Mizzima editor-in-chief Soe Myint speaks exclusively to Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini about peace, trade, aid, freedom of media, and the role of the military in Myanmar’s transition.
Soe Myint: When you look at the bilateral relationship [between Myanmar and Finland],in your opinion, what could be the main priorities between the two nations, especially given that we have a new government in power recently?
Timo Soini: First, I want to say that we are committing support to Myanmar and that you have come a long way. And there is still a long way to go.
We want to cooperate with you, discuss with you, and also it would be very very good to create personal friendships and knowledge at a local level.
And of course the chances to increase commerce – exports and imports – is very important. And we can help, maybe in the education system, Finland is number one in many ways. [With regard to] the education system and also the freedom of press, these kind of structures are very important; but of course the initiative and the will and the passion must come from Myanmar.
But we are ready to help if we can, provide any assistance on this matter, and of course we appreciate very much what is happening – the right direction with human rights. There are still shortages, we know that. But to get civil governments functioning, that is democracy, and we hope that it is going the right way.
And then there are NGOs. It’s very important that civil society and the people as a whole, and it’s a very feasible field to nourish cooperation, not just at an upper level, but also at an NGO level. And one of the good signs is that obviously you [Mizzima, the media] are here, so that is a kind of confidence-building, and you will know more about us and we will have the chance to discuss and ask you about the questions.
In my opinion, Finland was very cautious, even though it supported the opening act of the country, Myanmar, while you were working with the previous government. How will you now position yourself with the new government, because that is the first time for a civilian government in more than five decades?
Of course, Finland is ready to work with all democratically elected governments and that is also the situation in the other houses of parliament. I am now in the government, and last time I was leader of the opposition, and I have been an opposition politician all my life, except the last year when we won the elections and gained the government.
I think that true democracy needs two things: the first is that you should win the elections and have the support of the people, but then another thing is very essential, and that is that those who lost the elections admit that we lost in honest and democratic elections, and let them now govern because they won the elections.
But next time, we can have it. And that is one of the biggest challenges in our societies. That if there is an outcome, in many places, people who lost the election don’t accept it. They say that there was something wrong with it, something bad with it. And of course if there is malfeasance in the elections, then the case is serious. But if people just change their opinion and want to have another government, that’s democracy, and I’d rather like to win the elections than lose, but I have been the leader of the party for 19 years. So I have both good days and bad days.
You’ve been supporting the peace process in Myanmar. In your opinion, what were the challenges in the peace process? And how should it go ahead?
That is not an easy question. But usually in this kind of situation the building of trust, dialogue and that confidence-building is very important, because usually when you have a conflict or a challenging situation it requires two things. First, you have the will to really agree, and then all the participants must feel that ending the conflict, and the building of confidence, is better than carrying on in the way that exists at the moment. And these are kind of the precautions that are matters of utmost importance to get into.
And that requires good nerves, in order to keep on knocking when there are going to be setbacks, when there are going to be disappointments. And it’s good to know that it cannot turn overnight.
I’m also a passionate man. In my youth I was radical; I really wanted things to happen quickly. And sometimes I am a bit frustrated that it didn’t come as quickly as I wanted. But when you keep on going, then it gradually is happening, and that is what I call patience.
But that doesn’t mean you are giving up your principles, your aspirations, and ideas and dreams. You must just work for them. It’s not easy, but that is why it is a kind of process – a democratic and peaceful process – because in a process there are different stages, and we must always be very concentrated that we are not going downhill.
What would you say the role of the military is in the transition in Myanmar?
Of course in democracy, the military takes orders from the prime minister, president, and so forth. This is also the society in Finland that every man has to go to the army. We have compulsory conscription, and that means every man must be there from six months to one year.
I have been there and as a diplomatic advisor, and it wasn’t great fun at all those moments because it was minus-20 and freezing, and you were in the woods. But that is the Finnish tradition.
Of course when it was war, the Second World War, then the professionals delivered the job. But now when we have peace, the army is in the barracks and if they have something to say, they vote. But they cannot do anything else; they just follow the orders of the elected government.
And I can easily imagine that when there has been a military junta, in a way, in Myanmar, then it’s not very easy to go back,
And still you must have security structures in order that the country does not get into turmoil or domestic violence, and so forth.
Balancing this will be a great challenge, but I am very confident that you can handle it.
Government aid seems to be a very important area with Finland’s relationship with Myanmar. So, can you elaborate more on what kind of programmes and specific issues you would like to be working on in Myanmar, with different stakeholders?
Of course, schooling is one, and another is the empowering of women and girls. I think every nation that neglects girls is missing half of its potential. And that is why we in Finland also encourage women to deliver. And also, every man, including us, we have a mother. And mothers are very influential; that is why they are very important to confidence-building and also in the modern societies.
And of course then there is health care. It’s very important to find the structures so that you are treated because of your diagnosis and sickness – not by a wallet.
And that is very important: that you get these structures right.
And of course the responsibility is for the men or the people. But if we can help and say what has been working in Finland, this can be, in a way, exported. But it cannot come up here [indicates a high level], it must come as basic things for people.
Usually people, if you treat them well, and give them a chance, and give them schooling and give them a pen, and maybe now there is this [unclear]. So these are the essential things.
But what we don’t want to do: we don’t want to teach what your beliefs are, how do you believe; and we don’t want to get rid of your traditions. It’s your country. But if we can connect these issues then I think we can help.
You mentioned the increase in ties between the two countries, but there is no ambassador level in Yangon. So how would you like to upgrade?
There will be. There will be upgrades.
I would like to discuss a little bit about trade.
Finland is very good in education, also in IT – information technology. What are the kind of interests that Finnish companies would like to have in Myanmar? And what could be the challenges for them, in your opinion?
Of course, you are a big country in population – a lot of consuming power and you will go upwards, so that is also business challenges for us. Clean tech is one, environmental sustainable energy solutions, of course IT. And you have a lot of workforce. And I know that, in that sense, to find the firms and the workforce – and the local knowledge, local know-how; how the markets and how the society in Myanmar works, it is then very essential to convince our businesses that it is safe, that it is not corrupted, it is functioning, it is delivering, that it is secure to invest in Myanmar. That is how the job is going to be done.
How do you place Myanmar within your work in Southeast Asia or South Asia?
When we look at the neighbourhood, of course we notice that there are also security issues with the South China Sea and between the countries. And that is what I always urge everybody to do – to have a dialogue. And then sometimes, the interests are contradicted; but always to convince that going together is the better way than going together [unclear].
But it will be the sure thing. And of course the local economy and ASEAN, and that those kind of treaties and agreements are necessary.
We are proud, and I’m sure you must be proud as well, that Finland is number one in the world.
Yeah, in freedom of expression.
We have a media reform process continuing in the country. So what kind of support or assistance do you think you could offer or advise to a country like Myanmar?
It’s of course a democratic structure that you must be safe when you are a journalist. But you must also be truthful when you are a journalist, you must seek the truth, tell the truth, not be a loudspeaker of propaganda. That is very important. And also in order to get a better society – also the decision-makers and politicians and ministers should be challenged. That is the only way.
And the people here are very media-critical, and if they notice that the journalists are not delivering a proper job, they don’t buy those papers; they just say that this is not the way.
So, be truthful, be tough, but be fair.