LONG-STAND­ING RE­LA­TION­SHIP

Fin­nish Am­bas­sador talks ed­u­ca­tion and Myan­mar re­la­tions

Mizzima Business Weekly - - NEWS ROUNDUPS -

Fin­land’s Am­bas­sador to Myan­mar Ms Ri­ikka Laatu re­cently sat down with Mizzima TV ed­i­tor Myo Thant to dis­cuss Fin­land’s long-stand­ing re­la­tion­ship with Myan­mar and the re­cent up­grade of the em­bassy in 2017. Here is the full in­ter­view.

How do you view the Fin­land and Myan­mar re­la­tion­ship to­day?

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Fin­land and Myan­mar is good. We es­tab­lished diplo­matic re­la­tions in the fifties and up­graded the em­bassy two years ago to a fully-fledged em­bassy with a res­i­dent am­bas­sador, which was a sig­nal of our in­ten­si­fy­ing re­la­tion­ship.

First of all, Myan­mar is one of our part­ner coun­tries in bi­lat­eral de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion. We only have seven such coun­tries in the world, so from that per­spec­tive Myan­mar is very im­por­tant for us. There are trade in­ter­ests be­tween Fin­land and Myan­mar, and one of the tasks of the em­bassy is to pro­mote trade and investment. We are of course fol­low­ing the po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments in Myan­mar very closely. We are also a mem­ber coun­try of the EU (Euro­pean Union), and there­fore fund and par­tic­i­pate in the EU ac­tiv­i­ties and po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions and state­ments con­cern­ing Myan­mar.

Then fi­nally let me men­tion that there is a Myan­mar com­mu­nity in Fin­land, quite con­sid­er­able in size. The num­ber of Finns liv­ing in Myan­mar is not that large but there is a small com­mu­nity.

You have been here for two years. Can you tell us about the up­grade to a full em­bassy and why this was felt to be im­por­tant for your coun­try?

Yes, I ar­rived al­most ex­actly two years ago,

Septem­ber 2017, and that is when Fin­land de­cided to up­grade the em­bassy to a fully-fledged em­bassy, hav­ing a res­i­dent am­bas­sador in Myan­mar.

Be­fore that the em­bassy in Myan­mar was un­der the em­bassy in Bangkok.

The rea­sons be­hind the up­grade were mainly two – one, that there was a lot of in­ter­est by the Fin­nish busi­ness com­mu­nity in Myan­mar, in trade and also to some ex­tent in investment in Myan­mar. And by the way for this rea­son there is also a Busi­ness Fin­land of­fice in Myan­mar.

The other rea­son was, as I men­tioned, that Myan­mar is a very im­por­tant coun­try in our de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion, one of our seven part­ner coun­tries, and we wanted to have a closer di­a­logue and closer mon­i­tor­ing of the de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion in Myan­mar as well. So those were the two main rea­sons.

You men­tioned the trade and investment con­di­tions. Can you tell us about how this has im­proved?

Yes, when Myan­mar started open­ing up about ten years ago, there was a lot of in­ter­est by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity at large, and Fin­nish busi­nesses as well. Dur­ing the fol­low­ing years there were sev­eral del­e­ga­tions led by min­is­ters with busi­ness peo­ple in the del­e­ga­tion who came to Myan­mar to look for pos­si­bil­i­ties of do­ing busi­ness. Trade re­la­tions have de­vel­oped after that, but in­vest­ments are very lim­ited so far. My as­sess­ment is that some of the smaller com­pa­nies which came here in the del­e­ga­tions or oth­er­wise to as­sess the busi­ness con­di­tions found it a lit­tle bit dif­fi­cult for them to es­tab­lish them­selves here. Some of the larger ones are present ei­ther here or in the neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, and some of them have made good busi­ness with Myan­mar.

So what should the Myan­mar govern­ment do to see more investment from Fin­land in our coun­try?

I know that your govern­ment is work­ing very much on open­ing the econ­omy and they have taken a num­ber of ac­tions. Some of the things that I hear from the Fin­nish busi­nesses that I meet are to have more trans­par­ent rules and reg­u­la­tions, and just in­for­ma­tion on how things work here. An­other is­sue of course is the in­fra­struc­ture that is lack­ing, like en­ergy, for in­stance.

You men­tion in­fra­struc­ture, so light, en­ergy?

Par­tic­u­larly en­ergy is some­thing the in­dus­tries need. It is not al­ways that re­li­able.

What are the core is­sues that your re­la­tion­ship fo­cuses on?

I al­ready men­tioned some of them. De­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion is very im­por­tant for us. We are work­ing with Myan­mar in sev­eral sec­tors; in ed­u­ca­tion, in the use of nat­u­ral re­sources, and also in sup­port­ing the peace process. As dis­cussed, one of the em­bassy’s pur­poses is to sup­port trade and investment, and also the Busi­ness Fin­land of­fice is here to do that. And then the third thing that em­bassies do through­out the world is to fol­low the po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments in the coun­try, and of course the em­bassy has been very much pre­oc­cu­pied by the Rakhine events in the past two years as they have been on the in­ter­na­tional agenda, al­most weekly, at least monthly. The lat­est ex­o­dus of Ro­hingya refugees and events lead­ing to it started just be­fore I ar­rived, and have kept us busy re­port­ing to our cap­i­tal. In the mean­while, we con­sider the peace process very im­por­tant, and try to sup­port it by dif­fer­ent means.

So you men­tioned you are fol­low­ing the peace process. Fin­land has been help­ing Myan­mar with its peace process. Can you de­scribe the type of help you pro­vide a lit­tle bit?

Gen­er­ally, when­ever Fin­land is ac­tive in de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion, we try to fo­cus on ar­eas where we have some spe­cial ex­per­tise, or some added value that we think would be ben­e­fi­cial to our part­ner coun­try. You might not know that we share some sim­i­lar his­tory in terms of com­ing out of wars. Fin­land was in­volved in two wars in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, one was a very bloody civil war just after our in­de­pen­dence, which was just thirty years ear­lier than Myan­mar in­de­pen­dence. And we man­aged to come out of that war,

if not eas­ily. Then we were in the Sec­ond World War, which ended by us los­ing a con­sid­er­able part of our ter­ri­tory. As a re­sult, about ten per­cent of the peo­ple be­came IPDs, and they had to be set­tled in the rest of the coun­try. Based on own experience we think that peace is some­thing very valu­able in a coun­try and we do want to sup­port Myan­mar in sev­eral ways. Money-wise our largest con­tri­bu­tion is to the Joint Peace Fund, where we are one of the eleven donors sup­port­ing it. Other than that, we also sup­port de­vel­op­ing good prac­tices in cease­fire mon­i­tor­ing of the na­tion­wide cease­fire, and we sup­port ca­pac­ity de­vel­op­ment for NCA sig­na­to­ries, as well.

In ad­di­tion, there is some sup­port also to the con­sti­tu­tional process and par­tic­u­larly look­ing at how ei­ther the cur­rent con­sti­tu­tion or fu­ture con­sti­tu­tion could sup­port eq­ui­table and peace­ful de­vel­op­ment in this coun­try.

So this is for the peace process. I would like to know about Fin­land aid to Myan­mar. Can you elab­o­rate a bit more?

Let me say some­thing about Fin­nish de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion in gen­eral first, as this ap­plies to all coun­tries. The over­all goal is poverty re­duc­tion and erad­i­ca­tion of ex­treme poverty. The ba­sis of our de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion is the 2030 agenda for sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment. You also have a very good sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment plan in Myan­mar based on the same global Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals, so that these goals and plans are the com­mon ground for our de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion in Myan­mar.

I men­tioned ear­lier that we are try­ing to fo­cus on ar­eas where we have some­thing spe­cial to of­fer, knowl­edge or ex­per­tise, or added value. There­fore, we have cho­sen three sec­tors where we co­op­er­ate. There is peace sup­port, as has al­ready been dis­cussed. An­other sec­tor is ed­u­ca­tion, where we want to sup­port qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion. And the third one is sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment of nat­u­ral re­sources.

There are some prin­ci­ples which we ap­ply ev­ery­where in the world in our de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion in any in­ter­ven­tion, any project. Those are hu­man rights, gen­der equal­ity, and cli­mate sus­tain­abil­ity.

These things are im­por­tant for our coun­try. And an­other ques­tion, as you men­tioned, we know that the Fin­land ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is very good. So I would like to know, why is it so good? Can you ex­plain?

Yes, it is true that the Fin­nish stu­dents have done very well in in­ter­na­tional com­par­isons. There are many rea­sons be­hind that. First of all, we place a very high value on ed­u­ca­tion in Fin­land gen­er­ally. It is very much val­ued. And it has been one of the cor­ner­stones in Fin­land’s de­vel­op­ment be­cause we were also a very poor coun­try in the im­me­di­ate wake of the Sec­ond World War. We have in­vested heav­ily in ed­u­ca­tion and value it. And it forms a large part of the na­tional bud­get as well.

The sec­ond thing char­ac­ter­is­tic about the Fin­nish ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is that we see it as an equal­iz­ing fac­tor in so­ci­ety. This means that we want to make sure that the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem helps all chil­dren to per­form as well as they can. So we fo­cus on each child to per­form as well as pos­si­ble. On the other hand we do not have a tra­di­tion of dif­fer­en­ti­ated schools in­clud­ing pri­vate ones.

An­other rea­son for the good re­sults, which is char­ac­ter­is­tic to Fin­land, is that par­tic­u­larly when it comes to the small chil­dren, who are start­ing school, we be­lieve that learn­ing by do­ing is very im­por­tant, so there is a lot of play in­volved, rather than rote learn­ing or very for­mal learn­ing. We have seen that it is ac­tu­ally ef­fec­tive.

Com­ing to the ef­fec­tive­ness, there is also a lot of investment and re­search be­cause we be­lieve that de­ci­sions on ed­u­ca­tion should be based on knowl­edge of what works and what doesn’t work. And of course a very im­por­tant el­e­ment in ed­u­ca­tion is the teach­ers. In Fin­land the teach­ers are very well ed­u­cated. All of them are re­quired to have a Master’s de­gree for pri­mary teach­ers on­ward. That means that they know how to ap­ply the best teach­ing meth­ods. And they are also highly val­ued. Ac­tu­ally, teach­ing is one of the most sought after pro­fes­sions in Fin­land, and you have a lot of ap­pli­cants for teacher train­ing in Fin­land.

One more thing that I should per­haps add is that in con­nec­tion with the schools and ed­u­ca­tion, we have child sup­port ser­vices, a very com­pre­hen­sive pub­lic li­brary sys­tem, and sports fa­cil­i­ties in many places, with the aim of hav­ing a whole of so­ci­ety ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tion.

How is this dif­fer­ent from an­other coun­try, our coun­try Myan­mar. How dif­fer­ent is the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem from the West?

I think our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem dif­fers some­what from the sys­tems in place in many of the West­ern coun­tries, and it is also dif­fer­ent from the sys­tem in Myan­mar. One of the dif­fer­ences is the heavy emphasis on learn­ing by do­ing. The in­clu­sive­ness and equal­ity of the ed­u­ca­tion are also is­sues where our sys­tem dif­fers from that in many other coun­tries.

Is there a schol­ar­ship pro­gramme for some­one in Myan­mar want­ing to study in Fin­land?

There are very few schol­ar­ships in Fin­land that we pro­vide for stu­dents from any­where in the world. The only ex­cep­tions usu­ally would be in con­nec­tion with some of the de­vel­op­ment projects we sup­port, and even there most of the schol­ar­ships would nor­mally be for stud­ies within the re­gion. How­ever, study­ing in Fin­land has tra­di­tion­ally been cheap. The univer­sity stud­ies in Fin­land are prac­ti­cally free of charge to the Finns, and a large num­ber of uni­ver­si­ties charge very low fees for for­eign­ers, too. We have a grow­ing num­ber of stu­dents com­ing from other coun­tries, and uni­ver­si­ties are of high qual­ity.

If some­one wants to study in Fin­land what do they have to do?

There is an ap­pli­ca­tion process for the uni­ver­si­ties which varies from one to an­other. If a per­son is in­ter­ested, the in­for­ma­tion would nor­mally be avail­able on the web­site of the uni­ver­si­ties.

How do you see the Myan­mar govern­ment peace process?

First of all, it is use­ful to re­mem­ber that in any peace process, any­where, there are many stake­hold­ers. All the stake­hold­ers have to make great ef­fort to achieve sus­tain­able peace. By sus­tain­able peace I mean a peace agree­ment which is agree­able to all the stake­hold­ers. So, achiev­ing peace is a joint ef­fort where ev­ery­body has to make an ef­fort. In Myan­mar the peace process is par­tic­u­larly com­plex be­cause the num­ber of stake­hold­ers is so large. You have the civil­ian govern­ment, Tat­madaw, the eth­nic armed groups, the po­lit­i­cal par­ties, and the civil so­ci­ety. At the same time the peace process, and peace, is

very im­por­tant for the whole coun­try for many rea­sons. For in­stance, if you look at Myan­mar to­day, eco­nomic growth is good but think about what great po­ten­tial there would be un­der peace­ful con­di­tions, in ad­di­tion to the kind of progress you are mak­ing now. So, I would like to say peace is im­por­tant for ev­ery­body, for peo­ple liv­ing in Yan­gon, and peo­ple liv­ing in other parts of the coun­try, be­cause it would un­leash a lot more po­ten­tial in the coun­try.

There have been pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ments, of course, the Na­tion­wide Cease­fire Agree­ment be­ing one of them. It is a very pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment, as has been the bi-lat­eral cease­fire ear­lier, and of course now there is also the uni­lat­eral cease­fire by the Tat­madaw. I think it would be very im­por­tant to con­tinue all and ad­here to all of them be­cause they pro­vide space for po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions and there are many is­sues to be re­solved in the po­lit­i­cal process. We all know the for­mal po­lit­i­cal process has been very slow, but we also know there have been in­for­mal dis­cus­sions tak­ing place and you need both of them. Both of them are very im­por­tant. You need both in a peace process, to dis­cuss is­sues in smaller groups and set­tle cer­tain is­sues be­fore you come to the for­mal ta­ble. So, all of this is nec­es­sary.

Achiev­ing peace is a huge task for the coun­try. It is also hugely im­por­tant, so I do wish that ev­ery stake­holder will re­ally make a big ef­fort. Fi­nally I would like to com­mend Myan­mar on the joint com­mu­nique on sex­ual vi­o­lence in con­flict, and I am look­ing for­ward to an ac­tion plan on it.

How do you view the Rakhine cri­sis?

The very un­for­tu­nate events in Au­gust 2017 had just taken place when I ar­rived in Myan­mar. The sit­u­a­tion will not be easy to re­solve, and it seems to be get­ting more dif­fi­cult as time goes by. In Au­gust 2017 you had the very good re­port by the com­mis­sion led by Kofi An­nan with a bal­anced list of rec­om­men­da­tions which the govern­ment has also com­mit­ted to im­ple­ment. These rec­om­men­da­tions are still valid al­though the sit­u­a­tion is much more dif­fi­cult now with 700.000 new refugees and a num­ber of new in­ter

nally dis­placed per­sons since the rec­om­men­da­tions were made. The Kofi An­nan-led com­mis­sion de­scribed the cri­sis as a cri­sis of de­vel­op­ment, a cri­sis of se­cu­rity, and a cri­sis of hu­man rights. You have to ad­dress all these as­pects. So, there is not a sim­ple so­lu­tion, but one of the first things to be done within Rakhine it­self is to im­prove hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­cess, be­cause now there is a large num­ber of peo­ple who need hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance, and hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­tors are hav­ing re­stric­tions in ac­cess­ing them. For a long-term so­lu­tion you will need all the com­po­nents men­tioned in the Kofi An­nan re­port.

Then there is the other side of that prob­lem, the refugees in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh whose sit­u­a­tion there is to­tally un­ten­able. I would be a very wise per­son if I had a good so­lu­tion to their sit­u­a­tion in the camps! Many pro­fes­sion­als are work­ing on it but there seems to be no easy so­lu­tion in sight. Un­for­tu­nately, the sit­u­a­tion is likely to de­te­ri­o­rate the longer it con­tin­ues.

How do you view the con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment process?

The con­sti­tu­tion is cur­rently be­ing dis­cussed in the par­lia­ment, and it also is some­thing that needs to be re­viewed as part of the peace process. In any peace process you have to dis­cuss and re­solve the ar­range­ment of power shar­ing and also is­sues of state for­ma­tion. What kind of a coun­try you want to have, what kind of gov­er­nance struc­tures do you want to have. These are all elements of a con­sti­tu­tion. I don’t know whether the par­lia­men­tary process will lead to changes in con­sti­tu­tion, but if this takes place or not, it will be have to be part of the peace deal even­tu­ally.

What have you learned about Myan­mar dur­ing the two years you have been here?

When I came here, I knew what diplo­mats gen­er­ally know about a coun­try, the basics, not more than that. So, I have learnt tremen­dously. One of the nice things about be­ing posted in a coun­try as an am­bas­sador is that you get to travel to dif­fer­ent parts of that coun­try and meet dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple. This is one of the as­pects of my job which I find very re­ward­ing. In this way, I have learned many things I could not learn in my cap­i­tal. I have met with tremen­dously in­ter­est­ing and im­pres­sive peo­ple.

Let me just men­tion a cou­ple of ex­am­ples. I have been meet­ing lo­cal women lead­ers in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try, lead­ers work­ing at the lo­cal level. Some have been de­scrib­ing the very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion in their com­mu­ni­ties, and I re­ally ad­mire their courage and tenac­ity in find­ing so­lu­tions to the prob­lems of peo­ple in their com­mu­ni­ties.

An­other ex­am­ple I would like to men­tion is the young in­no­va­tors which I met when we or­gan­ised the an­nual Nordic Day. This year the theme was in­no­va­tion, and we had a num­ber of young Myan­mar peo­ple from both the busi­ness side and civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions par­tic­i­pat­ing in a small con­test on in­no­va­tions. The par­tic­i­pa­tion showed that there is a lot of in­no­va­tive cap­i­tal in the coun­try. I would be very happy to con­nect these kind of in­no­va­tive peo­ple, busi­nesses or or­gan­i­sa­tions with some of the in­no­va­tion hubs in Fin­land.

What do you think of the Myan­mar govern­ment’s per­for­mance?

Myan­mar is a poor coun­try which is emerg­ing from con­flict and in a very dif­fi­cult po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in many ways so there are lot of chal­lenges for the govern­ment. The NLD (Na­tional League for Democ­racy) govern­ment came to power for the first time so they have been fac­ing chal­lenges in terms of experience, as well. I trust the govern­ment is do­ing its best. The cir­cum­stances are not easy, their experience is short. There have been many ac­com­plish­ments, and many dif­fi­cul­ties.

Fin­land’s Am­bas­sador to Myan­mar Ms Ri­ikka Laatu, left, speaks with Mizzima TV ed­i­tor Myo Thant. Photo: Mizzima

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