In the following exclusive interview, Mizzima Editor in Chief Soe Myint talks with visiting Finland Foreign Minister Mr Timo Soini about Myanmar’s challenges, aid, and education programmes.
I believe this your first visit to Myanmar. What brought you here?
Yes. This is my first visit to Myanmar and there are various reasons to come. Of course, I wanted to come over and that is the main reason. And of course, Finland’s relations with Myanmar have now been upgraded. We opened, officially, our embassy here yesterday (November 21). We had a permanent mission here but now we upgraded this as an embassy, and that is very important, that shows the importance of the cooperation of our two countries.
Then, of course, there is a lot development aid going on with Myanmar and Finland, that is also very important. Then this big ASEM meeting was taking place in your capital, lot of European Union ministers, lot of Asian ministers, also present and that was one of the reasons as well. And of course, when Myanmar is now on the path of the new future in a way with this democratic process and we want to be helpful if help is needed or if we can do something together.
I am aware that you had a number of important meetings with the authorities here, including with the State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In your bilateral meetings, what was the main focus and issue that you discussed?
It was a very good meeting with her. It was good and frank and honest. Straight talk. We were discussing about cooperation and development issues, education, forestry, all kinds of business, imports and exports opportunities. Then of course, the peace process and then of course the situation in Rakhine, and our message to the State Counsellor was we have to end violence, we must guarantee the access of humanitarian aid agencies in the region and got the negotiation process ongoing to get rid of this problem and also to allow those people to get back to their homes.
In terms of the peace process, what is your suggestion of advice for the Myanmar government, not only in Rakhine, but also in conflicts elsewhere in the country?
I think that Kofi Annan’s suggestions and that structure is very important. We know the situation is complex, we know there is a background for each conflict and I was a little bit surprised that there are so many minorities, one hundred and thirty, and there have been roughly fifteen to twenty conflicts ongoing all the time. So that is the situation which requires a lot of commitment, lot of will, but also will from the other side. It is usually very complicated situation if the other side doesn’t want to negotiate. But now I have heard that this process is in a way fragile, there is will to get things sorted out, that is very important from the international point of view and that perspective because Myanmar is a fine country with a lot of natural resources, a lot of workforce, you can go places, but without stableness, without rule of law, without peace existing and prevailing, that cannot be obtained. But if these basic things can be sorted out, I don’t see any obstacles for your country to prosper in the future.
In terms of democratic process, we have been in the democratic process for six or seven years, and there are challenges, apart from the constitutional limitations, so how do you see Myanmar’s challenges while there are issues like conflicts, the tension, the economy. One is the process of democratization but there are also day to day challenges. How can Myanmar manage this so that this transition succeeds?
I would say one word which is required and that is trust. You must trust to each other and I know there are different political parties and then there is the Army and there is a history of this situation. And the trust is very important and what are we going to use the trust for is to get the country on a better situation. But also, we known, and I know as a politician, the power is very powerful thing that those who have power want usually to keep it and we believe that the power lies within the people’s will and that is why the free and legal and fair elections are so important because through that voting system and democratic system you find out what is the will of the people and you cannot decide it from a bow and say this is the will of the people. You must have confidence enough to let people decide and then, because of that basis, then to go further. And it takes time. Finland is now celebrating 100 years of our independence and where we got our independence, the first thing that happened in Finland was civil war. It was awful. A lot of people were killed. But we learned from that and we haven’t done that mistake again, because if there is no stableness, if there is no trust, there wouldn’t be a good future. That is very outspokenly said but that is my personal view. And that is why I encourage every section of Myanmar society to trust the people and adopt so good solutions and so good policies that people would vote for you, that people would opt in for you.
How did you manage to build this trust and amongst the very diverse and very different backgrounds of the different stakeholders?
It was a few things, what we realized, what our ancestors, fathers, grandfathers, mothers, realized and they thought, okay, where there are the roots of this kind of conflicts and one of that was inequality. And then we decided that access to the school for every boy and every girl is very important. Same token, access to the health care for all people is a basic need and that should be fulfilled and then we got by step by step to enabling people to have chances to access the healthcare, access to schooling, equality between man and woman, and so forth, and gradually people noticed that, okay, it is up to us and then the very big thing is rule of law, irrespective of your background, it is rule of law that prevails, not rule of laws, so if you go to court and you are right, whether you have money or power or not you will get justice. And by this we learned that.
Then of course it was very horrible war against the Soviet Union in the Second World War but our country was united and that was why we were able to defend each other irrespective of our wealth and background and so forth. And from that onwards we have been going from the right direction also economically and prosperity wise. And we nowadays are a strong democracy where elections can change those people who are in power. I used to be an opposition leader for 18 years, one-eight years, it is a long time. But then when we vote, when we run enough, now we are in the government. But we know that in the next government we may not be, and that is the lesson of democracy is that the one thing is that you win the elections and the other thing is that those who lost recognize that we lost this time. But when there is a just system you know that, okay, I lost this time but I can win next time and if there is that trust, then you can accept your loss because you think that, okay, next time I will win.
Finland excels at education. Are there any specific programmes in terms of education between Myanmar and Finland and what can Myanmar could gain from Finland’s competence in this field?
Education is one of the biggest things we are cooperating with Myanmar here in our development aid and that is very important and both girls and boys have that opportunity because education is the way that the social, of increasing the social chances and so forth. And that means the teachers should be good. The basic thing is that if what you really need in the classroom is teacher and pupil. All the tablets and computers, they are fine but they are something to use with a qualified teacher. And when the teacher is trustful and innovative then the young people want to learn and that drive to learn is very important. I have seen in different parts of the world when people, when young children can run even kilometres per day to school. In our society, we are taking a taxi to take them to school if it is more than three kilometres and I think that is a riddle with exaggeration but that is what I think that when you are well motivated and where there is a good teacher and good schemes which also leads to somewhere, that your basic schooling is so good that you can then apply in the universities in your own country or worldwide because there are a lot of people also who are studying abroad but if the basic educational system is rotten, you cannot qualify.
Are there any specific programs that Finland and Myanmar can cooperate on like education?
I think so that there, I am not a specialist in education, but we have specialist working here and I met some of them in the reception hosted by the Finnish Embassy because we are now celebrating 100 years of independence and we know we are at relatively early stages but we can do a lot in that sense.
Another issue is that Myanmar would really like to learn from Finland is the building of skills is there anything you could suggest for Myanmar?
The whole philosophy is very important because now you cannot trust that when I learnt something from an early age that it would guarantee me a job for example for forty or fifty years. Learning when you are working combined with learning on courses sponsored by your employer it is extremely important and if you are a very wise employer you understand the biggest resource in you firm is your people it is them motivating for them to give them the chance for development of their skills and new levels. Of course, I don’t know the details of these schemes but I know the principle and that principle is very good. When I started in politics I didn’t know anything about computers, internet came 1995 and I was the vice chair of the party in 1999. So, I have to learn all those mobile phones and whatever new skill we have had. The one thing is you are encouraged to learn yourself but it should also be guaranteed that you can have courses or help to make your skills stronger. And also, languages are quite important for communication I have noticed that people who are working with computers, even the very young people they seem at least to learn English. But the first thing of course is you mother language, that is the most important language and then comes others which are also important but the language is about identity.
As you are aware Myanmar is facing a tremendous challenge in handling the Rakhine issue, both with international media and an image issue. How do you see Myanmar’s challenges and how can it best manage them?
This is a matter of utmost importance and seriousness because it was in the Finnish papers that I would travel over and the message was OK what will our Foreign Minister say about it and how can we stop this tragedy. And of course, when we met the State Councillor not only privately but also with European Union ministers we said that whatever the reasons are we must stop violence, to kill people is totally unacceptable, you must guarantee access to humanitarian aid and you must create condition for the refugees to come back to their homes. And of course, that needs for example agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar, maybe and MoU, some kind of agreement. I won’t appear optimistic, I must say this very clearly because it is important how this situation is handled, otherwise it will overshadow Myanmar as a country and you have such an amount of potential and natural resources in this country, even if it had some historical background facts we cannot know but we can see the outcome doesn’t look very good at the moment and as a friend of Myanmar, and Finland is a friend of Myanmar, I feel a responsibility to say it to fix this together with the international community and that is why the peace process negotiations are very important and that is why Rakhine is also very important to be sorted out. If you can deliver in that sense the international community will know and will trust Myanmar.
What do you think about increasing trade between Finland and Myanmar?
I am extremely pleased that our embassy hosted this 100 years reception yesterday because practically all the Finnish firms that work here were present and I had a lot of different cards in my pocket from business people and I was amazed by how many firms were here already. For example, Nokia is here, some travel agents are here some people working with the water supply systems, NGO’s, and so forth. So, there is a good start. But the challenges are to know and adapt, to understand how things should be carried out. It has had a good start for example communication is very important. Here’s in Yangon I understand that mobile phones are functioning very well and connectivity is quite good. But when you go outside the capital there are difficulties and that is something that Nokia is best at in the world.
And the business chances are there. Forestry, you have a lot of reserves and trees, that other countries do not possess so there is a lot that can be done in that sector as well as engineering, ICT, there are a lot of chances and we know in Finland the rivalry will be big. I see there is a lot of building here, construction sites in the capital and I am sure business chances are big and this is my message to Europe and Finland that if we don’t take our business seriously there are other people Chinese people are here already. We must have good products but with high morals to compete and earn our place in Myanmar’s economy. And also, there is hope there are 2000 Burmese people in Finland so I also hope there are some specialist people with connections who can help us provide and do business with you.
What is the most memorable moment you have had in Myanmar?
There are lot of good memories I took a flight from the capital here and had a look and I was wondering how much untouched nature there was, what kind of wildlife is there. I imagined that at some time I can get rid of this working outfit and have spare time here. Food is also very good. And of course, the celebration today of opening our embassy and celebrating 100 years of Finnish independence and I was really pleased how many Myanmar people took part in the celebration the was minister there and also lots of people who are friends of Finland. One of the nicest moments was this morning when I got to swim at the hotel outdoors and the whole city was waking up, I was awake already, that was a fine moment.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think that first and foremost I thank Myanmar for having me here, I have had a very good visit and I have been treated very well with ample amount of acceptance and warmth. I must say it has been a positive visit and with friends you can also discuss difficulties and we must be honest in that sense that there are problems to be solved and must take them seriously, that is the way forward.