‘Countries Evolve in Stages’: Norway’s Outgoing Ambassador to Burma

NorwayA longtime backer of Burma’s pro-democracy movement, Norway has been a high-profile donor to development and peacebuilding programs inside Burma since the launch of political and economic reforms in 2011.

Since 2012, Norway has led the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative and the Peace Donor Support Group, which channels donor funds in support of Burma’s ceasefires with ethnic armed groups through development and humanitarian assistance. Norway has also supported women’s empowerment and leadership programs in Burma.

In recent years, Norway has also made significant inroads into Burma’s private sector. In mid 2013, Norwegian telecom giant Telenor was one of two foreign companies—along with Qatar’s Ooredoo—to be awarded 15-year telecom operating licenses in Burma. Norwegian multi-national oil and gas company Statoil was awarded a deep-water exploration block off the Arakan coast.

Irrawaddy senior reporter Nyein Nyein interviewed Norway’s outgoing ambassador to Burma, Ms. Ann Ollestad, about her thoughts and her experience of working in the country, before she departed in the first week of August.

Norway is known as a donor to development and peace initiatives in Burma. Could you elaborate on what kind of support you are providing?

In the three years since I took up the post as the Norwegian Ambassador to Myanmar in October 2013, the relationship between Myanmar and Norway has developed at an incredibly fast pace. Fruitful relations exist on many levels—the political level but also the people-to-people level. For a long time, Norway and Myanmar have had a special, although informal, relationship.

In June this year, friends of Myanmar in Norway named a park after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Froland, in the south of Norway, to honor her. This is one example of how longstanding, informal relationships have contributed to creating the trust that today is fundamental to the bilateral relationship.

Another example I would like to mention is the historically important state visit made by the Norwegian Royal Couple in 2014, one of the first state visits from a Western country. This visit strengthened the bilateral relationship, and underlined the importance of Myanmar to Norway and to the Norwegian people. To further strengthen the relations between the two countries, which is based on friendship and mutual respect, it was an important milestone when we signed a Memorandum of Understanding on development cooperation with Myanmar in 2014. Norway supports projects in a wide range of sectors where Norway has relevant experience for the development of Myanmar, such as environment, energy, national resource management, fisheries, forestry and petroleum.

What has Norway’s role been in the current peace process?

Norway was requested in 2012 by the Government of Myanmar to establish the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI) and to chair the Peace Support Group (PSG). MPSI initiated and supported 15 pilot projects seeking to build trust and confidence. A number of these projects brought together Union government officials, the Myanmar Army, non-state armed- and political groups, civil society actors and communities for the first time. These pilot projects represented a new situation for communities in ceasefire areas, including seeing the first international presence in their areas.

In my farewell calls in Naypyidaw with President U Htin Kyaw, the Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, as well as with the speakers of both houses of Parliament, one of my most important messages was a reiteration of Norway’s continued support to the peace process. I am very encouraged to see the preparations for the 21st Century Panglong Conference proceeding. Norway supports an all-inclusive political dialogue to pave a way for a lasting political solution to address the conflict that has been going on for too long.

Could you share your experience working in the country as the only female ambassador?

To be the only female ambassador to Myanmar has given me a unique role in raising the issues of women’s rights and the role of women in the democratic transition and the peace process. As a female ambassador, I have had the privilege to travel to every corner of this country, meeting and interacting with many strong and clever women. Supporting their initiatives gives me great hope for the future of this country.

My government has a policy of working systematically to promote women’s participation in peace processes, improve training on how women’s humanitarian and security needs can be met, and help ensure that women’s economic and political status and legal rights are given more emphasis in peace-building processes. The work on women, peace and security in Myanmar is part of broader peace process and peace-building efforts that Norway has actively supported and engaged with for several years. We are convinced that there will be no sustainable peace unless women’s needs and views are reflected in the final peace agreement.

It is important for us to emphasize that men bear just as much responsibility as women for ensuring that the needs of both genders are met in processes relating to peace and security. The active participation of men and women in society is also important for preventing and combating radicalization.

In addition to providing support to our partners, the Embassy is actively promoting women’s role in the peace process. One way we do this is by hosting several working dinners and seminars where women and men meet to discuss and exchange experiences and ideas concerning quotas for women’s participation in peace and political dialogue processes, and women’s involvement in business and in positions of leadership.

Women representation in politics and government is still well under the desired minimum of 30 percent, even though a powerful woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, now effectively leads Burma. What words would you like to share with women activists?

Countries evolve in stages. I am sure that as democracy is strengthened in Myanmar, more women will get opportunities to join in decision-making processes. We have already seen more women elected to the current parliament, but we would like to see more in the future. Two women were appointed as chief ministers of states and regions. As you mentioned, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is holding a very important position in the executive wing of the government. To encourage women, and invite more women into all positions in society, and, importantly, into the peace process, is one of Norway’s most important messages to Myanmar.

It is evident that that when women influence peace processes, the outcomes are more sustainable. In this sense, it is not necessarily the numerical inclusion of women, but the substantive participation and influence of women that is a key element in securing and sustaining peace agreements.

Could you comment on trade relations with Burma? What are the successes of the Myanmar-Norway Business Council? How do you ensure your business ventures are responsible?

Myanmar needs a strong and vibrant private sector based on the principles of responsible business in order to lift the people out of poverty and into development.

At this stage, Norway does not have much bilateral trade, but we look forward to establishing stronger business relations with Myanmar. This is why the Myanmar-Norway Business Council was established last year. The aim is to facilitate growth in trade and investment between Norway and Myanmar, to create a forum for businesses to exchange ideas and experience, and to provide networking opportunities. We believe that Norwegian companies and the private sector can bring in competence, knowledge, technology and responsible business practice that will benefit both Myanmar and Norway.

The Norwegian Embassy has therefore played a role in the promotion of responsible business when Norwegian companies have established themselves in Myanmar—to ensure that companies know that they are expected to act as role models, by setting high standards, building capacity, promoting women in the workforce, and improving people’s livelihoods.

As maritime nations, both countries share a close relation to the resources in the ocean. Norway shares expertise with Myanmar, and builds capacity, through two prominent projects, namely Fish for Development and Oil for Development. Norway believes that by supporting capacity building in the government and in different sectors, Myanmar can benefit from and protect the resources of this rich country in the best possible way.