Norway’s King Harald V said on Friday that he was “very sorry” to learn that authorities in Myanmar had forcibly evicted poor families from a riverside location in Mandalay, just so they could host an elaborate and, for the royals, unwanted, public welcome ceremony.
The Norwegian monarch and Queen Sonja arrived in Mandalay by boat after a cruise up the Irrawaddy River that followed the official portion of their state visit to Myanmar this week. The Norwegian royal couple had requested a private, low-key reception in Mandalay and that’s what Norwegian authorities thought they had agreed with their counterparts in Myanmar when the royal visit was being planned.
Instead, local authorities in Myanmar changed the arrival site for the royals’ boat, moving it to an area where poor families lived along the river. Local newspaper The Irrawaddy reported that the impoverished “squatters” were ordered to destroy their own homes and leave the area, after which bulldozers removed whatever was left, clearing the area of any sign of a slum before the royals arrived.
“We haven’t asked for this at all,” King Harald told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “We were supposed to have a private reception here, but this is something they wanted.”
The royal couple from Norway, which has donated large amounts of foreign aid to Myanmar over the years to help combat poverty in the country, were ending what King Harald called an otherwise “fantastic” five-day trip to Myanmar in Mandalay. They arrived, though, to an unexpected, large welcoming committee led by local officials who had “cleaned up” the riverside area, and replaced its poor residents with children in uniforms waving flags and others dressed in various ethnic costumes.
NRK reported that it was hardly possible to see another nearby slum area because large trucks had been parked along its border. A local author had told The Irrawaddy that the government officials in Myanmar are “ashamed” of the poverty that exists in the country and wanted to hide it from the Norwegian royals.
Asked whether he had seen any of the poverty-stricken Myanmar during his visit, King Harald replied that “I haven’t been able to see very much. We have been ashore, but we mostly have seen what’s along the river here. Otherwise it has been a fantastic visit.”
The royals had little choice on Friday but to smile and accept the awkward situation that met them in Mandalay. Norway’s new embassy in Myanmar has been asked by the Norwegian foreign ministry in Oslo to take up the Norwegians’ dissatisfaction with how the royal program was changed and clarify what happened. The Norwegians were expected to make it clear that they never would have wanted local residents to be uprooted on their behalf.
“I think we have to accept that they (the Myanmar authorities) are in a period of democratization, and that perhaps this is evidence that they still have a long way to go,” King Harald told NRK.