New EU Ambassador lays out course for EU-Myanmar relations

26 October 2017
New EU Ambassador lays out course for EU-Myanmar relations
Ambassador of the European Union to Myanmar, Mr Kristian Schmidt

The new Ambassador of the European Union to Myanmar, Mr Kristian Schmidt, will represent the European Union in Myanmar and serve as Head of the EU Delegation in Yangon during the next four years.
Ambassador Schmidt has previously served as the Head of the European Union Delegation to Uganda and held several senior positions in the European Union's headquarters in Brussels. Ambassador Schmidt is a Danish national with extensive experience in development cooperation, security and peace-keeping matters.
In the following interview for Mizzima, the EU Ambassador discusses the priorities during his period in office.
What are your priorities as you take up your new post?
I am spending my first weeks in Myanmar listening and broadening my understanding of the challenges. You can read and study history and politics in advance, but nothing can substitute for meeting and listening to Myanmar's own voices. Our priorities are aligned with yours: As friendly "neighbours" from another continent, we Europeans have no hidden agendas in Myanmar – we are here because the aspirations of the people of Myanmar were freely and democratically expressed in the last elections.
Where were you posted before? Please can you give us an insight into your previous experience?
For the last four years, I was EU ambassador in Uganda, a country which gained independence later than Myanmar. But like Myanmar, Uganda is a country of extraordinary natural beauty, wonderful people, and a huge potential for prosperity and development – but still a country not reaching its full potential or escaping mass poverty, due to violent conflicts within and around its territory, as well as lingering doubts about commitment to deep democracy, strong and independent institutions and human rights. Different continents, but not an irrelevant background.
When Aung San Suu Kyi came to power, she made the peace process one of her first priorities. How can the EU help and what is it doing on this score?
The EU has already done a lot! I can say this with pride, because it is what Myanmar interlocutors told me in my first meetings. Peace will remain the main focus sector of EU development cooperation with Myanmar – for an obvious reason: there cannot be democracy and prosperity where there is ongoing conflict. You have such potential, and we wish to see you succeed. But Myanmar’s promise is still held back by conflicts in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin States. And let's be clear: the EU is a formal "witness", but only the Myanmar parties can negotiate and take the necessary bold decisions in the interest of the country. So our role is to encourage – and the EU currently spends more than EUR 78 million euros (MMK 125 billion) on peace initiatives across the country and in particular in the ethnic areas. We work with people on the grass-roots level on rebuilding livelihoods and strengthening inter-communal dialogue. We rebuilt schools and infrastructure in conflict affected areas.
As witnesses, our engagement includes dialogue at the highest political level where we continue to promote and support inclusive dialogue for a sustainable peace agreement. Myanmar just marked the 2nd anniversary of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), where the State Counsellor set out some strategic objectives and deadlines. I think that was important, because the NCA is of course the first step to a more inclusive peace agreement. And that is no less challenging. All peace process experts will tell you that this will continue to require a strong, structured, inclusive process, with excellent coordination between the political and the technical level. I sense that Myanmar has the required political will for sustainable peace – but the devil is in the detail, and this is where it must be attacked.
An important element of the peace process is to develop a viable federal system for the mix of ethnic groups in Myanmar. How can the EU help with this? What lessons can be learnt from experiences in Europe?
The main lesson is this: Myanmar must design its own federal model! But we have lots of experience to seek inspiration from. Federalism can be a viable choice, in particular in diverse societies in order to build peoples' trust that they are able to determine their own affairs, or in large countries to bring administration services closer to the people. What is most important in our experience is that people feel involved, part of the decisions and in charge of their own future. Different European countries are applying different models of decentralisation and self-determination continues to be a very widely discussed subject – look at the recent independence movements in several European areas like for example Catalonia in Spain or Scotland in the UK. And then of course the European Union itself is a partnership between very diverse European countries who decided to mandate the Union to regulate a number of issues coherently for all of us.
The EU is interested in empowerment and development. When we look at the development of human resources in Myanmar, how is the EU helping and what specific programmes are being run?
Myanmar is opening up to the world – not just physically, but mentally too. The onslaught of globalisation, social media, international scrutiny – this takes time to absorb, and it calls for open minds, innovation and a willingness to consider fresh ideas. Boosting Myanmar's education sector and modernising curricula and education facilities are the most important investments this country can do for a better future. Myanmar's development will also depend on how attractive it becomes as an investment location. Foreign investments create jobs, but you need an educated workforce to fill these jobs. You will also become more attractive to quality investments if your workforce is well educated and skilled.
The largest focal sector of the EU's development cooperation with Myanmar is therefore the education sector. We will be investing about EUR 241 million (more than MMK 386 billion) over the next years to reform the education sector, improve access to education and vocational training across the country, modernise curricula and teaching methods. We are also inviting academic staff and students to Europe through the EU's largest scholarship and exchange programme – "ERASMUS" to come work and study at some of the world best universities which are located in Europe.
Basic infrastructure such as roads and the electrical grid need improvement in Myanmar. What is the EU message and how is Europe and European countries helping with this challenge?
You can also see this as an opportunity: the upgrade of infrastructure and modernisation of the energy sector will create many jobs over the years to come and thus contribute substantially to the socioeconomic development of this country. From a European perspective and as one of the main advocates behind the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we would of course encourage decision makers to also see this as an opportunity for a fresh start into a "green future". The EU is one of the world leaders in renewable energy technologies, research and innovation. We stand ready to assist and share our expertise and knowhow for the establishment of a future oriented, sustainable renewal of the energy sector in Myanmar.
A crucial issue in Myanmar is health, particularly women and children. How does the EU approach this issue?
The EU has worked to help expanding access to quality health care in Myanmar for many years. We are pooling significant resources with several EU member states and other donors through the Livelihood and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT), for example to support the Department of Social Welfare in reducing chronic malnutrition across the country. The Three Millennium Development Goal Fund (3MDG), another donor fund where the EU and its member states are important contributors, works to improve maternal, newborn and child health, combat HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and strengthen the overall health system. Health and nutrition are key sectors for sustainable development and ultimately economic growth, which is why the EU remains engaged in these areas.
On 19 September, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi made a speech to the nation and the world about the crisis in Rakhine. High Representative Federica Mogherini recently urged debate. Does the EU have a public stance on this?
It was an important speech, and one we welcome for the positive commitments expressed to the values of the UN charter and respect for human rights and non-discrimination. For the EU, the first priority must be a complete stop to violence; to give access to all areas to all partners, especially so that humanitarian aid, including from the EU, can be delivered. EU High Representative Federica Mogherini has quickly and clearly condemned the attacks on 25 August on Myanmar security forces in Northern Rakhine State. At the same time, she expects security forces involved to exercise maximum restraint and to protect unarmed civilians. The EU High Representative recently called the exodus of refugees into Bangladesh "one of the most terrible refugee crises of our time", "completely unacceptable" and a risk of "destabilising the wider region". So the situation in Rakhine requires immediate action and this was also reiterated by the EU Foreign Ministers on 16 October. Let me also recall that the State Counsellor acknowledged the gravity of the situation in her speech. Therefore, Myanmar should consider the EU's public stance on this as support for the urgent and effective implementation of the intentions announced by the State Counsellor to the world and to the nation. In fact, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini recently called Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to emphasize this, as well as our offer of support for the (Kofi) Annan report.
What are your hopes for your four-year tenure?
Again, my agenda is not important. The people of Myanmar have expressed their hopes: democracy, peace and development. I sincerely hope the European Union can play a supporting role here. In fact, I am convinced we can – just as we have over the last four years and well beyond that.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes. I applied to serve in Myanmar, because like the rest of the world, I sincerely believe you can achieve something extraordinary: You can escape decades of isolation and join the community of nations with dignity and self-confidence. No-one else can do it for you – but I look forward to walking this path with you for the coming four years.