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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Norway’s leaders on major Asia tour

Norway’s top government leaders are winding up a major tour through Asia that has included an official visit to Japan, the opening of a new embassy in Myanmar (Burma) over the weekend and a regional summit meeting in Laos. While Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Myanmar marked a breakthrough, after years of conflict between Burmese leaders and most of the rest of the world, it also showed that disagreements will persist.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg meeting with the president of Myanmar, U Thein Sein over the weekend. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

For years, Norway has warmly supported Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, whose decades-long struggle for human rights and democracy in Burma finally is bearing fruit. Her military rivals have embarked on a stunning path of reform that also led to her winning an elected post, and Norway has vowed to financially support ongoing reform efforts. That doesn’t mean either the Burmese government or Suu Kyi, who now leads the opposition in Burma, will follow Norway’s advice on dealing with ethnic conflicts.

“Aung San Suu Kyi says much of the same as the authorities, that everyone of course can demand protection from attacks,” Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide told news bureau NTB. “But she’s no bigger a supporter than the president that the Rohingya (stateless Muslims in western Myanmar, near the border to Bangladesh) should be granted citizenship.”

The Norwegian and Danish prime ministers cut the ribbons to open a new joint embassy in Myanmar on Sunday. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Violent conflicts between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims belonging to the Rohingya ethnic group have gone on for years, and the UN considers the Rohingya one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Burmese authorities have never accepted them, viewing them as illegal aliens, while Bangladesh authorities claim they can’t accept more of the Rohingya streaming over the border.

Both Stoltenberg and Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide have urged the authorities in what they now call Myanmar to find a solution for the conflict but Burmese President U Thein Sein won’t promise any help to them and Suu Kyi doesn’t seem willing to either. Her party has said the Rohingya must be respected, that the violence must stop and the government should secure the Rakhine area along the west coast of Myanmar where it’s occurring, but she also has been criticized for being vague about how to do that.

Before visiting Myanmar (Burma), Stoltenberg and his wife, diplomat Ingrid Schulerud, were in Japan where they met with, among others, the emperor and empress. PHOTO: Statsministerenskontor

Stoltenberg, on his first visit ever to Myanmar, diplomatically praised the “positive signals” he claims he nonetheless received from Thein Sein in furthering peace processes among various ethnic groups in Myanmar. “I’m glad the president said in a meeting that the authorities will now start political dialogue and that they’ll have meeting with the armed groups to identify important issues,” Stoltenberg said. “This is another step along the way to peace in the whole country.”

Stoltenberg and Eide met with Thein Sein, Suu Kyi and the president of the parliament Shwe Mann. He and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt opened a joint Norwegian-Danish embassy in Yangon (Rangoon) on Sunday, with Stoltenberg claiming that cooperation between Norway and Myanmar is “increasing quickly.”

He noted that many of Myanmar’s 60 million inhabitants live in poverty and there’s great need for economic reforms and jobs. “Norway will contribute in many areas, to support Myanmar,” he promised, calling the new embassy with Norway’s “Danish neighbours” “a sign of friendship” that Sweden is expected to join the embassy project soon.

Stoltenberg has also been on an official visit to Japan along with a Norwegian business delegation. Stoltenberg and his wife, diplomat Ingrid Schulerud, met both the emperor and empress of Japan along with Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda before traveling on to Burma and then to Laos, where Norway was taken up on Monday as a member of ASEM, the Asia-Europe Meeting that serves as a summit between Asian and European leaders.

Stoltenberg is the first Norwegian prime minister to take part in the summit, which he said is shaping future relations between Asia and Europe. He claimed it was a priority for Norway to become a member because of ongoing and increasing business ties between Asia and Norway, not least in the areas of oil and shipping, and because of rising Asian interest “in our policies on the High North, climate change and energy.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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