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Norway donates to Rakhine State, denies financial interests

By Fiona Macgregor
July 7, 2015

A visit to Myanmar by Norway’s State Secretary of Foreign Affairs has concluded with a US$1.25 million donation for humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State, but concerns remain that Norway is benefiting financially from government links made through peace process support.

Bard Glad Pedersen visited the troubled Rakhine State capital Sittwe last week where he met Chief Minister U Maung Maung Ohn and visited IDP camps for both Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine displaced by intercommunal violence.

Speaking to The Myanmar Times on July 4 after his visit, Mr Pedersen highlighted the lack of development across the state and suggested this had played an integral part in ethno-religious disputes there.

“This is one of the poorest states in Myanmar and there’s no reason for this [to be the case]. They have all the opportunities in the world and this is a result of decades of distrust and that really is what we need to [address].”

Mr Pedersen said that the funding, which comes in addition to a $1.25 million pledge made in Oslo at the end of May, would go toward projects to help all sectors of the community.

“[It] is important that this is beneficial for all the groups in Rakhine,” he added.

The ethnic Rakhine community has been vocal in accusing the international community of focusing relief efforts on the Rohingya population. Anger over the perceived partiality has erupted into violence that at times has forced INGO staff to leave.

Mr Pedersen did not give a clear outline on how the money would be distributed, other than through INGOs and some UN agencies. However he did say funding would be provided for Sittwe State Hospital.

That move is likely to be welcomed by the ethnic Rakhine community. However it could also prove controversial as many Rohingya patients are not able to access treatment there amid continued allegations that those who have been admitted were mistreated by staff.

Calling for the Rohingya to be given citizenship rights, saying it was “not sustainable” for a large population to be without this, Mr Pedersen said Rakhine needed financial support as well as political pressure to bring about change.

“It is important that the international community supports politically but also financially … reconciliation and finds solutions in Rakhine State that will allow for human rights to be respected for all people and [also] allow for citizenship for Rohingya.”

Many in Norway, home of the Nobel Peace Prize, have been critical of prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s choice not to call for citizenship for the Rohingya or to speak out clearly against their oppression.

Asked if he believed the National League for Democracy leader, whom he also met during his visit, should comment on the citizenship issue, Mr Pedersen replied, “I think it is a responsibility for all parties to contribute to a solution that will allow for human rights to be respected for all.”

Norway, an early funder of peace process initiatives, has also played a pivotal role in paving the way for international investment in Myanmar.

Norway’s close relationship with the current government came under scrutiny after the failure of the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), an organisation set up in 2012 with Norwegian state funding which was seen to alienate ethnic groups for its perceived support of the Myanmar government’s agenda.

While the peace process continues to stall on numerous issues, investment has advanced apace, with Norway gaining a number of lucrative deals, most notably in the telecoms and oil sectors.

Former Norwegian ambassador to Myanmar Katja Nordgaard now holds a senior post at Telenor – the Norwegian firm that was awarded one of two sought-after international telecom deals. State oil company Statoil gained potentially lucrative rights to operate off-shore oilfields.

The deals have led to accusations that Norway has given too much support to the Myanmar government while clear rights abuses persist.

Mr Pedersen rejected that suggestion. “Our commitment is support the democratisation process in Myanmar and to support the peace process. We cannot choose between parties,” he said.

“I think it’s fair to acknowledge there has been progress in many areas,” he added without elaborating.

“There needs to be a modernisation of the constitution. There needs to be continued democratisation and reform and … obviously they have not been able to sign a national ceasefire agreement. They need to move on from that toward political discussion and that is related also to the election process and all parties need to contribute to this,” he said.

But he denied accusations that Norway had exchanged its interests in promoting peace with achieving financial gain.

“I think that’s an unfair assessment. I don’t agree with that,” Mr Pedersen said.

“For Norway this commitment has been about contributing to the peace in Myanmar. Then international companies from a wide range of countries have increased investment after sanctions have been lifted, and the regional countries have done that too. But they have to win their opportunities on competitive terms and do their business responsibly to earn trust of society.”

Some rights groups are unconvinced.

“[Norway is] bending over backward to justify a business-first approach to engaging with the Burmese government while continuing to betray the democracy and human rights movement they nurtured for decades,” said David Mathieson, Human Rights Watch senior researcher on Myanmar.

Suggesting that Norway was “not the only country to put self-interest and profit before principles in Burma”, Mr Mathieson said, “Oslo’s rapid volte-face from critic to gushing government supporter was the most brazenly opportunistic by any measure.”

And he added, “Its unswerving support for government efforts in the peace process and its criticism of ethnic civil society, often pushed by the now-defunct Norwegian-formed-and -supported MPSI, is a significant factor in the now slowed down efforts at ending the civil war. Norway’s assertion of altruism rings hollow in an environment of greed.”

Mr Pedersen said the Norwegian government was contributing this year 240 million NK ($30 million) “through civil society, through confidence building, to making sure [they are] supporting the peace process ... and at the end of the day it is the parties here that have to be able to progress in the peace process and carry forward with the election”.

Norwegian delegation visiting Thae Chaung market in Sittwe (Photo: Saed Arkani)

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