Myanmar’s leader pays official call

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Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg visited Myanmar (Burma) last fall and now the president of the long-isolated and oppressed country is making a return call of his own. Thein Sein landed at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen early Tuesday morning and launched a three-day official visit that got underway at midday. 

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg visited Myanmar and its reform-minded president Thein Sein last autumn. Now Thein Sein is in Norway. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg visited Myanmar and its reform-minded president Thein Sein last autumn. Now Thein Sein is in Norway. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norway is the first country in Europe that Thein Sein is visiting, and Myanmar’s reform-minded leader can literally expect royal treatment. He was having lunch with Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide at Holmenkollen on Tuesday, would be the guest of honor at a government dinner at the Akershus Fortress Tuesday evening, was invited to the Royal Palace and would also meet members of Myanmar’s exile community in Norway.

The visit would have been nearly unthinkable just a few years ago, when Thein Sein and his military colleagues still wore their uniforms and ruled Myanmar with iron hands. Norway, meanwhile, had long supported the thorn in the side of the country’s military junta, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and continued to urge democratic reforms.

Now Thein Sein is doing that himself by releasing political prisoners, easing restrictions on the media and releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. She’s since been voted in to Myanmar’s national assembly.

Myanmar's President Thein Sein won't be hosted in such lavish surroundings as those where he received Stoltenberg in the controversial capital built by the military junta. He will instead be treated to Norway's more modest style. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein won’t be hosted in such lavish surroundings as those where he received Stoltenberg in the controversial capital built by the military junta. He will instead be treated to Norway’s more modest manner of doing things. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norway has responded by forgiving nearly NOK 3 billion in debt and opening a joint embassy in Myanmar with Denmark. Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide has also been in Myanmar, Norwegian journalists have been granted visas for entry and executives of Norwegian companies like Jotun, Telenor and Statoil are keenly interested in doing business in what newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) called the “grotesquely underdeveloped” country. Jotun is already in place, Telenor eyes a vast new mobile phone market and Statoil wants to exploit the oil and gas resources Myanmar is believed to have.

Eide has called it all a “democratic spring” for the country that many still call Burma. Others, noting the military background of Thein Sein’s government, are skeptical. The organization Human Rights Watch notes that there still are many political prisoners in the country, that the military remains a powerful force, corruption is still rampant and ethnic conflicts haven’t been resolved. Critics worry Thein Sein has merely neutralized Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition, and questions abound whether the reforms will last.

Eide clearly thinks so, and wrote in a commentary in DN on Tuesday that he thinks Myanmar’s time has come. It would be unrealistic to think there won’t be setbacks in Thein Sein’s reform process, Eide wrote, but he thinks Myanmar should get the support that a wealthy and democratic country like Norway can offer. Thein Sein likely thinks so, too, since he chose Norway as the first country he’s visiting in Europe. Myanmar, like Norway, has oil, gas, water and forests, Eide noted. “Its natural resources can bring the country out of poverty if they’re managed correctly,” he wrote. “The wealth must benefit all the people. Norway wants to support Myanmar in this development.” He added that he expects Norwegian business to act responsibly as partners, and maintain international standards.

Stein Tønnesson, a former director of the peace research center Prio in Oslo, doesn’t think it’s possible to reverse the reform process. “There is, in today’s situation, little danger for a military coup,” Tønnesson told DN. He also thinks Thein Sein wants to avoid conflicts with Aung San Suu Kyi, wants peace with armed ethnic groups and is building a team around himself with practical competence.

Thein Sein still doesn’t have clear authority over the army,though, and calls himself merely a transitional figure. “The reform process can be sidetracked in many ways,” Tønnesson told DN. Norway’s government is among those eager to prevent a derailment.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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