Burma at a crossroads

Gry Larsen

Gry Larsen

A speech by State Secretary Gry Larsen as she starts her trip to Burma (Myanmar).   The stated purpose is: “The purpose of the visit is to get an idea of the political situation in Myanmar before the election, through contact with humanitarian organizations, the democracy movement and the authorities.”

Today marks the start of my visit to Burma – a country that is at once one of Asia’s richest, one of its poorest, and one of its most controversial.

Burma is rich in natural resources, human capital and ethnic diversity, but many years of economic  mismanagement, armed conflicts and natural disasters have resulted in widespread poverty. The repression, the military regime and the house arrest of a Nobel Peace Laureate have made this one of the world’s most controversial countries in the eyes of the international community.

All of us who are interested in Burma must face many challenges, and Jørn Kristensen raises many interesting issues in his article in Dagsavisen on 26 March. For example, he argues for more dialogue with the Burmese regime in the hope that this will foster greater openness and economic development in the country. I share this hope, and believe that we should examine carefully whether the international community’s strategy has in fact promoted greater openness and economic and democratic development.

Norway and other countries have an important message for Burma. But how can we best get our views across? What will it take to get the junta to listen and to show respect for minorities and universal human rights? How can we best persuade Burma to follow a democratic path? The answer, I believe, is to take a broad approach through many channels. This is why the Minister of Foreign Affairs has asked me to visit Burma – to meet the Burmese authorities as well as representatives of the democracy movement, the international community and NGOs who are doing important work on the ground. If we are to exert an influence, we must do more to establish such contacts, so that we are able both to listen and to explain our views clearly.

In my meetings, I will focus on the opportunities for addressing poverty and increasing wealth. The Burmese authorities can and must take the steps needed to create growth and prosperity for a sorely tried people. For the first time in many years, the military regime has called an election, to be held this year.

The election could be an opportunity to gain international credibility and to move in a democratic direction. So far, however, there are few signs that this will be the case. I will therefore make it clear to the Burmese authorities that the democratic opposition and the various ethnic groups must be included in the election process and allowed to play a real role. Aung San Suu Kyi must be released from house arrest, all other political prisoners must also be released, and the election must be arranged in such a way as to ensure the free, fair and safe participation of the whole population.

At the same time as we set clear demands, we must also make it clear that developments in the right direction will be met in a constructive way by the international community. The Burmese authorities are at a crossroads. If they choose the way to democracy and growth, the international community will strengthen its political and economic cooperation with the country. This is what we want to happen. We must therefore consider whether our current approach is having the desired effect, whether it is fostering change.

For it is possible to exert an influence. Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma nearly two years ago, was a huge humanitarian disaster. Although there is still great need, a substantial effort has been made to help the victims. It proved possible to bring in aid through joint national and international efforts. Now we must build further on the cooperation established, encouraging the authorities to continue to facilitate humanitarian efforts and further open up the humanitarian space.

Burma will in all likelihood  continue to be rich, poor and controversial. Many people have opinions about Burma. Stability and development in the country will, not least, be of key importance for its neighbours. But it is within the country that its future will be decided. And the international community cannot refrain from engaging directly with those who are in the driving seat.

Source:  Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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