Erik Solheim: 'Junta is wary of Norway'

Erik Solhiem, Norway’s minister for environment and international development, visited Burma last month where he met with government officials, civil society groups and National League for Democracy (NLD) members. He tells DVB that engagement with the ruling junta must be stepped up, as well as increasing dialogue with all political actors in the country.

What was the main objective of your trip?

The main objective was to observe the effect of the assistance Norway has given to people after cyclone Nargis [in May 2008]: whether money was properly distributed to people and if shelter was constructed and schools rehabilitated. Then of course we wanted dialogue with all parts of Burmese society – the government, civil society, as well as opposition representatives, such as the National League for Democracy (NLD). There was this, but also we wanted to forward our ideas about the future of Burma.

And you met with the higher officers of Naypyidaw too?

We met with three different ministers – agriculture, foreign affairs and social affairs – and some deputy ministers. But not Than Shwe. We had a good dialogue – clearly we differ on substantial issues. I asked them to release Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners, and on such issues we do not agree. We did agree on important issues, on climate change – they are very much concerned with climate change, and the drought in the dry zone of Myanmar – and Norway and Myanmar can cooperate globally in the fight against climate change.

What was their exact response to your question about releasing Aung San Suu Kyi?

Their answer was that according to their definitions, there are no political prisoners in Burma, since those who are in prison have broken the law. We have a different view and I said that the most important issue is not their fine-tuned definition but that [elections] should be conducted in free and fair atmosphere. I also said it would be very useful if foreign observers can be invited to look into the way the election is conducted.

Did you see any progress in the Nargis area?

I could only visit a few places: what we saw on the one hand was that a lot of good work has been done in the recovery, but also you saw widespread poverty – that is obviously one of the challenges for Burma; that the country is much poorer than neighbours like Thailand and China. When you visit the countryside in these two countries you see widespread affluence coming up, while still in Burma there are very poor people who can’t send children to school because they can’t afford to pay for the uniform or schoolbooks. And they needed the income from the children.

We understand you gave 400 million kroner [US$62 million] to Nargis?

I can’t give the exact figure, but we have been one of the biggest foreign donors to Burma after the cyclone – I think 10 percent has been provided by Norway. We are satisfied with the results in the sense that progress has been made. But the [international] amount for Nargis is still very small compared with the amount Haiti received after the earthquake.

Do you have another programme for Burma apart from the Nargis one; a student exchange, for example?

At the moment we don’t have any particular programme of that kind, but we are ready to invite Burmese students to Norway. However there is of course a language problem which makes it easier for them to go to the US than to Norway. Learning the Norwegian language takes a lot of time.

Generally speaking are you satisfied with your trip to Burma?

I’m generally satisfied but of course clearly Burma has huge challenges ahead from my perspective: the two main challenges is to move towards democracy – they need to build democratic institutions, to have free and fair elections that are open to all inhabitants, and that political prisoners are released. The big challenge is to move towards rapid development – so many people are suffering and their lives should be uplifted. What the government has achieved is that there is peace largely in all parts of the country and ceasefire agreements have been reached with most of the insurgent groups and on the basis of peace, Burma should now move towards democracy and towards affluence.

You’ve said before that sanctions should be removed. What evidence did you see of sanctions failing?

Our view is that we want to work in accordance with the wishes of the EU and US and other Western powers to find the right way to influence developments in Burma in a positive way. We believe in political dialogue; we have dialogue with a lot of governments that we disagree politically with. We should have dialogue also with Burma. That dialogue has to include both the government, civil society, but as well Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD – it cannot be one-sided dialogue, it should include all major political actors in the land.

What do you think of the upcoming election in Burma?

We respect both these groups who have decided to take part in the election, as well as the NLD which has decided not to take part in the elections. It’s their decision and we respect both. We understand that some groups will not want to take part in the elections because they don’t respect the electoral law and a number of political actors say this may be a step in the right direction so want to participate. And we find people who have spent 15 or 20 years in prison take both views, so we don’t want to be the judge.

What do you think about the NLD’s decision on this election?

There is absolutely no doubt that the NLD was the true winner of the 1990 elections and should have been able to form a government after those elections. It is now 20 years post, so it is up to the NLD to decide the future of the movement but we will continue to have dialogue with the NLD leaders, whether they form an NGO or just as individuals – what path they want to take is their business and we will continue to meet with them when we visit Burma, and to meet with the government. I had a long two-hour discussion with U Tin Oo and U Win Tin and other leaders, and we asked to be granted access to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Do you still believe the engagement process is better for Burma?

I definitely think that political dialogue and engagement is the better way; engagement can also be combined with sanctions, not just either/or. Norway is part of sanctions which are applied by the EU, but at the same time we are engaging with all actors – the government, civil society, those actors taking part in elections – but clearly Aung San Suu Kyi is a great a symbol of democracy in Burma, as is the NLD.

One person said that Norway is not the best friend of the Burmese regime because it gave the Nobel prize to Aung San Suu Kyi and allowed DVB to work from here. What do you think?

That’s very clearly right – when you meet some government officials they are very sceptical toward Norway because DVB is broadcast from here. You also of course find people who are opposed to the Peace prize to Aung San Suu Kyi, but these are all part of Norwegian political tradition – we support press freedom, so that’s why we accept DVB. That’s not to say we agree to everything broadcast on that channel – we do not agree with things broadcast from many channels in Norway. So that is part of our historical tradition to accept that. The Norwegian Nobel committee is completely independent – it’s their decision to award the peace prize to Aung San Suu Kyi and I think that was also accepted by the world at that time.

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