British Ambassador discusses the massive change in Myanmar


Photo: Hong Sar/Mizzima

British Ambassador Mr. Andrew Patrick hopes to see Myanmar “firmly on the road to democracy” before he finishes his tenure in the country next year.

In a wide-ranging interview with Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint, Mr. Patrick discussed a range of issues including his hopes for the country, the democratic transition, and Britain’s aid commitment and programmes.

The interview was carried out on February 22 at the British Embassy in Yangon.

Mizzima: What are the key elements with the British relationship with Myanmar?

British Ambassador: I think the key elements of Britain’s relationship with this country obviously go back a long way. There were a lot of difficult things in that relationship and more recently a lot of positive things. At the moment our engagement is mainly about supporting the reform process here, supporting the peace process and helping people address the situation in Rakhine. So those are the main thing that we do as part of the relationship. There are people to people contacts, education is a very big element of what people in this country see as what is important about the UK. And of course there is the trade relationship which is still very small but it is growing.

You were a very keen observer of the Myanmar elections. So what do you think of the results?

Given the circumstances, given that this country hadn’t had a proper election in over fifty years they were remarkably good. Of course, they weren’t perfect and the observers from the EU made clear what the deficiencies were, but given where we started from, they really were remarkably good. I think it was a great tribute to the people of this country and the election commission that they turned out as they did.

In your opinion what lessons could Myanmar learn for future elections?

Well, that is for the election experts to look at but one obvious one was the process for registering to get on to the voter’s list which is rather complicated. There were a lot of problems about that last summer. I think in future a system which allows people to register to vote in an easier way so fewer people are left off the list is clearly a very important part of what needs to change. And obviously we have wider issues like the fact that only 75% of parliament is elected, and 25% appointed, those kinds of issues are the kinds of important issues that need to be addressed.

We will have a new government led by the NLD soon. In your opinion, what will be hardest part for them in the transition?

I think it is going to be a very tricky time, I think everybody recognises that. I think we all need to be patient and understand that it is going to take time to change a country after 50 years of military rule. Of course, it is going to take time and the military are still going to be very much part of the government, we all know that. Our hope is that the NLD and Military can find a way of working together which is why the talks that are happening at the moment between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Commander-in-Chief are so important. But if they can work together then I think there is a chance for great progress with the new government. I have been very impressed with the new parliament. I was in Nay Pyi Taw last week observing the UNDP’s induction course for new MPs and we also had a reception for the female MPs who had been elected to parliament and was very impressed by the expertise and energy of those women MPs. So I think there is a huge amount of goodwill, there is a huge amount of talent and so I am quite optimistic about the future. But of course it won’t be entirely smooth.

It appears now that the British Government has a relationship with the Myanmar military. What kinds of programmes do you have with the military and how do you see their role in Myanmar’s transition?

Well, the military has a very important role in the country because of what the constitution says. But actually in any country the military has an important role. The issue is not whether the military should have an important role or not, it is the relationship between the military and an elected civilian government. So what we’ve been doing is talking to the Burmese military about what that’s like. How an army can be popular and strong and respected but under a civilian-led government so they don’t need to lead the government they can follow a civilian administration. So the kinds of things we have been doing are courses that talk about the role of the armed forces in a democracy, issues of international law, issues around how you manage a military transition, those kind of things which are very useful for them if they think about the modernization of the military. And then in due course I hope as the political process continues as things become more normal here we can also build up that relationship to look at the more traditional aspects of the military to military relationship which is more training around military issues. We are not doing that at all at the moment. It is all about human rights, democracy, it is not about military training. But in the future that might happen if the reform process continues and if the civilian government wants that to happen.

What is the policy of arms sales to Burma?

Well, at the moment there is an EU arms embargo. It is very clear. None of the EU member states are allowed to sell arms that could be used offensively in a conflict to Burma. And as far as I know no European country has. We the UK certainly has not.

When working with the Myanmar military are you also working in coordination with other countries like for example the United States?

Well, we talk very closely of course with other countries and generally we are all working towards the same goals. So we think if you engage with the military here, you talk to them you take them out of the country, you show them things in other parts of the world in South America or South Africa, other countries that have been through transition, if you can show them this it helps them to understand the context for the transition happening here and I hope it gives a better chance that the transition happening here will be smooth.

Myanmar has a very long history with Britain. It was British colony for years. What do you think of reconciliation, especially ethnic reconciliation in Burma? In your opinion how can Burma be stronger?

Well, I think this is one of the most important issues the new government has to face. Which is how to deal with reconciliation both of course in terms of the history of the country in the mainland as it were and of course in terms of the peace process and the future for the ethnic areas. This is the most important issue. I think as an outsider we can’t dictate how that needs to happen but the process needs to have broad support and of course it needs to make the ethnic groups feel, all ethnic groups including the Bamar, feel that they have a respected role in the country that their interests are taken account of, their voices heard, the culture is respected, their language is respected. All of these things are very important. And from my conversations with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi I think she very much understands this and we are all looking forward to see how the new government is going to approach the issue.

For the last four or five years there has been a peace process. Has the British government been engaging with the Government or the ethnic groups in the process?

Well, none of the international community have been playing a mediation role, so we’ve not been getting in the middle between the government and the ethnic groups. But we have been playing a supportive role, so we and others have spent a lot of timing talking to the ethnic groups, talking to the Myanmar Peace Centre, talking to the army about how they see the peace process. And of course we have also been providing financial support to that. And I think the peace process is in a very delicate phase. The situation in northern Shan State is very concerning. There are a lot of people displaced and it is very important that that conflict is brought to an end as quickly as possible and that full humanitarian access is given.

Mizzima has been monitoring the visits of foreign delegation to Myanmar and we noticed former Prime Minister Tony Blair has been to the country a number of times and meeting both with the Government and the NLD. What can you tell us about the visits?

Well, of course Tony Blair is a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He is not connected to the current Government. So in fact he visits independently of the Embassy. He tells us when he is coming of course but we don’t get involved in his visits, so I am afraid I can’t tell you the content of his visits. You will need to ask him about that.

It appears there have not been many British investors coming to the country in the last four or five years. Why do you think that is?

Well, I think foreign investment across the board, apart from countries like Japan and China, and some other countries in the region, has so far been quite low. Obviously, Telenor and Ooredoo have come in. They are very big. Actually British investment may become very large because if gas is found off the coast of Rakhine, Shell is one of the companies with a very large number of blocks there. And if they find gas of course they will become one of the biggest investors in the country. But we won’t know that for some years.

I think there are certain challenges in this country when it comes to business. There’s a challenge around infrastructure, there’s a challenge around the legal system, education, these are the things that when you talk to businessmen they are very concerned about. And of course, until recently we had this political challenge, people didn’t really know what was going to happen. Would the transition go smoothly? It looks like the transition will go smoothly and I think what we will see after April is a lot of renewed interest from international business including British business about the country and think we will see investors coming in. We do have some big British companies here. Unilever has a factory here, and a number of others. We have a lot of British law firms come in and are working here so there is a British presence. And I am very pleased also that there are British schools coming in and I think they will make an impact.

What about the issue of Investment protection. There is a draft agreement between the EU and Myanmar but what about a bi-lateral trade agreement with the UK?

Well, in the case of the UK we would be covered by the agreement with the EU. That’s not finalised yet. We are still negotiating it. But, if they reach an agreement between the EU and Burma about investment protection, we would enjoy that protection because we are part of the EU and so we would be covered by that. I think that is one of the issues. I think one of the other issues is arbitration and the New York convention, which is a convention that allows trade disputes to be arbitrated by an international court. Burma has signed that convention and I think they have just passed the legislation. But of course there needs to be training here to make sure it can be implemented. When that is fully implemented that also will be a very positive sign for business.

Are you optimistic with the change of the new government now that just for political reasons there could be more interest from the British business and investors coming to Myanmar in the next three or four years?

Absolutely. I am sure there will be more interest. We will see a good, a huge number of British companies coming to Burma after April and having a look, looking at the prospects. And there are a lot of opportunities and our message to them is that it is a place that is well worth coming to visit, and although there may be some aspects of doing business here that are difficult, that is true of almost every country in this region. And they should come in because there are opportunities.

I would like to ask about development aid. A lot of development projects and aid you have been providing to Myanmar in the recent years. Can you tell us more about what are they and how you would like to continue these programmes in the country?

Well, we have one of the things that the reform process has allowed us to do is to increase our aid to this country enormously. So we are now the second largest bi-lateral donor. Obviously, Japan is much much bigger but we are the second biggest bi-lateral donor. And we have a budget of around $140 million, it depends on the exchange rate. That is spent on a number of areas. There is a lot of expenditure on health, so we work with something called the 3MDG Fund. We are helping to reduce the number of mothers who die in childbirth. It is helping to address tuberculosis, and it is helping to address HIV/AIDS, and it works particularly in the rural areas. So it is working in these very remote places where there may not be a doctor, just a midwife, avery basic clinic. So that is one area that we work in.

Another big area we work in is in agricultural development, so about how do you help farmers in the rural areas improve their livelihoods and how do you help them leave farming and do something else, and we have a very big programme in that area. And then we do have some programmes in education. And have placed two English-speaking teachers in almost every teacher training college in the country. So that is a very important programme. And we also have some programmes that are improving the private sector, and actually that is going to be a bigger feature in the future.

We probably will have some changes, once the new government comes in, because obviously we have to listen to what their priorities are. We don’t tell them what their priorities are. They tell us. And we may also see some changes in the size of the programme. We will announce that when the time comes.

What about the programmes, especially development projects, in the areas where conflicts and tensions are still there?

Well, we are part of something call the Joint Peace Fund, which has been set up with a number of countries including the European Union, the United States, Denmark, a number of countries contributed to this fund and the aim of that fund is to support the peace process and also to support projects in conflict areas and support the peace process.

We have to be very careful about how we do development in those conflict areas because some of the ethnic groups see development as something that is imposed on them by the government in Nay Pyi Taw, whereas it is very, very important that development in those areas is something they are consulted about and it is something they feel they can support. It is quite a tricky area, you have to approach it very carefully but we are very much involved.

You have been quite deeply involved with the social society groups in the country in different sectors. How do you view the work of the civil society groups in the country, especially during the last five years?

Well, one of the things I was amazed by when I came here was just how strong civil society was, given the country’s history and the fact that civil society was oppressed for years. It made a huge impression when I came here and found just how vibrant and energetic civil society was. I hope that will continue because I think they play an enormous part in any country in ensuring that what the government does reflects popular concerns. So I very much hope that will continue. Of course, there has been a big change because a lot of those civil society leaders are now in parliament, and so there is going to be a bit of a rearrangement. And no doubt the relationship between civil society and the new government will be a bit different from the last government. But civil society has a hugely important role to play.

A personal question. You have been really visiting around the country, I noticed that you have been with the rickshaw drivers, you have been going around the market. What are the highlights, what are the exciting moments for you all these years as ambassador here?

There are so many. There are so many. Most recently I did a wonderful journey, I was up in Loikaw. I was there on the national day, so I got to go to their celebrations, and of course I was … nobody knew who I was but everybody saw I was enormously tall, so everybody wanted a photograph with me, just because I was very tall. And then I took the train from there to Kalaw, which is a great journey. You get to talk to people on the carriage. They were so welcoming and friendly, and we just chatted about life and it was absolutely great.

As an ambassador, I think there is a great danger that you get trapped in this circle of Rangoon and Nay Pyi Taw and you see the same people and you really don’t understand the country. You have got to get out there and meet ordinary people, if you want to understand the country, and I try to do that whenever I can.

So what did you feel when you were in a market and you tried to buy fish some days ago and when you visited a refugee camp in Kachin State. How did you feel?

Well, first of all that people are very welcoming here. You get no sense of resentment. When you go to the market, everybody is very welcoming, willing to talk to you, very surprised that I speak Burmese. That always causes a laugh. And I find that wonderful. It’s perfectly friendly.

Then you go to the camps and you see people who are just as friendly and welcoming, but they have almost nothing. They are living in very cramped conditions. They don’t have enough food, they don’t have access to education, hospitals, often. And all they want to do is go back to their homes and start life again. It is terrible that they are not able to do so.

What are your expectations for the remaining time you have in the country as an ambassador?

Well, I have hopes. My hope is that when I leave, which will probably be next summer, so in a year and a half’s time, I hope we will be firmly on the road to democracy, that things will be continuing to go smoothly, that we will see the beginnings of change in terms of the lives of people in this country. Of course, it will take time. I think there are people who think that things will change very quickly after April, and of course that isn’t the case. Some things will but usually to change a country it takes many years and we must all be very patient. But in a year and a half’s time, I hope we will see the beginnings of that, will see the country is on the road to a better future.

I notice was a visit of a member of parliament who has Burmese heritage, Paul Scully. He is co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Burma, just a few days ago. How do you see this kind of visit, especially between the parliament in Britain and the parliament in this country, and also regional parliaments in Myanmar?

Well, I think that is part of the people to people contacts which are so important and which have been very much reduced over the past few decades but are now flowering again. So I hope we will see many more people come from the UK, not just people who have got a link to Burma but other people from parliament, from business, from the universities. I hope they will come. I hope they will see the situation.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the situation here in the outside world and so I encourage everybody who can to come and see the situation for themselves and they can then understand just how much the situation has changed, just how much the country has changed.

What about British tourists coming to Myanmar?

Well we are seeing British tourists every year. I hope we will continue to see more British tourists coming every year. It is a fantastic country to visit. I think it is the best country to visit in Southeast Asia, perhaps in the world. Everybody who comes here goes away with such a warm impression of the people of the country.

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