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Saturday, May 18, 2024

‘Pay-back time’ for Myanmar

The president of Myanmar ended his visit to Norway this week after three days of top-level meetings, official lunches and dinners and red-carpet treatment. Now, given Norway’s political and economic support for Myanmar in recent years, expectations are high that Myanmar’s reforms will continue and that Norwegian business and investors will be welcomed in the formerly isolated nation.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide greeting the president of Myanmar, Thein Sein, in Oslo this week. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet
Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide greeting the president of Myanmar, Thein Sein, in Oslo this week. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

“It will be in our great mutual interests that we develop economic cooperation,” Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said during the visit by Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein. Stoltenberg also used the occasion to promote Norwegian companies including Telenor, Statoil, Yara and Jotun, all of whom are keen on establishing or further developing their interests in Myanmar and its emerging markets.

In short, it seems to be pay-back time for Myanmar, after Norway was the first country in the world to recognize Thein Sein’s new civilian government  and has forgiven debt to the tune of NOK 3.2 billion. Norway was also quick to drop economic sanctions against the military junta of which Thein Sein was a member, and Norway is the leader of the international Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), which aims to negotiate peace among Myanmar’s many ethnic groups. That’s seen as critical to the country’s stability and development.

Norway also leads the donor countries in the Peace Donor Support Group, and announced during Thein Sein’s visit this week that it was upgrading the embassy office it opened in Yangon with Denmark last fall. It had been part of the embassy in Bangkok but now will have full status as an embassy in its own right.

Given all of Norway’s support for Myanmar, it wasn’t surprising that Thein Sein visited Norway first on a swing through Europe. And he admitted that it was thanks to Norway and its debt forgiveness that other creditor nations forgave debt as well. He expressed gratitude, even though Norway also strongly supported the opposition in Myanmar during the years of the military junta. The military still has lots of power, but Norwegian leaders along with others around the world are making it clear that they expect the reform process to continue on the road to democracy.

‘Norway has everything we need’
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that Thein Sein acknowledged how Norway can contribute in many areas, not just energy.

“There are many similarities between Norway and Myanmar,” he said. “Both are small countries with great natural resources, and with large neighbours,” he added, referring to China and Russia.

“At the same time, Norway has everything we need; capital, technology and human resources,” Thein Sein said. Companies like Telenor and Statoil are more than willing to step in, and paint and chemicals company Jotun is already there. Norwegian travel companies are also launching charter tourism packages to Myanmar, with interest high among prospective Norwegian tourists.

Norway intends to use state support for Myanmar as a means of opening doors for Norwegian business interests, and will want them to remain open. Telenor wants licenses to operate in Myanmar, for example, and state agency Post og Teletilsynet (PT) has already hosted professional semnars in Myanmar to help develop systems and infrastructure.

PT director Torstein Olsen told DN that the agency can contribute towards innovation and business development but wouldn’t speculate on how that may boost Telenor’s chances for getting licenses. “If we have the resources and the foreign ministry pays, we’ll gladly contribute,” Olsen told DN. “We think this is interesting.”

Some disappointed exiles
Meanwhile, Norway’s large exile community from Myanmar was disappointed that Thein Sein didn’t accept any questions from them during a meeting on Wednesday afternoon, opting instead to merely make a brief statement before leaving. “Monologues from the authorities are unfortunately what we’ve been used to over the last several decades,” Audun Aagre, acting director of the Burma Committee n Norway, told newspaper Aftenposten.

Aagre added, however, that the meeting was worthwhile anyway because several of Thein Sein top aides stuck around and engaged in discussion with those assembled on a wide range of topics including proposed changes in the country’s constitution that would leave the military with less power.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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