Switzerland was the first European country to open up an embassy in Myanmar in 2012. In the following interview, Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint talks with the Ambassador of Switzerland Mr. Paul Seger about Myanmar relations and his positive view of the democratic transition.
You engaged with the Myanmar government in 2012 by having an embassy in Yangon. Why was that important for you?
Switzerland was the first European country to open up an embassy in 2012. For us that was quite an important sign because we wanted to honour the progress towards democratisation, towards more freedoms, towards the opening Myanmar at that time. Besides this symbolic gesture we also wanted to be present in Myanmar to support the country. In the same year Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been visiting Switzerland, and had been meeting with parliamentarians and representative from government. So there was a movement of opening Myanmar and we wanted to acknowledge that.
And then two years later President Thein Sein visited. What was achieved as far as the bilateral relationship was concerned?
I would say that was an historic moment because it was the first time that a president of Burma or Myanmar visited Switzerland at all. For us it was a sign of the continued opening of Myanmar. Thus, welcoming President Thein Sein in Switzerland was a way to support the opening and the progress towards democracy, human rights and fundamental freedom. We encouraged the president to continue on that pathway. The year before, in 2013, Switzerland had included Myanmar in the list of priority countries for development. We established a development cooperation strategy until 2017, approved by government and endorsed by parliament. In short, the visit was a political gesture, but also a sign of our long-term commitment to Myanmar. Besides, such visits play an important role in establishing personal relationships. They are a good opportunity to get to know each other and exchange ideas and views. And I guess it is not a coincidence that President Thein Sein personally attended the landing of the Solar Impulse 2 airplane in Myanmar in 2015.
So when you look at the bilateral relationship over the years, what are your main priorities in Myanmar?
Myanmar is obviously still a developing country. The per capita yearly income is something around $USD 1250, which is low. Therefore, one of our main priorities consists of assisting the country in developing itself. Besides development cooperation as one of our four pillars we provide, as a second pillar, humanitarian assistance. The country has been suffering from various natural disasters such as the Cyclone Nargis or last year’s floods. So I think humanitarian assistance is still quite important. The third area where we are working actively is peace. As you know, the peace process has taken an important step with the signing of the NCA last year. From early on, we have been developing close relationships with all the main actors, thereby supporting the peace process very discreetly but I think quite effectively. Linked to the peace process stands our support for human rights, fundamental freedoms and good governance: This is pillar number four. All in all, our engagement in Myanmar consists of a comprehensive package related to peace, development, fundamental human rights and democracy.
I would like to pick up on two or three issues from the bilateral relationship. One is business. I noticed there was active engagement from Switzerland when Myanmar opened up in 2012. Are Swiss companies interested in Myanmar and what are the challenges for them?
Basically there is trade and there is investment. At this moment, both trade and investment are at a relatively low level, the reason being that the country is coming out of sixty years self-imposed isolation. That has been an impediment to both trade and investment. Presently, a quite interesting mix of Swiss firms are represented in Myanmar. There are the known big Swiss globalised firms like Nestlé, Novartis, Roche, ABB and others as well, but you also have a combination of small and medium enterprises, some of which have been here for quite a long time. They are active in tourism for instance, in consulting or in other services. While there is indeed a long-standing Swiss business presence there is room for improvement. Therefore my message to my people is that the time has come and to invest in Myanmar. I hope more companies will come from Switzerland. As a matter of fact, I have already had quite good contacts with Swiss business people in the relatively short time since my arrival. I hope that in the future even more will come and see for themselves that there are opportunities in this country.
Is there an investment protection agreement between our two countries?
So far, no. But before coming to Yangon I discussed in Berne that we could conclude an investment protection treaty with Myanmar, and maybe also a double taxation agreement. Until now, we were a little cautious since we wanted to see how the country developed politically and economically. But investment protection is certainly one of the issues we will take up with the new government to see whether there is an interest in a bilateral investment treaty.
Another issue I would like to discuss is education. Are there any scholarship programmes for people from Myanmar or an exchange program between the two countries?
Education is one of our pillars within the framework of Swiss development cooperation with Myanmar. Here, we are focussing on supporting vocational training in Myanmar. Rather than sending people to Switzerland we prefer bringing trainers and teachers to the country. Our main centre for vocational training is in Yangon, but we also have smaller regional programs, for instance in Mawlamyaing. In my country, we have a dual education system. Students go to universities like they do in Myanmar, but vocational training plays an even more important role in the training of young people. Actually, in Switzerland less than 30% of the young people go to university, which means that a large majority has training of a vocational nature. Nevertheless, Switzerland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Our experience has taught us that a strong backbone of people with a good vocational training contributes very much to national well-being and prosperity. Since we believe that this model can be interesting for Myanmar we are supporting institutions for vocational training, such as the Centre for Vocational Training (CVT) in Yangon. I am quite proud that next year a new building will be opened up, financed by Switzerland, which will quadruple the opportunities for offering vocational training. One important aspect of vocational training is hospitality training. We believe that this country has a strong potential for tourism. But since it still lacks capacity, know-how and trained staff we have partnered with the famous hospitality management school in Lucerne which is one of the most important and renowned institutions in the world. They are providing capacity-building here and training. Lastly, reverting to Mawlamyaing, we are supporting vocational training especially in Myanmar’s southeast, namely for marginalised groups of the population who would otherwise have a very difficult time finding a job, such as people with disabilities. I visited one of our centres where young people of these groups received training as carpenters, electricians, or hairdressers. Without this training these people wouldn’t be able to find a decent income. I think little by little we can give new generations a future and some.
This kind of cooperation I assume is at different levels. Not only government to government but also public/private.
That’s right. We are working with the private sector. We encourage as many private enterprises as possible to take apprentices because vocational training isn’t only about theory. It’s actually mostly hands-on. Apprentices go to school one day per week, and the rest of the time they work in private companies to get the necessary experience and the practical skills. But we also work with the government where we try to promote the adoption of common standards for vocational training. Such standardized certification means that a degree can be recognised by the industry. It is proof that the training meets high quality standards and the final exam had been done correctly. Such recognized standards are helpful for job seekers and employers alike. Young people graduating from vocational training can show that they are qualified electricians, carpenters, accountants or hotel staff.
So the same standards applies to the private sector as well.
Yes, that’s right.
What is your view on the peace process?
About two weeks after I arrived I assisted at the signing of the NCA, the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. It was an impressive and quite a proud moment to participate in that ceremony. We have been supporting the peace process very discreetly for quite some time, bringing parties together, helping them to organise the negotiations and the like. I have been working on peacebuilding in my former life as the United Nations Permanent Representative for Switzerland in New York for the past five years. So I have a little bit of experience of what it means to bring peace about. What impresses me most in Myanmar is the fact that the peace process is genuinely nationally owned. In many instances throughout the world peace is brought about through international mediation. But you have chosen a path where you say “We want to do it ourselves”. I think this is a very good and intelligent decision because you cannot impose peace from outside. Peace must be brought from within. What we can do as the international community, again speaking from my own personal experience, is trying to support your own national process as much as possible, while fully respecting the principle of national ownership. I have learned the lesson that peace support is an exercise in modesty. We can contribute something, but just so much. If we can be helpful we will. In that sense Switzerland is currently chairing the Peace Support Group, and we have recently joined the Joint Peace Fund as a donor which aims at financially supporting the peace process.
We still have fighting in some parts of the country with groups that have not signed the NCA. What is the next move forward in your opinion?
The government and the stakeholders have to decide for themselves what is best for them. It is not upon me now to give publicly any advice on how to proceed. This being said, I can add this much from my own peace-building experience: There is no such thing as linear progress in politics or peace. Successes may be followed by setbacks. One should not expect that everything runs smoothly in a linear way. What is important, however, is that the momentum goes in the right direction. I have the feeling that this is the case in Myanmar. But the peace process will nevertheless take time.
I would like to talk about sanctions are there any sanctions still imposed by Switzerland against Myanmar. If yes will there be any change in the near future?
We were actually the first European country to lift all economic sanctions in 2012. The only restriction in place – which does not only apply to Myanmar but to other countries as well - is a ban on the sale of arms and related items. But I would say that 99.9% of the sanctions are gone.
When you look at this long relationship between Switzerland and Myanmar what were the low points?
As a diplomat I obviously prefer to talk about the high points! There has been a longstanding very close friendship between Swiss people and the people of Myanmar. I have experienced that even before coming here. Proof of that are countless small, private initiatives of Swiss citizens supporting their friends in Myanmar. I think that this is sign of deep friendship, deep commitment. On the other side, let’s face it, Swiss people have always been committed to values like democracy, human rights, or fundamental freedoms. We consider these values as being part of our DNA. So the time when the people of Myanmar were suffering from military dictatorship strained our relationship, there is no denying this. On the other hand, as of 2011 and then 2012, we were one of the foremost countries to recognise the winds of change. With the opening of the embassy in 2012, with the new strategy of including Myanmar as a priority country for Swiss development cooperation in 2013, and with the visit of President Thein Sein to Switzerland in 2014 we have taken decisive steps to recognise the positive changes. I think that we are now on a much more positive pathway towards the future.
We still have human rights violations in Myanmar, we have conflicts, and we have tensions between the communities, when we look at for example Rakhine State. You have humanitarian support and human rights support. How do you position yourself in Myanmar?
Well. You mentioned Rakhine. It is interesting for me to see how nowadays not only here in Myanmar, but generally in the world, even in Europe and in my country, religion is becoming more and more of an issue. We are also struggling in Europe - and I don’t exclude my own country - how to integrate Muslims into our community. I have been visiting Rakhine at the end of March for a whole week because I wanted to see for myself how the situation is, and I have to recognize that it is really difficult. I talked to representatives of both communities and I saw the tensions, I saw the prejudices that exist, the difficulties. I see the need to bring people together. But again, I would like to share my advice directly with the competent authorities; I am not very much for making diplomacy by megaphone.
When we look at the bilateral relationship, what do you expect from the new government?
I am very confident that we will deepen and broaden our relationship which we have established over the past few years. I hope that with the further stabilization of peace and democracy the economy will pick up between our two countries, and Myanmar will further develop. From our own experience we see peace, justice, human rights and good governance as the pillars of development and for prosperity. I believe that Myanmar is now, with the new government, on an excellent path towards these pillars. With further stabilization, and with the practical implementation of these principles, I see very many opportunities for increasing cooperation. We talked about the investment treaties. There are other areas that matter. I hope personally that my national airline, Swiss (Air), will also fly to Yangon one day to further promote tourism because there is a big interest.
There are many opportunities to pick up – the economy, people-to-people contacts, bring more Swiss into Myanmar, but also bring Myanmar people to Switzerland. Actually, we will be celebrating, at the end of this year, 60 years of bilateral relations. I would like to use that opportunity to organize events in Myanmar about Switzerland, in order to promote bilateral relations.
I am actually looking forward to four years which are very interesting, very positive with a lot of new initiatives, and I am happy to count on a very dedicated team here at the embassy to do that with me.
When we look at the long road for Myanmar from military dictatorship or military rule to a kind of democracy, what do you think about the 2015 elections?
That, from my point of view, was absolutely a landmark moment. Actually, my wife and I participated as electoral observers. I vividly remember the election to this day, and I will never forget it. We got up very early in the morning, like 4 am, to visit polling stations; we visited several ones in Yangon. It was such an impressive, I would say emotional moment, when we saw people of all walks of life, of all ages, standing in line to cast their vote to exercise their democratic rights. And they did it with so much pride, national pride, joy, and excitement. That was really a strong moment. I think the whole way in which democratic change came about was quite amazing. It was done in a very civilized, orderly way. Before the election people asked: Would it work? There were some fears, there were some anxieties, but those who had misgivings or skepticism were proven wrong. The whole process of transition went very smoothly. A new chapter opened for Myanmar, and I am absolutely positive that this chapter is here to stay.
So far, what have been the moments you have enjoyed the most during your time here?
Well, there are many, many great moments. But again, the highlight for me, and I repeat myself, was that moment of the elections. I said to my wife, “we Swiss take democracy for granted, we think it is a birthright. But look at these people here! They are really showing how democracy works, how it is applied. That it takes participation and commitment to work for democracy.” Like in a marriage, or in any relationship, you need to work to make it happen; and the people made it happen. So that was really a highlight during my first seven months in Myanmar. But there are several others. I adore the beauty of the country! I have been travelling, not too much yet, but a little bit. I also have been overwhelmed by the friendliness and cordiality of the people. Friends of mine raved about how nice the people are even before we came to Myanmar, but you have to experience it to believe it.
Were you surprised by the free election and the power transfer?
It is a good question. As I said, the elections happened just a few weeks after my arrival. Basically, from the very first day that I arrived on the 1st of October, people were talking about these upcoming elections. Among the people in Myanmar but also within the diplomatic community there was, as I sensed, a mixture of excitement, but also a certain anxiety. Would these elections really be happening? Would they be free and fair and peaceful? Would they result in a stable government? Would the military respect the results? All these questions were asked, and there were some doubts whether this would really work out well. Again, all these fears which were voiced were unfounded. It really worked out quite well. Switzerland tried to contribute to it. We supported and facilitated the Code of Conduct for political parties which over 70 major political parties endorsed, thereby contributing to a more civilized way of campaigning. We also supported capacity-building, training, and the overall electoral process with the UEC, civil society, activists, and the like. In sum, we tried to play a constructive part in this process, and it turned out well. These elections were really a positive moment in Myanmar’s history.
Thank you for all the support you have been providing for all these years. Is there anything you would like to add for our viewers and readers?
I would like to finish on a note of gratitude. My wife and I have now been living seven months in Myanmar, and we have been received so warmly and so cordially by everybody we have met, Myanmar people and other friends alike. So I would really like to thank all of them for the warmth and kind reception. As I said, I have been working as the Swiss UN representative in New York before coming to Myanmar. You see, the United Nations is a unique vantage point from where you can observe how the world is working or not. In my view, there are few countries in the world where you can really see considerable positive change, and I see Myanmar among these countries. I deliberately chose to come to Myanmar to be part of that positive development, and to modestly contribute to the promotion of that positive era. In conclusion, I really look forward to very exciting and positive years.