Outgoing EU Ambassador discusses Europe’s bold engagement with Myanmar

24 August 2017
Outgoing EU Ambassador discusses Europe’s bold engagement with Myanmar

"The key to a Golden Future is peace," according to outgoing EU Ambassador Roland Kobia.
EU Ambassador Mr Roland Kobia sat down with Mizzima Editor in Chief Soe Myint at the end of his four-year tenure in Myanmar to discuss his hopes and concerns for the country as it struggles through a difficult transition to durable peace and full-fledged democracy.
What have you learnt and what has your experience been in the last four years as EU Ambassador?
I have learned a lot in and from Myanmar. During my four years here, and particularly as the first resident Ambassador of the European Union in the country, I had the privilege of witnessing a fascinating period of deep political change, the beginnings of a multi-facetted democratic transition process. As a European, you perhaps think that you have a pretty good idea about what it means to live in a culturally and ethnically diverse society. But as I was living here, I realized that I still have so much to learn about Myanmar’s complex and fascinating culture, arts, traditions, and religions. At a personal level, having been here with my family and children, many memories will stay with me for the rest of my life. Myanmar and its people will always have a special place in my heart.
How do you assess the relationship between the EU and its Member States and Myanmar over the last four to five years?
When I arrived, we were at the very beginning of the normalization of our relationship. Sanctions had just been lifted and the best trade regime the EU can propose had been offered to Myanmar. Four years later, we see a very strong partnership between Myanmar and the European Union and its member states with the country. A trusted relationship with deep links into Myanmar society in all its diversity and its different constituencies: the government, the parliament, the judiciary, the ethnic groups, civil society, the media. We have tried to share what has made Europe a peace success story: a sense of togetherness, of shared purpose, of working together alongside each other in order to address challenges as best as we can.
To a large extent thanks also to the work of the member states of the European Union that are present here we have built a strong friendship with Myanmar that allows us to be frank and open. Sometimes we disagree, always with respect. But we both know that our efforts are geared towards supporting a highly complex transition that will need time, patience and perseverance. The EU aims to be a lasting supportive partner, trying to lend a helping hand that is there to be taken.
We continue to have faith in Myanmar's ability to move ahead the transition towards a democratic, peaceful and prosperous country. From our own history in Europe we understand that this process cannot be completed overnight. We understand that people sometimes get frustrated and would like the transition to advance much faster. But sometimes it is useful to pause and reflect on how far this country has already come in record time. Of course, a lot of work still remains to be done, many challenges still need to be addressed but the overall direction of travel has been positive since 2011. The EU will certainly continue supporting Myanmar to the best of our ability.
Let’s look at the positive developments in the last four years. In your opinion, what are the main milestones that the EU has been able to work with Myanmar contributing to Myanmar democracy a very difficult path and focusing on particular areas, because there are many priorities, so what are these milestones and the EU’s cooperation with Myanmar on the road to democracy?
It is always difficult to reduce the complexity of this transition to milestones. It is in fact in-between those milestones that a lot of hard work and a lot of less visible progress happen. Milestones are important symbols, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. I would also like to stress right at the outset that the credit for the achievement of any milestones over the past years is not for us, the international community, it is for the Myanmar people. They have been the actors of change through decades of silent or very vocal struggle. They have been the drivers for a better future for Myanmar. All the merit goes to the Myanmar people, and I feel very strongly about that.
That said, one of the milestones that I think the EU was able to positively contribute to were the 2015 elections. And this concerned not only election day itself with the EU sending the biggest international monitoring mission, but most importantly the significant month-long preparations for these elections as well as the aftermath and ultimately the very dignified transfer of power to a new government elected by the people. The EU was intensely engaged  in the preparation of the elections, having worked with the Union Election Commission since 2012. I am convinced that the EU election observation mission has had a positive impact on the election results being accepted. Election day will certainly  remain a particularly fond memory.  I went out there myself as an election observer on voting day. The smiles I saw on peoples’ faces and their huge enthusiasm are something I will never forget.
We have paid a lot of attention on the peace process. After all, the EU itself was conceived as a peace-making and peace-building project which is why we strongly believe we have something to contribute based on our own experience. The support we have provided to the peace process from its very early beginnings and the trust we have build with all parties to the conflict was formally recognized when we were invited to be a witness to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015. I think that was truly a powerful recognition for all the political commitment and practical support that the EU had brought, but we also saw it as an encouragement to continue our support to the peace process. As you know, the EU is a political actor that promotes peace around the globe, and just like State Counsellour Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the EU received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. Supporting peace in Myanmar will therefore certainly remain high on the EU's agenda if the government, the army and the ethnic groups allow us to offer the best of what we can contribute.
There have been many important moments over the past four years, and it is difficult to mention them all. What has been extremely important for me personally is to establish and nourish close contacts with the Myanmar people, beyond the official dialogue with the government and political leaders. I have tried to meet frequently with members of civil society during all my visits to Myanmar's 14 States and Regions. The same goes for the media. Trust-building at the human level has always been very important to me and I hope we have gotten to know each other better. Understanding and mutual respect are the necessary steps to friendship and peace.
With regard to the major challenges Myanmar had and have today such as the peace process. In the near future how do you see the peace process?
The EU was very glad to see that the new administration has immediately embraced the peace process as its top priority. I think that was an important signal to send at the very outset of this new government. And let’s not forget that the previous administration under President U Thein Sein had put a lot of effort into the peace process that deserves to be remembered.
In August 2016, the first “21st Century Panglong” Peace Conference was organised – a highly symbolic event that was well attended by Myanmar’s many armed ethnic groups in a clear show of support for her new democratically elected Government. The second Panglong Conference organized only recently saw the participation of some ethnic groups that were previously regarded “off-limits”. Other groups, however, were not represented for a variety of reasons.
I think it is fair to say that the Government recognizes that one of the biggest challenges is the lack of inclusiveness of the NCA – many armed ethnic groups remain outside the peace process, there is a profound and persistent lack of trust on all sides and fighting on the ground continues in many areas, imposing suffering on the people.
But peace is not only about ending armed hostilities. Ending the fighting is without any doubt very important, but a peace process also necessitates a complex political process that is needed in order to address long-standing grievances, build trust among the parties and ensure that peace will last. To be successful, this process will need to involve all stakeholders, government, military, ethnic groups, political parties, civil society - all the different constituencies involved in building the future democratic federal state that Myanmar aspires to become.
We hope that the international community can play a useful role in supporting this nationally-led process. There is a lot of experience from elsewhere, both in the region and beyond, that we believe can be useful to inform Myanmar’s peace process and political dialogue. Myanmar's Peace contains its specific features, but no peace process is totally different from others in history, so one can learn in listening to other experiences.
Now of course we are worried about the current state of play in the peace process, notably the continued fighting, the renewed conflict in many areas, the difficulties and lack of trust that exists between the different actors, between the army and the ethnic groups, the government, but also among the ethnic groups. We have seen a realignment of positions and shifting ethnic alliances in recent months that have resulted in an incredibly complex landscape with a variety of negotiation positions. This fragmentation will make the task of achieving peace much harder if it continues down that trend. Our fundamental concern is that the distrust between a number of constituencies seems to be growing rather than decreasing. This is of concern because there will be no peace as long as the parties do not trust each other.
We believe that the government, the army and the ethnic groups have to continue the work. The process is still alive, which is the most important thing. There are meetings, there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes, and this to me is the most important thing. Communication channels between many of the conflict actors are still open and the process formally continues despite all the problems. But I think we are at a crossroads now and there needs to be an honest joint reflection on how the peace process could be improved in the future. And maybe more clarity on the direction and destination of the process.
A worst case scenario would certainly be if some key actors start walking away from the peace process. We need to find a way for the parties to get closer to each other, to build trust, to create space for compromises and concessions.
Peace needs to be looked at in a holistic manner. It is about defining a common future. There are discussions about federalism and the future structure of a federal democratic Union of Myanmar. If that’s where the journey is headed, there is a need to define - in a transparent, clear manner - a road map that people around the negotiating table can buy into.
And Peace is a wide concept that encompasses many things, including inter-communal relations in Rakhine for instance and managing the past to better build the future, one of the reasons why a Fact-Finding Mission was proposed.
Looking back four years ago, when you came in, and now after doing quite a lot of work here in Myanmar including in the peace process, helping and contributing and support the peace process, are you leaving with more worries, more concerns of the peace process or the near future of the peace building or are you optimistic about the process?
If I wasn’t leaving with concerns, it would be naïve because there are still many things that remain to be done in this country. But I always say I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I fall into another category which I would call "optimalist", i.e. someone who does not always dream about perfection or expects things to fall out of the sky, but someone who tries to work with what is there on the table and makes the best of it. We have a peace process in place, so we should use it, maximize it, and make sure it’s well supported and steered into the right direction.
Overall it seems to me that there is still, no least among the population, a great willingness to stop this longstanding war that has brought decades of suffering for the people. And I think all the players from the ethnic regions, from the central government, from the army, should listen to the aspirations of their people. Wherever I have travelled in this country, one thing I have heard everywhere is that people want peace, they are tired of war, they are tired of poverty as a consequence of war, they are tired of being oppressed by strong regimes, they want more freedom and democracy. But democracy and socio-economic development can only happen if you have peace. The leaders have to listen to that and some will have to put vested interests aside in order to respond to the legitimate aspirations of the people. Some do not want peace, we know who they are, and something should be done about that. The Golden Land of Myanmar will only have a golden future once there is peace.
I would like to talk about business, especially the cooperation between countries in the EU and Myanmar. I noticed an enthusiastic approach from countries in Europe to Myanmar a few years ago. Has there been a drop in interest?
Many European companies have set up a presence in Myanmar over the last months and years, there are ongoing investments, joint ventures, cooperation, job creation. But of course a number of companies are still waiting to see how the country will develop more precisely. There is still need for more clarity about the real economic orientations and policies. This is the reason why you do not see this ‘gold rush’ that many had expected. And that raises a very interesting point: it shows that – just as I pointed out before in the context of the peace process – we should not only look at specific issues alone, we should not look at sectors independently. We need to analyse things in a holistic way. The economy is intrinsically linked to politics and democratic performance, to social standards, freedom and human rights. The economy is also linked to the availability of adequate infrastructure. So, one of the reasons why there might be less of an appetite for companies to invest than we would have expected is because companies are still waiting to see what the political future of this country holds. Some of them are worried because they see persistent conflict in parts of the country. Conflict and inter-communal tensions are hampering investments because they create uncertainty, unpredictability. The more political stability there will be, the more Myanmar will attract businesses, investors and job-creators. Investors will look at the framework conditions and evaluate whether the environment is conducive for business, with adequate infrastructure, electricity, skilled labour, access to banking and legal security in place.
Once predictability increases, I am sure that Myanmar will attract massive investment from European companies European companies do not only bring world class technology and know-how, but also best practices, international standards and corporate social responsibility. You could even call it a certain “vision for society” – for which they don’t have a particular mandate that but this is what they bring in their luggage because this is the way they operate everywhere in the world.
There is an incredible complementarity between the Myanmar economy and the European economy. Myanmar is competing with many Asian countries: you by and large produce similar things – rice, agricultural products, fisheries, garments. But you do not compete with European companies and the European economy, there is almost no sector where there is competition. It is only complementarity. European companies can bring to Myanmar what you need: technology, equipment, machinery, know-how. Myanmar brings to Europe what we need in terms of raw materials, agricultural products, fisheries, garments, etc. So there is a beautiful marriage between the two economies where the two of them are not competing but are collaborating for mutual benefit.
EU has been providing assistance and aid to certain areas, certain sectors including agriculture, health and education for Myanmar for some years very effectively. But do you assess the effectiveness of this aid in the way Myanmar is utilizing this aid and assistance for better governance for better transition for better establishing institutions, how do you assess what the EU has been supporting to Myanmar in these areas?
Well, I sincerely hope that the people of Myanmar are assessing our support as positive. Together with the member states of the European Union we have tried to focus on the most important sectors. Admittedly there is a lot to do in Myanmar, so we need to focus in order to be efficient. And there is a really good division of labour between member states of the European Union, and our partners like the United Nations. We have tried to concentrate on the areas where we believe we can truly make a difference to peoples’ lives and can have a real impact.
We have focused on education as a priority number one, through both financial support and political dialogue with the government. The recent national education strategy plan that was adopted by this government has been completed with support from the European Union. As much as it is important to focus on physical infrastructure like new roads, new bridges or new power plants you also need to build the "software", invest in peoples’ brainpower, this is what is going to change Myanmar in the future. Education and vocational training is what will ultimately inject real momentum into the Myanmar economy.
Another priority is agriculture. Seventy percent of the population live in rural areas but the sector’s contribution to overall GDP is disproportionately small. Myanmar has huge agricultural potential and could be a veritable motor in the Southeast Asia region as regards agro-based industries. But to unleash this potential, the agricultural sector urgently needs reform. You need comprehensive land reform, mechanisation, increased agricultural productivity, access to finance and skills development for farmers. But the underlying fundamentals are positive and there is enormous potential in this sector which is why we have given it priority as regards EU support.
I would also like to highlight some areas of our work where we have taken risks. Even though it was an unpopular issue for a while, it was necessary, for instance, to start working on police reform early on in the transition process. The EU has been criticized sometimes by ill-informed people that we were helping the police and thereby supporting the oppression of the people. I think it was both necessary and appropriate to work with the police because in any democratic system you need a modern professional police force which is there to protect the people and to be at the service of Myanmar’s citizens. Some people have failed to understand this fundamental rationale but we are continuing with this project because we strongly believe it is a very important contribution that the EU can make.
Together with our member states, the European Union has aimed at focusing on transformational issues with a tangible impact, even when they were difficult, sensitive, and sometimes unpopular. There are many other things but our time is limited.
I have one personal question. If we have to take out one moment that you will really remember that you will really cherish that you have spent in Myanmar is there any such moment that you will really remember for long for you and your family in Myanmar?
I think the Election Day was a very moving moment. I was observing the elections in Yangon during the whole day until the counting at night. I strongly felt that was a moment when history was being made in front of our eyes. These were the first free and open democratic elections for a long time in Myanmar, and perhaps the best. You could see a new era being shepherded in, democracy being built in real-time. And what has touched me most was the incredibly positive attitude of all the people I came in contact with that day, both those working in the polling stations and the people who were coming to vote with all their enthusiasm and happiness. There were many other memorable moments, but this one is the one I will remember the most.
I saw you with the rickshaw drivers, I saw you with different people including the leaders, I have seen really a lot with you and I think you enjoy being here. And I would like to take this opportunity to thank you personally and the EU for all these things you have done. You have been doing a lot for the people of Myanmar and the country. Is there anything you would like to tell to our viewers and readers?
I remember the rickshaw story circulated a lot of interest on the internet and it is also a good memory for me. I always enjoyed meeting people from all paths of life, from the highest political levels to the rickshaw driver, with whom I had this wonderful experience. He told me that this is the first time ever that a customer swapped sides with him and drove him. He was so happy that he gave me his hat as a present – I still have it and will take it with me to Europe as a cherished memory.
Another memorable moment was during the floods in 2016. I visited several of the flood affected communities, with my trousers rolled up to my knees. Diplomacy is not all about formal receptions and meeting politicians. It is also about listening to your hosts – the people of this country - and thereby maybe contributing to relieving their pain at least a little.
As I leave Myanmar my biggest hope is to see the country one day valuing and cherishing its rich diversity. Myanmar is an incredible place, a beautiful, fascinating country. And one of the sources of its beauty is indeed its diversity. It is because people in the north, south, west, east, and in the centre, are different. They dress differently, they speak different languages, they have different ideas, they eat different foods. This is a wonderful treasure. I hope that Myanmar will develop a true sense of belonging, of togetherness and nationhood, a Myanmar identity – rather than fighting each other. This nation-building, is very, very important for the future of the country. It is when there will be enough mutual respect and appreciation for all the people, all the races, all the religions, all the ethnic groups to live together in enough harmony to avoid war again.
This togetherness will make Myanmar even stronger. Myanmar is a medium-sized country, 50 million, it is big but not huge. And if you leave aside 40 percent of the population, well, you are left with so much less. Therefore, I think the best way to promote socio-economic development, to regain your place in the international community as a strong Asian country will be to treasure and embrace your diversity, and to bind together all the forces of the nation to achieve a common national goal. This diversity and richness is today seen as a challenge, but I believe it is in fact Myanmar’s biggest asset.