Visiting Swedish Development Minister discusses development, women’s issues


Swedish Minister for Development Cooperation Isabella Lövin. Photo: Hong Sar/Mizzima

The Swedish Minister for Development Cooperation, Isabella Lövin, arrived in Myanmar yesterday to meet with development partners and ministers in the new government including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mizzima’s Editor-In-Chief and Managing Director Soe Myint sat down with her and Johan Hellenborh, Minister Counsellor, Head-of-Office to discuss development issues in Myanmar.

Soe Myint: I would like to start with Swedish/Myanmar cooperation. What would you say are Sweden’s main priorities when it comes to development in Myanmar?

Isabella Lövin: Sweden is supporting Myanmar in many ways. When it comes to development we focus on three areas, one is human rights and democracy, another is health, especially women’s health and sexual reproductive health, and the third one is peacebuilding including support for women so they can participate in negotiations and the peace process. Women are really something Sweden puts a lot of emphasis on and if you look at peace agreement of women are part of negotiations it is far more resilient and sustainable than if they are not. So basically I forget the number but there is a higher chance of relapse into conflict if women are not at the table. So Sweden has been supporting civil society, women and other organisations to have much more participation in the peace process and of course, that process is not over yet but we see great progress here in this country now and the new government is setting its new strategies and agenda. And when it comes to the peace process there will be much more progress coming and Swedish cooperation is based on a strategy that ends next year and now I here to learn and evaluate and discuss with the government further cooperation.

I know Sweden has been very active for a couple of decades in support of the democracy movement in Myanmar at that time you were outside the country or across the border. Now with the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi how will you cooperate with the new government?

Tomorrow I will meet with Aung San Suu Kyi other ministers as well this is the first time the Swedish government has met with the new government so this will be the first opportunity for us to discuss and see the way we can support the development of Myanmar under the new government. So listening because I think it is very important and I think we must encourage democratic development now taking place in Myanmar.  And there are so many where the country needs support economic development, inclusive politics, and the rule of law and building institutions and of course service delivery is extremely fundamental when it comes to building a resilient society not excluding anyone and here Sweden has a lot of experience from our own building of a welfare state. It has been a long journey we went from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to being one of the wealthiest with a booming economy with such a participation of women we are actually a feminist government. There is 50% women in the government, 50% women in parliament how did we do that well we have very active labour unions. The Swedish model involves trying to include everyone when you make decisions. In regards to service delivery, this is very important because with economic growth you don’t create an elite and leave the rest behind you have to make sure the poorest are also served whether its human rights or education or food every type of development.

You have a feminist government. When we look at the government here led by Aung San Suu Kyi we don’t have a woman minister except her. What will be your message to the government here?

I think I will bring up the issue that we are a feminist government and are pursuing a feminist foreign policy. I would be interested in learning how come there are no female ministers except her. I understand that forming a new government is a very delicate process for Myanmar at this moment so I would not like to comment on how this government looks but I would certainly advise it is good to have diversity among your government not only when it comes to ethnicity or political background but also when it comes to gender.

One of the strengths of Sweden is public administration, can you tell us more about this in terms of cooperation between the two countries?

Johan Hellenborh: We support the UNDP’s programme on the strength of governance so we don’t have a bilateral programme on governance but we support the UNDP’s country programme which includes local governance, strengthening of the structures on for example village tract administrators and also includes support for the rule of law. So we do provide support but there is no bilateral exchange of bilateral programme.

Isabella Lövin: But there is a scenario where of course we could imagine having closer cooperation but that is also in line with the new global agenda 2030.

You are one of the Nordic countries. How do you coordinate when it comes to development work in Myanmar?

I think we have the privilege of coordinating each and every day because the embassies are actually situated in the same building. So I think most of the coordination is done informally. Not all of the Nordic countries are part of the European Union, Norway is not part, but Sweden and Finland are, so we also have cooperation with the European Union and it is these close relation that lets us keep each other informed. But it is not formalised.

Johan Hellenborh: There is very little formalised cooperation. We do provide support to the same recipients sometimes. In those cases it natural to talk together and coordinate messages and strategies but most of is done very informally.

One issue is women in conflict. You mentioned about women’s participation. When you talk with the government or other stakeholders what will be your suggestions or advice?

I think women and children are the most vulnerable and they are the one who suffer most during conflict. I think it is important say not only that women are victims but they are an untapped resource that can also be the solution to the conflict. We heard today in Rakhine for instance, there are very fruitful initiatives where female leaders and women who are very active from different ethnic groups and who have been hostile with each other are meeting together and if you put them together in a matter of just a few minutes or half an hour they can say if we can meet and there is no conflict, if we can do it, then there will be no more conflict. But the men are much more difficult so the potential of women as peacemakers is huge to facilitate this process.

This is the first civilian government and there are a lot of expectations inside and outside of the country in the international community. How can we address this expectation?

You are right there are a lot of expectations and I think the international community has to understand that a peace process takes a long time. But we also see that this is a very important opportunity for the new government to open up to be much more inclusive than the former government. We have seen very positive developments with the liberation of political prisoners. Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done. I think we in the international community must show we are willing to be friends and partners. Not focussing on the problems but doing what we can to overcome the problems.

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