Interview: Former Norwegian PM urges action on Burma

Dec 12, 2008 (DVB), Former Norwegian premier Kjell Magne Bondevik expressed his hopes for a democratic transition in Burma but said a fair election could not be held in the current circumstances, in an interview with DVB.

Bondevik was prime minister of Norway from 1997 to 2000 and from 2001 to 2005, and is now president of the Oslo Centre for Peace and Human Rights.

He was one of 112 former world leaders who signed a letter to United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon last week urging him to visit Burma to secure the release of political prisoners and calling on the UN Security Council to take concrete action on Burma.

Bondevik spoke to DVB yesterday at the Oslo Centre about his work promoting freedom and democracy for Burma and his hopes for the release of detained National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners.

DVB: What was the purpose of getting former world leaders together for this appeal and what encouraged you to do so?

The main purpose of this appeal to the secretary-general of the UN Ban Ki-moon is to release all the political prisoners of Burma, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We know that the number of prisoners has increased over the last year and now there are more than 2000 and that is an unacceptable situation. And we know there is a lack of democracy, of freedom, of human rights in Burma and we want to contribute, to focus on that and to encourage the UN secretary-general to take concrete action.

DVB: Ban Ki-moon rejected the call of former world leaders to go to Burma, saying he would not go until he could expect his visit to be productive. What do you think about this and what will steps will you take next?

I know after having talked with secretary-general Ban Ki-moon that he will continuously consider when the time is right to go to Burma , and I hope that he will have acceptable conditions for going to the country as soon as possible , which we of course can understand. He also stated that the letter he received from us was highly impressive and constructive and he called a meeting of the so-called Group of Friends within the framework of the UN. So I think that it has already brought an increased focus on the situation and that now the UN will consider concrete action.

And the next step should be in my view that the secretary-general find the conditions in place to go and to increase the pressure on the junta to release the political prisoners. But that is only the first step in the process towards democracy in the country. The next step should be of course a real dialogue between the democratic movement, the ethnic groups and the junta, and a new writing of the constitution and elections which must be based on a free and fair platform towards full democracy.

DVB: In the letter, the former world leaders called on the UN Security Council to take further action. Do you think this is realistic given that China and Russia can use their veto powers to prevent any action?

I acknowledge that this is a challenge and we know that these countries have vetoed a former resolution from the Security Council about Burma, but we must not give up. We must go further on and also have a dialogue with these key countries in order to convince them that we need a stronger message from the UN. I plan to go to China next year after an invitation from the country, and one of the main purposes for such a visit will be to discuss with them what can be done regarding Burma because it is my view that it is in the interest of China, and also of countries like India and Russia, to have a development in Burma towards democracy because it's also a problem for China that you have this situation in a neighbouring country like Burma.

DVB: You have said that you will go to China soon and democratic changes in Burma are unlikely to happen without China's support. How did you try to convince China while you were prime minister of Norway?

I have been working for freedom and democracy in Burma over many years; before I was prime minister, when I was prime minister, and now after in the capacity of being president of the Oslo Centre for Peace and Human Rights. I have also been in contact with the Chinese authorities over many years about this issue. When I was prime minister I paid an official visit to China and Burma was one of the issues I raised with my colleagues in the country. We discussed it, we didn't fully agree, but I will continue my engagement towards China.

DVB: How do you respond to those who say that former world leaders cannot do anything for Burma, or who ask why these leaders could not bring about change in Burma?

I think we should welcome such an appeal and the effort of dignitaries like the 112 who have signed this letter to secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. They are still influential and they can still contribute to focus on the situation in Burma which is too often forgotten in the world community of today. [This could be seen when] Ban Ki-moon said that it was highly impressive and called a meeting of the Group of Friends in the UN. Many of these ex-leaders still have good contact with the current leaders, they have contact with the secretary-general, so I don't think we should underestimate the influence of ex-leaders. Of course, many of us could have done even more when we were in office but I think we should welcome their contribution and I think it's almost a world record that as many as 112 have signed such an appeal.

DVB: You and other former world leaders are calling for the release of political prisoners in Burma, but the junta is increasing arrests and focusing on the 2010 election. Do you think the junta will go ahead with their plans?

In my view, in the current situation, an election now, under these conditions, will not be free and fair because they have made a constitution without engaging and involving the democratic movement. They have called an election but excluded some very important people from running in the election, among them Aung San Suu Kyi because she was married to a foreigner and so on. So under these circumstances there is no reason for an election. An election must come after a democratic process where all the main players are included. So I will call upon the junta to now start a process of dialogue, to rewrite the constitution where the democratic movement can contribute and on that platform later on, when the time is right, have an election. I know that the democratic movement is also willing to compromise, to have a transition government towards full democracy. The junta should welcome such a possibility, because sooner or later there will be a change in Burma. I have no doubt at all. It's only a question of time.

DVB: What are your views on the 2010 election and the previous election in 1990?The 1990 election was a free and fair election, and we know the outcome. The NLD was the winner, had a great majority in the parliament elected, and Aung San Suu Kyi was the real leader. So it's unacceptable that the winners of the election were not allowed to take office. We must remember that we have an elected parliament of Burma, we have an elected leader of Burma, and we should come back to a situation where they are allowed to take office. But in spite of that, they are willing now to discuss compromises and a transition over to a more normal situation and that should be met by the current regime.

DVB: You met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi once in Rangoon and you served as Norway's prime minister for several years. Now you have turned your back on politics and focus on international peace issues. But Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest. What do you think about this?

It's very sad. I had the pleasure of meeting Aung San Suu Kyi back in January 1997, half a year before I took office as prime minister. I will never forget that meeting. We had a long and good discussion and I promised her and I promised myself that I will contribute to the fight for freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi, for the people of Burma, for democracy in the country as long as it's necessary and it's still absolutely necessary. The situation has worsened and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for most of the years since then.

I really look forward to the day when she will be released. The world community must not accept that she in fact is in prison and we look forward to the day when she will come to Oslo, the capital of Norway, to give her Nobel speech. She is the only Nobel laureate under house arrest and she's the only Nobel laureate who has not been able to come and give her Nobel speech. I'm sure she'd be very welcome and I look forward to meeting her again and I want to encourage her to stand on. I'm so impressed by her courage and how she's committed to the fight for her people.

DVB: Yesterday there was a big ceremony of the Nobel peace laureate here in Oslo. Unfortunately the 1991 laureate could not come to that ceremony because she is under house arrest. Do you think she will be able to come here one day?

I do hope and I also believe that one day she will come. It's not too late. Every year when I attend this ceremony, sitting in the city hall in Oslo , a beautiful venue , I always think about Aung San Suu Kyi. When a new Nobel laureate is taking the floor to receive their prize, at the same time I also think of Aung San Suu Kyi, that she should have been there. And when the Nobel laureates give their speeches every year, I think of Aung San Suu Kyi. She should have been also on this podium giving her speech. And I hope that the world community will never forget that this must take place and I will try to contribute, together with others, to make this possible one day.

DVB: What would your message be to Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma?

Dear Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, I want to assure you that you are not forgotten by the free and democratic world. I will never forget when we met back in 1997. I have tried to contribute to the work for your release, for freedom for your people, for human rights and democracy and I want to assure you that we will also here at the Oslo Centre for Peace and Human Rights continue our work, our efforts in this regard and I'm so impressed by how you go on with your struggle for your people and one day I really hope to see you again and I do hope to see you in Oslo. You deserve to come here and to give your Nobel speech. You really deserve that prize. You are the real elected leader of the country and many of us will work so that you can one day take the position that you are elected to.

Interview by Nay Htoo

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