Norway re-thinks Burma policies

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Norway has started talking with some new leaders in Burma, but state secretary Espen Barth Eide insists the Norwegian government won’t let itself be fooled by them. He thinks there’s been “real change” within the Burmese dictatorship and that it’s worthwhile to have a dialogue.

Espen Barth Eide, a state secretary in Norway's foreign ministry, visited both Aung San Suu Kyi and Burmese government officials during last week's trip. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Eide traveled to Burma at the end of last week, the latest of at least three high-ranking government officials to visit the impoverished and repressive country in the past year. Erik Solheim, Norway’s cabinet minister for foreign aid and environment, was in Burma last June, for example, and other ministry officials have made trips as well.

“Developments in Burma give reason to hope for a change for the better,” Eide said. He said that some of Burma’s opposition parties find it “meaningful” to be represented in the national assembly even though it remains dominated by the military junta that has ruled Burma for years.

And although last year’s election process and election results in Burma were steered by the military regime, “we can’t rule out that real change can occur when a parliament is formed, when the opposition is given more room to express itself and the military’s direct grip on power becomes smaller,” Eide said. He noted that regional commanders’ power has been reduced in favor of civilian organizations and that President Thein Sein has acknowledged challenges facing the country in several speeches, for example regarding economic reform and environmental issues.

Eide thinks substantial reform is possible and said Norway was dropping its advisory discouraging Norwegians against visiting Burma.

He  also met with the former main opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her struggle for change in Burma but was never allowed to rule even though she won elections more than 20 years ago. She has warned Eide and others not to be charmed by new and younger regime leaders, and her party boycotted last year’s election.

“She was concerned that the regime … must show that it stands for real change, and she thinks it’s too early to conclude that it will,” Eide said. “My impression is that she’s maneuvering carefully and that she also faces major challenges.”

Eide said the UN and its UN Development Program must get an expanded role in the country, to help reduce poverty. His visit coincided with that of the UN Secretary General’s special adviser Vijay Nambiar.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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