Italian Ambassador Mr Pier Giorgio Aliberti recently talked to Mizzima about Italy-Myanmar ties, high-level visits, and the ongoing transition to democracy in Myanmar.
Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint interviewed the Ambassador on March 25.
What are the key elements in the bilateral relationship between Italy and Myanmar?
I think Italy and Myanmar have a lot in common. We both have a very long history, we are ancient civilizations. We are beautiful countries. We like similar things. We like families, food, culture, last but not least football, so I think it’s easy to get along well. I think that culture, in particular, is a very important aspect of our bilateral relations. Italy, as Myanmar, is full of very old religious sites: churches there and pagodas here in Myanmar. Both countries are very rich in cultural heritage, which means a huge potential for tourism.
I think Myanmar has to do more in terms of developing and exploiting this potential, so I think we are going to help you with that. I would say the perspective through a cultural prism is very important for us. And then, of course, we have a lot of strong political relations, strong economic relations. But I think the cultural aspect is something very specific to our bilateral relations, also in our development cooperation activities, which are of course another key element of our presence here. Think for instance about the UNESCO World Heritage list. We helped Myanmar have its first site listed (Pyu Cities), now we are working to get a second one (Bagan) in the list.
When it comes to Italy’s engagement with Myanmar how much of this it state to state in comparison to that of the European Union’s engagement with Myanmar?
Italy is one of the six founding members of the European Union, so we have a long history and we are one of the staunchest believers in the project. It is a complex and unique endeavour, it is not an international organisation, but a supranational entity, so basically we give some sovereignty to the European Union in Brussels. When there is a project decided by the European Union, Italy is part of it. This means that we all support the project, so 28 member states support these projects all together. Consider that around 13% of all EU funds come from Italian taxpayers, so, of course, we have a clear say in it. Having said that, of course, Italy and the other member states have their own specialty, their own expertise, and their own preferences. In particular, Italy is very active in development cooperation in three main sectors: rural development, governance and support to small and medium size enterprises, especially in the field of sustainable tourism and cultural heritage. We are coming back to what I was saying before in terms of culture and cultural heritage. We have more expertise in these fields, so we are sharing our experience in these areas. In certain aspects, we act through bilateral means, directly or through UN organisations or Italian NGOs. And of course, in other aspects, we are supporting EU activities. I would say we work in parallel with them. But when you think about the EU, it is not just a separate entity or just another delegation, it is all 28 member states. Actually, the contribution of the EU as such is much bigger than most people think: it’s the 28 Member States plus the EU Delegation.
When it comes to the economy can you tell us about bilateral trade and services between Italy and Myanmar?
I think we are clearly under the potential we could have, I am convinced we can do more. It is one of the priority areas in which I want to work, I think we can do much more. Now we are among the top 15 trade partners, our trade exchange is around US$ 120 million and we have a surplus of around US$ 70 million. I definitely think we have to do more. In terms of goods, we mostly import garments, fish and rice and we sell machinery, agricultural machines, vehicles and some other stuff. Agricultural machinery, in particular, is very strong in this country where there are lots of tractors and lots of machines. You have to consider that Italy is the second most industrialised country in Europe. It the second exporter in EU after Germany, so we are ahead of other important member states because we have a strong industry traditionally.
We were hit by the financial crisis in 2008-9 which lasted a bit long, but we are still very strong, so I think we could do more both in terms of trade and investment.
Last year there was an Italian products expo in Yangon how did that go?
This is a good example of the interest of Italian companies. There were around one hundred Italian companies represented, so it was a very positive starting point. This year we would like to do something more specific as that was a more generic exhibition. I believe we need to go into more specific sectors. At the end of the year, in November-December, there will be two important exhibitions, one on food and the other one in the home construction business. Within these two events, there will be two specific Italian fairs on the same sectors because food and home are very important for us. Everybody knows about Italian food, but we are strong also on home design, architecture, and we would like to do more.
I also have a rather ambitious plan for Italian culture. We are organising more activities and a new program which is called ‘Italy in Myanmar 2016’, which will be launched in the next few weeks so I am sure you will see much more Italian culture here in the next few months.
How do you see the relationship between our two countries over the next few years?
We would like to have a much more integrated approach and try to present Italy as it is. Many of the people here don’t know Italy because they haven’t had a chance to visit. There might be some people who think Europe is all the same and when they go there they realise how different are the different countries. My idea is to present Italy in a broader way. As I said before, we have good food, a rich culture, beautiful movies, amazing architecture and design, so I want to show more of that. And also, we mentioned football, we would like to do more in terms of sports because sport unites people, it is good for children. So, we are in talks with the Myanmar Football Federation and the Italian Football Federation in order to facilitate some training activities, some exchanges, because this is also part of creating a stronger capacity. This in a way is capacity building, and sport is very important, also from an economic perspective. I think all these efforts should come together, in order to present a more integrated picture of Italy.
We do intend culture in a wider sense, not just in a traditional way, but including also activities such as sports or cuisine. Some people think that food is something that you eat just to survive, but it is also part of a cultural experience. For instance, we plan to bring here a very good chef from Italy, in order to share our experience. That is the idea, to let people in Myanmar know what is the quality of Italian life, what is the Italian lifestyle, apart from all the industrial machinery that we can export here. It is a wider concept of Italian culture.
The Italian government has been giving training for some Myanmar officials especially in the field of industry, can you tell us something about these training programmes?
As I mentioned before, we believe very much in capacity building, not so much because we want to teach something in a patronising way, but because we like to share our experience. Capacity building is a key aspect for us. We have been active on various fronts through UNIDO, a UN organisation, and we are financing projects trying to help young people, women, and small and medium size enterprises, to do more. In this context, we have managed to have some training activities in Italy in different sectors, such as tourism but also lacquers in Bagan, weavers and some other things. Also, some Italian companies, such as ENI, which is a major oil and gas company, are financing some training activities in Italy for government officials. Let me also mention that we are very glad and proud that we are facilitating a sponsorship for a young chef going to Italy to probably the best Italian cooking school.
Finally, a word on students. I am very proud we now have an Italian department at the Yangon University of Foreign Languages. We are planning to do more in the field of tourism which we believe is also very important for the future, but it needs to be sustainable tourism. It needs to be done a proper way, and we have some ideas to develop this.
I would like to ask your opinion about Myanmar politics. You witnessed the recent elections. What do you think about the elections and also the result?
I was really very, very happy to be part of the EU observers’ mission and it was a wonderful day for democracy. I was there early in the morning, before six o’clock, and you had long queues of people who wished to cast their votes. Old people, young people, all ages, all generations. I think it was a really incredible experience. And I think the result was that elections were, generally speaking, free and fair, with some irregularities, yes, but altogether a positive example of democracy. And also, right now what we are seeing is that there are very positive signs in the way of democracy, creating a transition government trying to aim at national reconciliation, which is very important.
We know this country has a lot of problems. You can mention many of them, in terms of ethnic conflicts, injustice, disrespect of the rule of law, but right now all the elements are there for a positive democratic development, so it is a very important step ahead. And I am very confident there will be a positive future.
That does not mean there will not be challenges. It is going to be very tough, very difficult for the new government to overcome all the challenges, particularly because expectations are so high. We tell people in Europe, you have to manage expectations. You can’t think that from day one everything will change. But I think some good signals are important, just to show that things are improving, things are changing. And we need to give some space to the new government. We cannot expect the new government from day one to change everything, we have to help them, and we have to be there, on their side, trying to assist them as much as possible. I would say more importantly to give them some space, some political space to go in the right direction.
The outset of the government is quite impressive, it is something very clear, it is more streamlined, more focused than before, with a very strong leadership. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will have many responsibilities, she will be the leader as we all know. It is a strong signal of leadership, it is very clear who is going to be in charge, which I think is very important for donors, for businessmen, in a way we are here to look at what is happening with a very positive spirit, a very supportive spirit.
When it comes to the challenges Myanmar faces, is there any role that Italy can play in the peace process?
I think that peace is a crucial aspect, and since my arrival, I have been active in this field. We are now part of the Peace Support Group, and we are finalizing our participation in the Joint Peace Fund. Why? Because I think peace is crucial for the future of this country. As I said before, ethnic conflicts have been going on for too many decades. It is impossible to have a normal life with these conflicts. So I think peace is crucial for the new government. It is a huge challenge. I believe the new era, the new environment could be positive in this sense. Some of the non-signatories Ethnic Armed Organizations are now more open to the possibility of signing the NCA agreement, and I think there is a big opportunity not to be missed. I think the new government has a good chance, a good opportunity, and when it comes to the table, we are ready to listen. I think the way ahead is absolutely possible. I think we as donors, the major European countries, the US, Japan, all the major international actors, have to go together to help the process.
Of course, it’s a Myanmar process, it cannot be led by anybody else. So the Myanmar people, the Myanmar government will lead the process. We are here to support this process. This is essential, it is crucial for the future because when you talk about the future of this country, about the federalism, I think you need to share power in one way or another. So I think you need to take on board all the other groups, go back to the Panglong agreement spirit, and go deep into it in a very positive way.
When it comes to the transition from the military dictatorship that was there for many years to a democracy, how do you view this transition in Myanmar? What direction is this taking in your opinion?
I think it is taking a positive direction in the sense that compared to what we had before, right now we have a much more democratic government. Of course, when you talk about the 2008 Constitution, by our standards it would not be considered an ideal Constitution because in our view the military should not stay in the role they have right now, because we have a different approach to democracy. But I think you have to consider where we are, every country has its own approach, its own path, its own time. So I think it is up to the Myanmar people to govern and go ahead and find a solution. I think the idea would be to change some aspects in order to get a progressive transition to real democracy where a civilian government has control over everything. So I think there are some more steps to be taken. But I think we are in the right direction. That’s very important. Of course, we have to see what is happening in terms of cooperation from the military side and the civilian side. And there I think it is a bit too early to say where we are. But I think the direction is a good one. Also, the attitude of the outgoing government on the elections was very positive so I think we have to give credit to the outgoing government because they prepared the process.
Italy has been very much supportive of the process, especially since 2011. There were seeds for something very positive to happen. So now it is really happening. I do really think we were right in trying to facilitate this process, in order to allow democracy to flourish. It cannot be done in one day, nothing is made so swiftly, you need some time. As I said, the transition to democracy is a path, so you have to go through it but if you look at Myanmar now and if you look at Myanmar four or five years ago, it is a completely different world. You know better than me.
Looking into the future, what are your hopes for the relationship, especially given that we are going to have a new government in the next few days?
I would say from a political perspective, I am pretty confident that we are going to have a stronger relationship. We are working now on a very high-level visit in early April, we are happy about that. It is a strong signal of political support, I think that is what you need and what we want to give. So I think this is a very important path.
The second aspect is on economy and trade, as I mentioned before. I think we are going to see more businessmen coming from Italy, more investment, more trade, this is what we hear. A lot of people were a bit hesitant before the elections, they wanted to know about the transition, and how it was going. Elections went well, now you have a new government with a lot of competent Ministers, I am pretty confident we will have more people interested in coming over here.
And the third aspect, as I mentioned before, are cultural issues. I think people-to-people exchanges are going up. We had an increase by almost 70 percent of visa requests for Myanmar citizens to go to Italy last year, compared to the year before. So it means there is a lot of interest on the Burmese side to know and to visit Italy. We also have a lot of Italian tourists coming here. So this helps in terms of exchanges, in terms of better reciprocal understanding. And in a wider sense, when you understand the culture, you appreciate all of it. So, if you go to Italy, you understand what are Italian food, Italian culture, so this is a virtuous circle of quality going up. And I think that is why we are here, to help this process, we have to facilitate this exchange. So there is the political aspect, the economic aspect, the cultural aspect.
Of course then, last but not least, we have development cooperation activities, which are an essential instrument for our presence here. We are working on increasing our role. Myanmar is one of the very few Asian countries which is a priority for Italy, and so we are very active. As I mentioned before, we intend to step up our presence also in this field. We will talk with the new government about our plans.
So we have at least four areas of intervention that make me very confident about the future of our bilateral relations.
What about high-level visits?
We had high-level visits in the past. We had a president who went twice to Italy. We had Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who went to Italy as well. We had the then Italian Foreign Minister here in 2012, who was one of the first ones to come. We had deputy ministers coming here, and now we are working on that, as I said before. We are working on a high-level visit in the very near future, the Italian Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, should be here in early April. His intention is to send a very strong political signal of support to the new democratic government, to show that Italy is fully supporting the process.
On a personal note, you have been here for a while. What are the highlights of your time here?
I have to say I am amazed every day, I really love this country. I think it is a wonderful place. I love the people, I love the environment, I love the culture, and I love the places when I visit around. What I don’t like is the traffic (laughs), to be honest with you, in Yangon. Of course, when I am in Nay Pyi Taw, it is the perfect traffic because there is no traffic. Jokes aside, I think I really appreciate the beauty of the country, and the magic of the country. I am not just saying this because I am in front of you. That’s what I tell my friends, everybody wants to come to Myanmar. It is a magic place. Particularly when you go outside of Yangon you immediately find yourself in another world. But I love Yangon too. I like Yangon, particularly downtown, but also around here, where there are a lot of old houses. Downtown is really a cultural heritage area we have to protect. This is why we would like to do more, so we are working on that. We have a specific project in downtown, just to protect the cultural heritage, you will hear more about that in the future.