previously visited Norway and Finland.