On Thursday 2nd of April CITO representatives Kasper Westman and Victor Petersson met with Johan Hallenborg, a Swedish diplomat working at the Embassy Section Office in Yangon as a Minister Counsellor. The Section Office was inaugurated in June 2014 and works mainly with development cooperation and political reporting. The Section Office also works with trade promotion. It is located in the Nordic House together with the Norwegian E mbassy, the Danish Embassy and the Diplomatic Mission of Finland. Johan Hallenborg has been working at the Embassy Section Office since 2014 and has during this time learned about the country and its political situation.
Sweden has had a relationship with Myanmar for a long time period. The first Swedish Ambassador to Myanmar (then Burma) was Alva Myrdal in 1955, seven years before the military coup in 1962. At that time the Ambassador covered Myanmar from the Swedish Embassy in New Delhi. Today, however, the Ambassador to Thailand is also accredited to Myanmar and the Section Office in Yangon is part of the Swedish Embassy in Bangkok. But the opening of the Section Office is significant, since it is the first time Sweden has posted diplomats in Myanmar.
Sweden provides development cooperation to Myanmar, mainly through and directed to the civil society. Johan Hallenborg says that Myanmar started to opening up slowly in 2008, partly as an effect by the Saffron Revolution in 2007, but also because of the cyclone Nargis in 2008. This forced Myanmar to use international help, which opened up channels for a dialogue.
Not long after the passing of the cyclone an internationally criticized referendum was held in Myanmar to change the constitution. Although criticized, the new constitution has more democratic focus, which, according to Johan, is a step in the right direction. When an election to the parliament was held in
2010, NLD (National League of Democracy), a social democratic-liberal Burmese political party founded in 1988 with Aung San Suu Kyi serving as the General Secretary, boycotted the election. Since 2012 she, and NLD, have taken place in the parliament as a result of the by-elections that year.
Johan says that he hopes that the next election, to be held later this year, will be more trustworthy and transparent. An indicator that this might be the outcome is that, during the past couple of years many things have started to move forward. Many political prisoners have been released and the press has become surprisingly free. A year ago, however, the pendulum started to swing in the other direction. People joining in protests have been sent to trial and there is a threat against human rights around the country. Thus, the elections coming up will be an important indicator/measurement of how far the country has come on the road to democracy. Sweden welcomes the reforms, but encourages the Myanmar Government to further deepen and consolidate democracy and respect for human rights.
Johan says that there are some great challenges still remaining for the country, also after the election. Corruption is a big problem and he thinks that this is something that most companies as well as ordinary people are fighting with.
Today there is a dialogue about minimum salaries, but this is politically hard to deal with, since wages can’t be the same in different parts of Myanmar due to the large difference in living costs. The debate regarding minimum salary led to demonstrations among factory workers during several months.
In addition, many students and activists have protested against the reform of the education law. The protests continued for months, and finally ended in violence and 127 students getting arrested.
Infrastructure is another challenge facing Myanmar, both physical infrastructure such as roads as well as electricity and IT connectivity. Only about 30% of the population have access to electricity. Although the business opportunities are many in Myanmar, many companies are hesitant to move in, due to the challenging environment. Still, FDI makes up the bulk of the economic growth in Myanmar, with China by far being the largest investor.
Around 70 Swedes live in Myanmar at the moment. In Myanmar, many people know about Sweden but they don’t have knowledge about the long relationship between the two countries. Some Swedish companies, such as Volvo, Scania, Ericsson and H&M are well known in Myanmar.
Johan is hoping to be able to promote Sweden in some way in the future, through small company events or similar.
If you want to know more about Sweden in Myanmar, please visit www.swedenabroad.com.