Guest Column

Norway’s Changiang Role in Burma: Driven by Peace or Business?

By Mon Mon Myat 5 December 2014

Norway’s image in the eyes of many Burmese has long been that of a partner of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the world most prominent political prisoner under military rule. Norway was associated with promoting peace in Burma and other troubled countries for the past 20 years.

Until last year, Burmese exile broadcast media, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), was based in Oslo and the Norway-funded organization continues to provide important coverage of news in Burma. It gave a voice to the opposition and activists, despite the fact that the former military regime denounced DVB radio and TV as “an enemy of the state” for years.

These days, the image of Norway in Burma has changed and the country is now more closely associated with Telenor, the Norwegian international telecom conglomerate that has plans to provide network coverage for 90 percent of the roughly 51 million Burmese within the next five years.

During the ongoing visit of Norway’s King Harald V, who travelled along with the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Trade and a business delegation of more than 35 Norwegian companies, the king gave a speech that highlighted Norway’s priority of establishing “long-term development cooperation” with Burma.

Since Burma has changed and rapid change is part of developments across the globe, it should be no surprise that Norway’s image and actions in Burma are also changing.

Even Suu Kyi is now being perceived differently than during her years of house arrest; the venerated democracy icon has taken up a seat in Parliament and has become a real politician for her National League for Democracy since the by-elections of mid-2012. At the time, UK newspaper The Guardian hailed her election to Parliament as a ‘new era’ for Burma.

Around the same time, Western countries began to respond to the Burmese government’s request to remove long-standing trade sanctions against the regime. The US suspended most sanctions and the European Union completely dropped all its restrictions. Western governments then quickly began courting the new nominally-civilian government of President Thein Sein, often with the aim of accessing Burma’s untapped sizable consumer market or its wealth of natural resources.

Domestically, however, the honeymoon period of this “new era” did not last long and Thein Sein and Suu Kyi’s initial working relationship quickly soured. The military retains its entrenched powers provided by the 2008 Constitution, and the government and army resist Suu Kyi’s calls for charter reform.

The army and the former generals, now in their plain clothes in government, have thus revealed their true colors and it’s clear they are unwilling to give up power to democratic forces. A recent assessment from a top US military officer described Burma as still “under firm military control.”

Mon Mon Myat (Photo: Mon Mon Myat)
Mon Mon Myat (Photo: Mon Mon Myat)

As we assess the stalling of the democratization process, it now seems that too much early optimism among the international community about Burma’s military-turned-civilian government has negatively affected the transition.

Norway has in this respect led the way.

Norway was the first foreign government that was approached by Burma to play a role as a facilitator in bringing an end to decades-old ethnic conflict. Thein Sein asked for “help to mobilize international support for the peace process” and Norway responded by setting up the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), announcing the project in January 2012 during a state visit by Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store.

Later, Norway wrote off US$534 million Burmese debt. The country has also played a key role as a hub for foreign donors entering Burma and was acknowledged as a founder of the Peace Donor Support Group (PDSG).

The Irrawaddy reported that the PDSG—representing the governments of Norway, the UK and Australia, as well as the EU, the United Nations and the World Bank—promised a total of nearly $500 million to support peace-building and development projects in Burma during a meeting with Thein Sein in Naypyidaw in June 2012.

But was it perhaps too soon to dream of a “new era” in Burma, only two months after the by-elections?

Norway learned a lesson about dealing with Burma much-praised reformist government when it saw its MPSI project get stuck due to military and government intransigence on reaching a nationwide ceasefire. Its report “Lessons Learned from MPSI’s Work Supporting the Peace Process in Myanmar” released this year, says “trust in the Myanmar Army still remains a problem, and some areas are still seeing active conflict.”

Norway should have done its homework before working in the new Burma. Over the past 20 years, Burmese generals shrewdly repeatedly stated that they were willing to hold a “dialogue” at times of domestic unrest or international pressure.

Whether it is named dialogue or multi-party talks with key political players, or nationwide ceasefire talks, in Burma such kind of negotiations and meetings have always been used by the military and political elite for show.

In the 1980s, the Burma Amy signed several ceasefire agreements with ethnic armed groups but those agreements were very fragile. In the 1990s, the regime negotiated a number of other ceasefires with different groups as part of a strategy to win legitimacy both domestically and abroad.

The same strategy has been used again after the rigged 2010 elections, this time by Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, which negotiated a large number of bilateral ceasefires with ethnic groups and a initiated a nationwide ceasefire process.

But fighting continues in northern Burma, where the Burma Army on Nov. 19 carried out a surprise attack on a Kachin rebel training school killing 23 young cadets. Some question the sincerity of the government and the army’s intentions in the peace process, with Burma expert and veteran journalist Bertil Lintner telling a conference in March that the government’s chief peace negotiator, Minister Aung Min, “lacks authority to make decisions on the ethnic conflicts.”

The peace talks are in fact being used as a resource by the government to boost its reformist credibility and to be offered in exchange for international aid and trade.

The international community seems eager to play along and has flown in scores of peace experts, a development that Lintner criticized, saying, “The peace process has become an industry where international peace experts and nongovernmental organizations are lavishing money on peace advocacy and development projects.”

Norwegian actors, too, have been drawn into this strategy by the Thein Sein government and, what’s more, some appear to have been promoting their personal interests in Burma as it opens up to foreign investment.

Concerns over a conflict of interest arose when Norway’s former ambassador to Burma, Katja Nordgaard, was appointed executive vice president to Telenor Group, six months after the company won a highly lucrative license to expand mobile phone services in Burma. As ambassador, Nordgaard introduced Telenor executives to the Burmese government.

In March 2014, Statoil, the Norwegian oil giant, was among the foreign oil and gas firms awarded a potentially lucrative offshore exploration concession.

Such developments raise questions over Norway’s foreign policy toward Burma and whether it has moved from promoting peace and democracy to promoting Norwegian business interests. This is all the more obvious, when one considers that both Statoil and Telenor are majority state-owned firms.

Burma is no longer a focal point for Norwegian sympathy; for Oslo the country has quickly become Asia’s last frontier market, offering a bonanza of resources and a place to sell consumer products to a long-isolated population.

In his speech this week, Norway’s King Harald said, “Challenges lie ahead in your ongoing peace process. It takes time to build lasting and sustainable peace.”

But the question now is how Norway’s desired “long-term development cooperation” with Burma can come about without “sustainable peace.”

Mon Mon Myat is a freelance journalist based in Rangoon.