Denmark’s Ambassador to Myanmar Mr. Peter Lysholt Hansen sat down with Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint to discuss a wide range of issues including helping with programmes to improve the functioning of government and the legal system, supporting SMEs, as well as work on coastal fisheries.
The interview was carried out on February 25.
Mizzima: I would like to start with the relationship between Denmark and Myanmar which has been in existence since 1955. How would you describe this relationship, given that at some point it has not been good?
Denmark Ambassador: We established diplomatic relations in 1955 so it is 61 years we are celebrating this year. We have had for a long period very good relations overall. We provided quite a lot of support for Myanmar’s development. Then, of course, a change of the political system in Myanmar meant it was very difficult for us to work with the government of Myanmar. There was an incident with our Consul General, as you are aware, who was taken to prison, and died in prison.
This is quite a few years ago. After the opening up of Myanmar in 2011 Denmark has been strengthening our collaboration with Myanmar. Myanmar has become a priority country for Danish development assistance and we opened the embassy in 2014.
So that was the reason you opened the embassy in 2014, to accelerate the relationship?
I think there were a number of reasons for that. First of all we wanted also through this to show our support for the democratization and reform process in Myanmar, and we thought it would be a better way of doing it by having a presence here. We also, as I said, made Myanmar a priority country for our development assistance. In the longer term we hope that Danish and Myanmar businesses will increase their cooperation.
You mentioned developmental projects and business. What are the other key relationships between the two countries?
Development cooperation is an important part of our collaboration with Myanmar. We have had that in the past, and have now made Myanmar a priority country for our development cooperation. But I think there are many other relations. In fact, a lot of people from Chin State are living in Denmark, and that of course had to do with the relationship between the Protestants in Chin and in Denmark. But also, consciously we are trying to increase collaboration between Danish artists and Myanmar artists. So we are broadening our collaboration as well as our political cooperation and increasingly also our commercial collaboration.
You served as Ambassador in Vietnam for several years and you have seen the transition in Myanmar. What is your view on the transition to democracy in Myanmar?
If you take from 2011 up until today, I think a lot has happened. For example, if you look at the media which in my view is relatively free now. If you look at civil society, there is much more space now than there was before, and there are many other areas where one can say that progress has been achieved.
But of course, there is still a long way to go. But progress has certainly been made.
When you say a lot needs to be done, what about the issue of the civil-military relationship, the relationship between the military and the new government?
The fact is you have a constitution which ensures certain rights to the military. For example, as you know, the military has 25 percent of all parliamentary seats and appoints a number of ministers. So in that respect, of course, the relationship between the elected government and the military is different from most other democracies. Of course, this is a process. But I think what is, from my point of view, very important is that the elections went very well. The incoming government got a very clear mandate from the people, and I think when they come into office, they do so with the strength of the mandate of the people.
The people wanted change, they wanted a new government, and I think this is a very strong position for the new government to start from.
We will see a new government led by the National League for Democracy. In your view, what are the main hurdles for the new government?
The expectations of the people of Myanmar are very high. They want more jobs, they want a much better education system, they want a better health system, they want respect for human rights, they want a justice system which is fair, and I could go on. So the challenges, of course, are enormous, and I think everybody has to realize that you cannot solve all the challenges overnight. This is a process, it will take time. But, as I said, the incoming government of the NLD has the mandate of the people.
What could be the concrete offer from the Danish government to the new government in terms of handling or facing these challenges?
We are preparing a five-year programme for our development cooperation which we will finalize before the end of this year, where we will focus our support on a number of areas. You will not be surprised to hear that we will support the peace process, we have already given financial support to the new Joint Peace Fund that has been established by a number of donors and we plan to continue that support. We will also discuss with the new government how we can assist in developing capacity to promote the rule of law and respect for human rights. And that, of course, involves basically the whole justice system, and involves looking at how you can introduce reforms in the justice system.For us, this is a very important area. Also, how can you provide legal aid to people who need legal aid. How can you empower lawyers and others to be able to deal with and engage in reform of the justice sector and also promote an improvement in the respect for human rights.
Another area which is very important is job creation. We are planning to establish a fund that can give support to small and medium-sized enterprises to assist them in energy efficiency, deal with waste management and improve occupational safety and health, in order for them to be able to also eventually attract investors from outside the country, and export their products to Europe, including Denmark. So again, this should hopefully also create economic growth, because if you look at Myanmar’s economy, it is very much driven by big companies, but if you want to have sustainable and inclusive growth you have to grow the small and medium-sized enterprises.
Another area we are planning to support is the ability of the government system to improve the statistical evidence. If you look at the knowledge, for example, about small and medium sized companies, it is rather limited in terms of what makes them grow, what are the obstacles for them to grow, and there we would plan to work together with the Central Statistical Organization to be able to get proper evidence so that politicians can make decisions on policies based on evidence. We are also planning to support co-management in coastal fisheries. There are about three or four million people who depend on fisheries, and the fact is the marine fisheries resources are decreasing. Unless they find a way to manage the fisheries resources, many of the people who depend on it for their livelihood will become poorer and poorer. So what we would like to do, and what we are discussing with local authorities is to introduce co-management, which means that the local community will be able themselves to take responsibility for managing the fishing resources with the support of the Department of Fisheries.
So there will be direct support to the new government as well?
Absolutely. I just want to mention the last area we aim to support, which is basic education, where we are ready to assist the new government in improving access and quality of education. Both in the formal education system and also in the areas that are not covered by the formal system.
WE certainly want to engage directly with the new government and we expect to move more and more into direct collaboration with the government which is absolutely necessary.
I would like to go into more detail into the peace process. We know there has been the peace process going on, has been going on for the last four or five years, and Denmark was involved, Denmark was supporting the peace process. Can you elaborate a bit more on the role of Denmark in the peace process and what you would like to do under the new government?
Well, I think for me, also based on my experience from South Africa, Nepal, and other places the peace process has to be run by Myanmar. Foreigners cannot make peace in Myanmar. It is only the people of Myanmar who can do that. So what we are doing is facilitating what the actors in Myanmar decide to do. And for me, this is a very fundamental principle that it is the local stakeholders who have to agree because they are the ones who have to live with the peace. We can help, assist, and provide necessary financial and technical support to the extent that this is what the parties want, but it has to be an internal process.
What about the role of civil society groups in the transition in Myanmar how do you view that?
I think civil society is very much part of the peace process. Now how this unfolds depends on the individual area where you actually have conflict. There is no one size fits all. I think you have to look at what the possibilities are at the local level. But local communities have an important role to play, including when they tell armed groups or the government that they want peace.
Is there much interest for Danish companies to come and invest in Myanmar?
We have one big Danish company that has already invested here, Carlsberg. They are even brewing a local beer here, Yoma beer, as well as Carlsberg and Tuborg. So they came in very early. We also have Maersk, a big shipping company, and Arla which is producing cheese and milk powder. There are also a number of smaller Danish companies present, but I think more generally most is in a wait and see position;how will the transition unfold now and what will the policies of the new government be. So we very much hope the new government will see an interest, and I believe it will, in attracting responsible foreign investment and collaboration, in this case, between Myanmar and Danish companies.
What are the concerns that companies have when doing business in Myanmar and what can Myanmar do to attract them?
I think stability is very important and ensuring things are moving in the right direction when it comes to the whole reform and democratization process. But it is also to ensure that proper legislation is in place, that there is fair deal conditions for foreign companies. So I think a level playing field is very important for foreign companies.
What are your expectations from the new government when, for example, you want to increase bi-lateral trade or FDI for Danish companies coming to Myanmar?
I am sure that the new government will want to see Myanmar grow, because it is really in Myanmar’s interest to increase its gross national product in a way which will benefit all the people of Myanmar. And I think it is fair to say that Danish companies are very much aware of the need to ensure social corporate responsibility, good working conditions, etc. So I think it will benefit Myanmar with increased investments and trade.
If you could put a target on Bi-lateral trade between the two countries in the next five years what would it be?
I donot want to make any predictions. We would like to see more Danish companies engaged in Myanmar, but certainly also Myanmar companies coming to Denmark to see how we can increase our collaboration. We hope we will be able to facilitate this so it is a two-way street where both countries would benefit.
One of the challenges I see is capacity building and what Denmark could do in order to support or increase capacity levels in Myanmar in different sectors.
Part of our development cooperation, a very important part, will be capacity development whether it is the training of lawyers or law students at universities, whether it is capacity building for local communities or the Department of Fisheries, there will be a huge element of capacity building in whatever we are doing. Myanmar is a least developed country which it will probably remain for the next six to eight years. That gives Myanmar some privileges and I think it is very important that the new government and new companies take advantage of this. They have special access for example to the European market and I think they should use these opportunities as long as they are there.
Countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland are under the same roof, how do you coordinate in Myanmar in all the sectors?
The building you are sitting in here is a joint Nordic house and home for the Nordic diplomatic missions in Yangon. It is very much a pilot project. It is the first place in the world where we are working together and are so integrated. In this case, Norway is responsible for all administration for all four countries which is also a way of making more efficient use of our resources. But of course, another aspect of it is that since we sit so closely together, we also talk together and we coordinate. For example, on the Joint Peace Fund we now have Denmark, and Finland as contributors and hopefully also Norway will join. We are also working together in other areas. For example Sweden and Denmark are supporting the Three Millennium Goals health Trust Fund. So there are many examples of us working together.
What have been the challenges for you over the last five years when it comes to engaging with the government in power?
You’re talking about the past now. Of course, it was a situation that was quite delicate because what we wanted was to support the transition and the reform and democratization process. Therefore, there was until recently relatively limited direct cooperation with the government. That has changed over the last couple of years and now, of course, it will move forward. But there are implementation constraints. Capacity is one, but I think it is important to forward now. I think there are a lot of possibilities, but we have to be realistic of course and realise that things will not change from one day to the other. It will take time. I hope my Myanmar friends will realise that this process will take time. So be patient, but not too patient.
So it is like cautious optimism. Move forward but one should also be cautious enough to face the challenges?
Because there are many challenges. I mean we all know Myanmar has many challenges, I would say in almost all sectors which stems very much from the past so where do you start and where do you end, you cannot do everything at the same time. So the new government will also have to prioritise and say what their priorities are. For us, it is important to support these priorities to the extent that we can.
You have been in this country for a few years already, what were the highlights and most memorable events so far?
The Election Day was very special. I observed it. I was down in the Yangon area in the Muslim areas, I was out at a military barracks. And I think what was really fascinating was that people were really patient.It was very well organised,maybe due to the fact that it was women to a large extent who were really in charge of the voting process. But it was a nice experience. I was in South Africa during the first elections in 1994 and it was the same kind of feeling. You could feel people realised that suddenly they had a chance to vote. They all came out [in Myanmar] and they showed they had had their finger down in the ink. I think it was very encouraging. But also very recently, two weeks ago, I was in Rakhine, in Sittwe in some of the rural districts and in Maungdaw and we all know there are a lot of challenges in Rakhine but it was nice to see that in some areas the Muslims and the Rakhine live together, work together, trade together. So it is not all negative in Rakhine, there are also positive things. I talked with civil society organisations from both sides who told me they want to rebuild trust, rebuild relations so that was a very good experience.
You mentioned South Africa. Let me ask you about the issue of national reconciliation in Myanmar. What are you views on national reconciliation in Myanmar in comparison with countries like South Africa?
Well I think one has to be very clear that each country has its own history and one should be careful not to take experience from other countries without knowing the specific context. I think in Myanmar we have a specific situation.You are in the middle of a transition which will hopefully go very, but for the time being in my view it is the transition that is important. If you can combine this with national reconciliation that would be fantastic and I think this is what the new government would want to do.
Is there anything you would like to add for our readers and viewers?
My basic view is that you can be very proud of your country. I think Myanmar has tremendous potential and I also think that the people of Myanmar has decided and made it very clear, which way you want to move forward and I just wish that you will succeed.