Myanmar tried to hide its poverty

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Norway’s foreign ministry was lodging a complaint with authorities in Myanmar, after learning that poor families were forced to move out of a riverside slum area in Mandalay so that the area could be “cleaned up” before King Harald and Queen Sonja arrived by boat on Friday. Norwegian officials had no idea their counterparts in Myanmar would try to hide the country’s poverty by dislocating an entire community.

King Harald and Queen Sonja began their state visit earlier this week and it was to end quietly in Mandalay. Instead, local authorities uprooted local residents and put the unknowing royals in an extremely awkward position. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

King Harald and Queen Sonja began their state visit earlier this week and it was to end quietly in Mandalay. Instead, local authorities uprooted local residents and put the unknowing royals in an extremely awkward position. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

“This is unfortunate and extremely misunderstood to put a glossy picture on things,” Øyvind Halleraker, a member of the foreign affairs and defense committee in Parliament, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “Myanmar is a poor country and it is this poverty that Norway wants to address.”

Halleraker, of the Conservative Party, said that Myanmar “clearly has a completely different attitude towards openness than what we’re used to in Norway. It is very sad that the royal couple didn’t get to see the way Myanmar actually is.”

Foreign ministry officials were upset as well. “Poverty isn’t something you can hide away,” Frode Andersen, communications chief for the ministry, told NRK. “It’s a problem  you need to solve through development, and that’s why Norway has engaged itself in Myanmar.”

King Harald and Queen Sonja were invited to Myanmar by its president, Thein Sein, who visited Norway earlier this year. One critic said the authorities in Myanmar are "too ashamed" of local poverty to let important foreign visitors see it. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

King Harald and Queen Sonja were invited to Myanmar by its president, Thein Sein, who visited Norway earlier this year. One critic said the authorities in Myanmar, many of whom enjoy a great degree of privilege and opulence, are “too ashamed” of local poverty to let important foreign visitors see it. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

The royals have been on a state visit to Myanmar this week, which ended with a boat ride up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay. King Harald said on NRK’s national nightly newscast on Wednesday that they both looked forward “to see the country” as the boat slowly sailed towards Mandalay.

Instead their boat was to tie up next to a recently bulldozed area that had been cleared of the slum where families had been living as late as last month. Local newspaper Irrawaddy revealed Thursday that local authorities had ordered the poor families living in the area to destroy their own makeshift homes and leave, allegedly so they wouldn’t “blight the landscape” when the royals arrived.

After they’d been evicted, local officials literally bulldozed the area, turning it into a large,  flat open space next to the river. Some flowers were planted and a jetty set up with flags from both Norway and Myanmar.

Norwegian officials were surprised and disturbed by the news. Andersen said that foreign ministry officials had carefully gone over the royals’ program with their counterparts in Myanmar and expected that what they’d agreed upon would be followed. The Norwegians  were unaware that plans were changed and that people had been dislocated. “This was unknown for us, and it shouldn’t have been done,” Andersen told NRK.

Andersen said the Norwegian diplomats had “neither seen nor approved the concrete landing spot” where the royals were due to dock on Friday, and had instead agreed on a “modest” arrival in Mandalay at a completely different place. He said Norwegian officials  were contacting the authorities in Myanmar “to clarify what has happened here.”

The royals were not told about the change in their arrival plans or the forced relocation of the poor riverside dwellers either. Calls were already going out in Norway that those evicted be given compensation, and that Norwegian officials should make sure that happens. “The Royal Palace and Norwegian authorities should in general take up human rights problems when they see them,” Iver Ørstavik of the Rafto Foundation told NRK. It was the Rafto Foundation that awarded Aung San Suu Kyi its Rafto Prize and nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize, which put the international spotlight on Burma’s fate.

Irrawaddy reported that most of the people who were evicted were given little time to move. Many work at the harbor in Mandalay, reportedly had nowhere to go and were “sleeping on the sand around the jetty.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund