Finland’s Ambassador to Myanmar Ms Riikka Laatu recently sat down with Mizzima TV editor Myo Thant to discuss Finland’s long-standing relationship with Myanmar and the recent upgrade of the embassy in 2017. Here is the full interview.
How do you view the Finland and Myanmar relationship today?
The relationship between Finland and Myanmar is good. We established diplomatic relations in the fifties and upgraded the embassy two years ago to a fully-fledged embassy with a resident ambassador, which was a signal of our intensifying relationship.
First of all, Myanmar is one of our partner countries in bilateral development cooperation. We only have seven such countries in the world, so from that perspective Myanmar is very important for us. There are trade interests between Finland and Myanmar, and one of the tasks of the embassy is to promote trade and investment. We are of course following the political developments in Myanmar very closely. We are also a member country of the EU (European Union), and therefore fund and participate in the EU activities and political discussions and statements concerning Myanmar.
Then finally let me mention that there is a Myanmar community in Finland, quite considerable in size. The number of Finns living in Myanmar is not that large but there is a small community.
You have been here for two years. Can you tell us about the upgrade to a full embassy and why this was felt to be important for your country?
Yes, I arrived almost exactly two years ago, September 2017, and that is when Finland decided to upgrade the embassy to a fully-fledged embassy, having a resident ambassador in Myanmar. Before that the embassy in Myanmar was under the embassy in Bangkok. The reasons behind the upgrade were mainly two – one, that there was a lot of interest by the Finnish business community in Myanmar, in trade and also to some extent in investment in Myanmar. And by the way for this reason there is also a Business Finland office in Myanmar.
The other reason was, as I mentioned, that Myanmar is a very important country in our development cooperation, one of our seven partner countries, and we wanted to have a closer dialogue and closer monitoring of the development cooperation in Myanmar as well. So those were the two main reasons.
You mentioned the trade and investment conditions. Can you tell us about how this has improved?
Yes, when Myanmar started opening up about ten years ago, there was a lot of interest by the international community at large, and Finnish businesses as well. During the following years there were several delegations led by ministers with business people in the delegation who came to Myanmar to look for possibilities of doing business. Trade relations have developed after that, but investments are very limited so far. My assessment is that some of the smaller companies which came here in the delegations or otherwise to assess the business conditions found it a little bit difficult for them to establish themselves here. Some of the larger ones are present either here or in the neighbouring countries, and some of them have made good business with Myanmar.
So what should the Myanmar government do to see more investment from Finland in our country?
I know that your government is working very much on opening the economy and they have taken a number of actions. Some of the things that I hear from the Finnish businesses that I meet are to have more transparent rules and regulations, and just information on how things work here. Another issue of course is the infrastructure that is lacking, like energy, for instance.
You mention infrastructure, so light, energy?
Particularly energy is something the industries need. It is not always that reliable.
What are the core issues that your relationship focuses on?
I already mentioned some of them. Development cooperation is very important for us. We are working with Myanmar in several sectors; in education, in the use of natural resources, and also in supporting the peace process. As discussed, one of the embassy’s purposes is to support trade and investment, and also the Business Finland office is here to do that. And then the third thing that embassies do throughout the world is to follow the political developments in the country, and of course the embassy has been very much preoccupied by the Rakhine events in the past two years as they have been on the international agenda, almost weekly, at least monthly. The latest exodus of Rohingya refugees and events leading to it started just before I arrived, and have kept us busy reporting to our capital. In the meanwhile, we consider the peace process very important, and try to support it by different means.
So you mentioned you are following the peace process. Finland has been helping Myanmar with its peace process. Can you describe the type of help you provide a little bit?
Generally, whenever Finland is active in development cooperation, we try to focus on areas where we have some special expertise, or some added value that we think would be beneficial to our partner country. You might not know that we share some similar history in terms of coming out of wars. Finland was involved in two wars in the twentieth century, one was a very bloody civil war just after our independence, which was just thirty years earlier than Myanmar independence. And we managed to come out of that war, if not easily. Then we were in the Second World War, which ended by us losing a considerable part of our territory. As a result, about ten percent of the people became IPDs, and they had to be settled in the rest of the country. Based on own experience we think that peace is something very valuable in a country and we do want to support Myanmar in several ways. Money-wise our largest contribution is to the Joint Peace Fund, where we are one of the eleven donors supporting it. Other than that, we also support developing good practices in ceasefire monitoring of the nationwide ceasefire, and we support capacity development for NCA signatories, as well.
In addition, there is some support also to the constitutional process and particularly looking at how either the current constitution or future constitution could support equitable and peaceful development in this country.
So this is for the peace process. I would like to know about Finland aid to Myanmar. Can you elaborate a bit more?
Let me say something about Finnish development cooperation in general first, as this applies to all countries. The overall goal is poverty reduction and eradication of extreme poverty. The basis of our development cooperation is the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. You also have a very good sustainable development plan in Myanmar based on the same global Sustainable Development Goals, so that these goals and plans are the common ground for our development cooperation in Myanmar.
I mentioned earlier that we are trying to focus on areas where we have something special to offer, knowledge or expertise, or added value. Therefore, we have chosen three sectors where we cooperate. There is peace support, as has already been discussed. Another sector is education, where we want to support quality education. And the third one is sustainable development of natural resources.
There are some principles which we apply everywhere in the world in our development cooperation in any intervention, any project. Those are human rights, gender equality, and climate sustainability.
These things are important for our country. And another question, as you mentioned, we know that the Finland education system is very good. So I would like to know, why is it so good? Can you explain?
Yes, it is true that the Finnish students have done very well in international comparisons. There are many reasons behind that. First of all, we place a very high value on education in Finland generally. It is very much valued. And it has been one of the cornerstones in Finland’s development because we were also a very poor country in the immediate wake of the Second World War. We have invested heavily in education and value it. And it forms a large part of the national budget as well.
The second thing characteristic about the Finnish education system is that we see it as an equalizing factor in society. This means that we want to make sure that the education system helps all children to perform as well as they can. So we focus on each child to perform as well as possible. On the other hand we do not have a tradition of differentiated schools including private ones.
Another reason for the good results, which is characteristic to Finland, is that particularly when it comes to the small children, who are starting school, we believe that learning by doing is very important, so there is a lot of play involved, rather than rote learning or very formal learning. We have seen that it is actually effective.
Coming to the effectiveness, there is also a lot of investment and research because we believe that decisions on education should be based on knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work. And of course a very important element in education is the teachers. In Finland the teachers are very well educated. All of them are required to have a Master’s degree for primary teachers onward. That means that they know how to apply the best teaching methods. And they are also highly valued. Actually, teaching is one of the most sought after professions in Finland, and you have a lot of applicants for teacher training in Finland.
One more thing that I should perhaps add is that in connection with the schools and education, we have child support services, a very comprehensive public library system, and sports facilities in many places, with the aim of having a whole of society approach to education.
How is this different from another country, our country Myanmar. How different is the education system from the West?
I think our education system differs somewhat from the systems in place in many of the Western countries, and it is also different from the system in Myanmar. One of the differences is the heavy emphasis on learning by doing. The inclusiveness and equality of the education are also issues where our system differs from that in many other countries.
Is there a scholarship programme for someone in Myanmar wanting to study in Finland?
There are very few scholarships in Finland that we provide for students from anywhere in the world. The only exceptions usually would be in connection with some of the development projects we support, and even there most of the scholarships would normally be for studies within the region. However, studying in Finland has traditionally been cheap. The university studies in Finland are practically free of charge to the Finns, and a large number of universities charge very low fees for foreigners, too. We have a growing number of students coming from other countries, and universities are of high quality.
If someone wants to study in Finland what do they have to do?
There is an application process for the universities which varies from one to another. If a person is interested, the information would normally be available on the website of the universities.
How do you see the Myanmar government peace process?
First of all, it is useful to remember that in any peace process, anywhere, there are many stakeholders. All the stakeholders have to make great effort to achieve sustainable peace. By sustainable peace I mean a peace agreement which is agreeable to all the stakeholders. So, achieving peace is a joint effort where everybody has to make an effort. In Myanmar the peace process is particularly complex because the number of stakeholders is so large. You have the civilian government, Tatmadaw, the ethnic armed groups, the political parties, and the civil society. At the same time the peace process, and peace, is very important for the whole country for many reasons. For instance, if you look at Myanmar today, economic growth is good but think about what great potential there would be under peaceful conditions, in addition to the kind of progress you are making now. So, I would like to say peace is important for everybody, for people living in Yangon, and people living in other parts of the country, because it would unleash a lot more potential in the country.
There have been positive developments, of course, the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement being one of them. It is a very positive development, as has been the bi-lateral ceasefire earlier, and of course now there is also the unilateral ceasefire by the Tatmadaw. I think it would be very important to continue all and adhere to all of them because they provide space for political discussions and there are many issues to be resolved in the political process. We all know the formal political process has been very slow, but we also know there have been informal discussions taking place and you need both of them. Both of them are very important. You need both in a peace process, to discuss issues in smaller groups and settle certain issues before you come to the formal table. So, all of this is necessary.
Achieving peace is a huge task for the country. It is also hugely important, so I do wish that every stakeholder will really make a big effort. Finally I would like to commend Myanmar on the joint communique on sexual violence in conflict, and I am looking forward to an action plan on it.
How do you view the Rakhine crisis?
The very unfortunate events in August 2017 had just taken place when I arrived in Myanmar. The situation will not be easy to resolve, and it seems to be getting more difficult as time goes by. In August 2017 you had the very good report by the commission led by Kofi Annan with a balanced list of recommendations which the government has also committed to implement. These recommendations are still valid although the situation is much more difficult now with 700.000 new refugees and a number of new internally displaced persons since the recommendations were made. The Kofi Annan-led commission described the crisis as a crisis of development, a crisis of security, and a crisis of human rights. You have to address all these aspects. So, there is not a simple solution, but one of the first things to be done within Rakhine itself is to improve humanitarian access, because now there is a large number of people who need humanitarian assistance, and humanitarian actors are having restrictions in accessing them. For a long-term solution you will need all the components mentioned in the Kofi Annan report.
Then there is the other side of that problem, the refugees in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh whose situation there is totally untenable. I would be a very wise person if I had a good solution to their situation in the camps! Many professionals are working on it but there seems to be no easy solution in sight. Unfortunately, the situation is likely to deteriorate the longer it continues.
How do you view the constitutional amendment process?
The constitution is currently being discussed in the parliament, and it also is something that needs to be reviewed as part of the peace process. In any peace process you have to discuss and resolve the arrangement of power sharing and also issues of state formation. What kind of a country you want to have, what kind of governance structures do you want to have. These are all elements of a constitution. I don’t know whether the parliamentary process will lead to changes in constitution, but if this takes place or not, it will be have to be part of the peace deal eventually.
What have you learned about Myanmar during the two years you have been here?
When I came here, I knew what diplomats generally know about a country, the basics, not more than that. So, I have learnt tremendously. One of the nice things about being posted in a country as an ambassador is that you get to travel to different parts of that country and meet different kinds of people. This is one of the aspects of my job which I find very rewarding. In this way, I have learned many things I could not learn in my capital. I have met with tremendously interesting and impressive people.
Let me just mention a couple of examples. I have been meeting local women leaders in different parts of the country, leaders working at the local level. Some have been describing the very difficult situation in their communities, and I really admire their courage and tenacity in finding solutions to the problems of people in their communities.
Another example I would like to mention is the young innovators which I met when we organised the annual Nordic Day. This year the theme was innovation, and we had a number of young Myanmar people from both the business side and civil society organisations participating in a small contest on innovations. The participation showed that there is a lot of innovative capital in the country. I would be very happy to connect these kind of innovative people, businesses or organisations with some of the innovation hubs in Finland.
What do you think of the Myanmar government’s performance?
Myanmar is a poor country which is emerging from conflict and in a very difficult political situation in many ways so there are lot of challenges for the government. The NLD (National League for Democracy) government came to power for the first time so they have been facing challenges in terms of experience, as well. I trust the government is doing its best. The circumstances are not easy, their experience is short. There have been many accomplishments, and many difficulties.