News this week that Burma’s government was releasing political prisoners, after earlier easing press censorship and showing other signs of more openness, cheered Burma-watchers in Norway and not least the Foreign Ministry. Former Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, who long has followed events in Burma, said the Burmese government seems to finally be moving towards democracy.
The political prisoners’ organization AAPP told news bureau Reuters that at least 70 prisoners had been released from prisons in Burma and that more were expected to be set free. Those released include high-profile dissidents such as the Buddhist monk who led street protests four years ago and members of the opposition party headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who was recently released from house arrest herself.
Espen Barth Eide, state secretary in Norway’s foreign ministry, was in Burma late last week and claimed he’d seen evidence of “improvement on all fronts.” Norway has long been among the many countries around the world advocating human rights and democracy in Burma.
Skepticism remained high when the military junta that’s ruled Burma for years, and which rejected the results of the election Aung San Suu Kyi won more than 20 years ago, held new elections and doffed their military uniforms. Now, however, there have been several signs that the long-isolated military rulers are opening up to more contact with the rest of the world and to reform within Burma.
Eide said he noticed many changes since his last visit to Burma in May. “The overriding tone was that exciting things were happening,” he told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). He met many government ministers while in Burma and he said they wanted “tighter cooperation” with Norway, on environmental issues and redevelopment.
There also have been signs the Burmese government is distancing itself from China, which has been the dominant investor in Burma during its years of isolation. In September, the Burmese president halted a controversial power project financed by China, and Eide said he thinks the president is listening to the people.
Eide thinks the time has come for Norwegian companies to consider doing business in Burma. “We haven’t removed our advice against investing in Burma here and now,” Barth Eide told DN, and sanctions remain in place. “But it’s time to think things will change.”
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