A wide-ranging interview with Mr. Paul Seger, Ambassador of Switzerland to Myanmar by the Global New Light of Myanmar and MRTV touched upon democratic and economic reform, peace process and bilateral relations between Switzerland and Myanmar.
Q: We want to know the progress of Swiss-Myanmar diplomatic relationships.
A: This year we are celebrating 60 years of diplomatic relations between Myanmar and Switzerland. I think we have made very strong progress. I know that the country has undergone difficult times but certainly since the opening in 2011 and after the democratic elections of 2015, our relations have increased quite substantially. We opened an embassy in 2012 also to honor the fact that the country opened up and started the democratic transition process. I’m optimistic that our relations will get stronger in the future.
Q: The first Swiss resident ambassador, Mr. Christoph Burgener, said that as long as the armed conflict is not addressed there can be no real democracy and sustainable economic progress in Myanmar. What is your impression on the current government’s endeavors for democratization and peace process?
A: I think the government is in a good track on both areas. I think we all need to be patient. What I realize is that the international community is maybe less patient than the Myanmar people itself. From my previous experience in my work at the United Nations, I realize that peace building and peace making are processes which usually take a long time and there is no such thing as linear progress. There is progress and at times setbacks and that’s completely normal. So if people at times feel that progress is going slow in Myanmar, I used to say that it’s quite normal. It would be quite astonishing if the progress went sky up without any difficulties and challenges. But I think we have to keep in vision the long term perspective. And I don’t mean three years or five years, it may be five or twenty years. If you even look in Europe how long certain conflicts have taken to solve, let’s take the situation in Ireland, it took quite a long time. We cannot expect, if even us Europeans, for a country like Myanmar to solve all its problems and the legacies of a very difficult past, within one or two years. I think the general overall situation is quite positive. At times it’s challenging but again, we have to look at the long haul here.
Q: Please share Switzerland’s experience to reach unity in diversity as a federal state.
A: We obviously have quite a long tradition with federalism and Switzerland is born out of federalism. It’s not a coincidence that the country is officially called the Swiss Confederation. We are a very small country; it’s the size of the province of Bago more or less but within that small country we have 26 different cantons. We have learned over the decades, and even centuries, to live in unity and diversity and in harmony despite the fact that we have different religions, different cultures, different languages and different backgrounds. We have maybe experienced that a good way to solve all the difficulties which arise from these differences is really federalism. It’s about solving difficulties and problems which arise in my country. We don’t pretend we don’t have any problems at all so mechanisms where you can settle differences peacefully, legally, politically with armed struggle.
So what we are trying to do in Myanmar is not to export this model because Myanmar has to find its own way of federalism or unity in diversity itself. You can’t copy paste one model to another but what we try to do is to show and share experiences we have made; the progresses but also the difficulties. We have brought study groups from Myanmar to Switzerland to show them in everyday way how does federalism work on a daily basis.
What does it mean to teach a bilingual school? What does it mean to be a community based police force? What does it mean to be an army which has also a certain federal structure? Etcetera, just to show examples and maybe, hopefully, the people here will get inspired by these examples.
Q: With the active foreign policy, Switzerland is frequently involved in peace building processes around the world. So we want to know Swiss support to Myanmar’s democratization process.
A: Well, I think we are one of the few countries in the world where the obligation to peace building and promotion of peace in the world is part of our national constitution. Switzerland is a neutral country so we don’t have conflicts with anybody but we believe very much that the possibility of being neutral and not having any hidden agenda, not having any kind of imperial past gives us a unique opportunity to assist other countries and also promoting peace and overcoming situations of conflict and transiting into peace and democracy. So we have been doing that here in Myanmar and other parts of the world. But what we’ve tried to do here is support the peace process with, as example shows, issues of federalism, also supporting all parties who want to do that such as how to negotiate in the peace process because we realize that especially ethnic armed groups come from a war type of situation and reflection. It’s kind of difficult to change your mentality from war to peace. It means something completely different from going to war to negotiating peace. We help all parties, if they wish, with things like how do you structure yourself and your priorities and also the ceasefire negotiations. We try to support these technicalities because believe that if everybody is well prepared for a peace negotiation, the result is a best one because everybody can make good compromises.
The same is true for human rights and democratization so we’re trying to support the country with implementing the recommendations of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review. We will also have in December a workshop supporting the countries who want to adopt the human rights covenants on civil and political rights or economic and social rights. So with quite concrete and tactical support, we’re trying to help as much as we can but what is really important for us is we do that under the guidance and the national ownership of the country. The country is in charge we try to support and we do not want to impose anything. We want to help and if the country wants to be helped, we’re here to help.
Q: We also learned that Switzerland is one of the most developed countries in the world and also one of the biggest per capita gross domestic products. So would you share Swiss’ example for a strong economy and national prosperity.
A: It is true we are one of the richest countries of the world but if you just go back in time-a hundred years back-we were quite a poor country. Even our country could not feed all the people and we really had to encourage people to leave the country. So what made our success? We are also a country without natural resources except for water and I would say the only other resource we get is grey cells-brain power. We invested heavily in education and that’s our trade secret, if I may say, relying on strong education: research and development, good universities but even more so on good basic and medium education which also encompasses vocational training.
The interesting fact is we are one of the countries with the lowest percentage of university degree students. Only 30 per cent of the young Swiss attend universities. Close to 70 per cent of the Swiss undergo vocational training. So there is really no linkage between the percentage of students and university degree people and national wealth; at least in our experience. What we’ve learned is that people with a good professional skilled training are the basis of our workforce. One of our major exports is Swiss watches and you don’t need doctors or university students to make watches. You need a skilled laborer who can assemble a watch. The same is true for other products; we have machineries and pharmaceuticals and of course for pharmaceuticals you need chemists but you also need people who do the actual work; skilled people. So what we are trying to explain to the people of Myanmar, and bringing back to our 60 years of diplomatic relations, we started to explain how the Swiss system of vocational training works. And maybe that is also an inspiration for the country I’m sure Myanmar will also be a rich country again. It has been a rich country and it will be a rich country again.
Q: Regarding the Swiss watch, it was a kind of family business and then it became big. So we have a lot of home industries in our country but because of modernization those industries are disappearing so that kind of vocational training will help sustain those traditional home industries.
A: Yes, I agree. What we’re also trying to do is to maintain and promote traditional ways of craftsmanship and I think it’s also a possibility of export for Myanmar. People are still looking all over the world for nice crafted materials and goods. It would be good if Myanmar like other countries, Laos for instance, can keep their traditional ways of craftsmanship. It’s also a question of not only the economy but of national culture, so that is one thing. But I think vocational training is also important for other sectors of industry.
Myanmar strikes me as a beautiful country and the people are generally friendly so the ingredients of tourism are here and as the numbers show, there are more and more people coming into Myanmar. But you also need good infrastructure in hotel management and hospitality management. So I think also there, vocational training can play an important role and we are continuing investing in as well.
Q: We want to know the Swiss’ support and cooperation for economic reform in Myanmar.
A: Well, Switzerland has decided that Myanmar is one of the major partner countries for our development cooperation. So we have developed this strategy over the last four years, and it will continue for the next four years, where we have invested 150 million USD in the development of the economy in Myanmar. We basically have identified three sectors with Myanmar authorities we concentrate on.
One sector is agriculture and nutritional security. We try to support Myanmar farmers to produce better quality with more quantity and to be able to start exporting. The country is quite fertile but our assessment is that production methods have not progressed as much as they should have.
Another important area is health. We started in the southeast of Myanmar, especially in Mon and Kayin State, to support local health centers where midwives, for instance, are being trained so that they can also be used as local first points of call if somebody is sick. So I think we are slowly supporting health programs in Myanmar.
The last one, also important, is the area of vocational training. I cannot stress how important it is for the development of the economy. If you have really skilled workers then that is a good basis for your future economy.
Q: Could you tell us more about Swiss programs in Myanmar?
A: Well, we are supporting the LIFT fund which is the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund where, with other countries and donors, we are working in the delta region with farmers and also in other regions like Shan to also start producing with environmentally sound production methods. We have been working with fishers in Moktama (Mon State) to do sustainable fishery but since the fisheries are depleting we are also training them to get other jobs.
A third example is rubber plantations. This is also one of the potential domestic export products but the problem here is also that the rubber price is fairly low right now so the farmers have difficulties. So we either help them try to make better quality because apparently the quality of Myanmar rubber compared to other rubber is not so good. We also help other farmers who don’t see a future (in this business) to change and find other areas of work.
Q: These future projects if they are successful may bring peace and prosperity for Myanmar.
A: I hope they will all be successful but again I think we all need to be quite patient. It takes time for the country to come out of 60 years of isolation and stagnation. We will be here for quite some time, supporting the country but if we have progress tomorrow, I will be the happiest person.
Q: The ASEAN market is very competitive so I think Myanmar needs more skills to face these kinds of challenges.
A: Yes, indeed but the thing that which strikes me, also at my work with local staff here at the embassy is that people are extremely keen to learn. Take an example, I speak to people in English; my Myanmar is horrible; but I’m always impressed with people speaking in English and I ask where they learnt their English and they reply “Here in the country.” Wow, because for a country which has been isolated for decades, people speak English fairly well and I sometimes have the impression that they speak English better than Thailand which has much more tourism.
I think what is really important here and what I cherish is the fact that people want to progress. That makes me quite optimistic. I always say to people that in the ‘60s, Myanmar had the double net income of Thailand and if I remember it well, one kyat equaled one dollar. Nothing prevents Myanmar from what it has been in the past though I think that if progress really goes along, and it may take some time, the good times from the past may well come back. And I think regional integration is quite right; ASEAN will play an important role.