EU Ambassador Roland Kobia takes stock after four years in Myanmar
A wide-ranging Interview with EU Ambassador Roland Kobia to Myanmar by the Global New Light of Myanmar and MRTV touched upon democratic and economic reform, peace process and bilateral relations between EU and Myanmar.
Q: The EU embassy opened with your tour of duty, so can you share the progress of the EU-Myanmar relations and the progress of Myanmar’s democratic transition?
A: I came here four years ago to open a full European presence when this country had only just started to open up to the world and normalize its relationships with the concert of nations. We opened the EU Delegation as a political decision to support a transition we believed in. We were warmly welcomed by the Myanmar government and people.
The EU quickly mobilised the political will and concrete resources to be at the level of expectations. A package of very concrete initiatives was launched to support to Myanmar’s transition: the EU was the first Western power to lift all sanctions (except for the arms and ammunitions). We awarded the most generous, and unilateral, trade regime to Myanmar, the GSP+ (Generalised System of Preferences), which enables Myanmar to access the European market of over 510 million consumers without any quotas or customs duties. In addition, the EU immediately offered its full political support for the reform process in engaging in a transformative agenda and allocated about €1 billion (around 1.6 trillion MMK) for development aid. The EU and its Member States have put a lot of political capital in Myanmar and it has proven to be the right decision because when you look at the range and depth of changes and the pace of reform, it has been an incredible journey, which we hope will continue.
Q: Now Myanmar’s democratic reform and peace process is gaining momentum, so what is your opinion on this?
A: Both the reform and the peace process are first and foremost nationally owned initiatives. The international community can offer help, share experiences and ideas, and offer technical and financial support but at the end of the day the decisions are, and have to be, made by Myanmar.
I think Myanmar has been extremely clear in the choices it has made, notably in the 2015 elections. This should be respected. A great majority chose to turn a new page and open a new era towards democracy and pluralism. The EU is accompanying you in this complex transition, in particular as regards the peace process. Despite some criticism at the moment, I think there is no other choice than to support the peace process. Peace should a major endeavour both at individual level, in every citizen’s mind and effort, and a collective effort. Everyone should contribute. Because ultimately, all other efforts to strengthen democracy and to bring prosperity to the people of Myanmar will be in vain without lasting peace.
The Golden Land will have a Golden Future only if there is peace first. If there is conflict and inter-communal violence, there will be no democracy as the latter is incompatible with conflict. There will be no socio-economic development as an economy will not flourish during conflict. Therefore when I look back I think history has proven it was the right decision to support any meaningful initiative that tried to promote peace. Today the Joint Peace Fund is plentiful of resources and is available any time to move peace forward.
Let’s not under-estimate how far this country has come – but let’s not take progress for granted either. As monumental as Myanmar’s transformation has been so far, it would be a missed opportunity of not to continue and even increase the efforts. By putting the peace process at the top of the agenda, the government has sent an important signal – now it has to reach out to all parts of the country, engage in discussions and lead the way for all parties to come to the negotiating table. We know that some do not want peace, for various reasons. They constitute a minority, and have an unsustainable position. A lucid joint reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of the current approach would therefore be useful. There needs to be a renewed focus on creating a climate of trust where all sides feel truly part of a process, where they feel heard and respected.
The way to achieve peace is to enter into negotiations with your former -or actual- enemies and to ensure each and every party makes compromises towards reaching a lasting political settlement. The strongest could give signs of goodwill to the smallest as confidence-building measures. If some do not seize the chance, they will be exposed as peace-spoilers. To address the current slow down in the peace momentum, a “New Deal” giving both a holistic and more precise vision of the future could be an option. The idea would be shedding more light on the precise direction and destination of the country, the peace process being one step thereof. This would reassure all parties to join and own the deal, and to build the necessary trust to implement it. To convince people to jump on a train, they need to know what the direction is, and what destination is being envisaged.
The European Union stands ready to continue offering its support because we know from experience that it can take a very long time to build lasting peace. Europe was built on the ashes of war over many decades. I hope all parties to the conflict in Myanmar will continue to find our support useful. Our offer is on the table, it is just a question of using it.
Q: Myanmar is implementing political and economic reform in parallel so what is your impression on this?
A: I am impressed by the number of reforms that have been carried out in parallel over the last six years. When you look at the number of initiatives that have been taken, the number of laws that have been adapted or repealed, the number of structures that have been set up, the change of mindset that starts to surface, it is an astounding achievement. The work that has been put into this transition deserves to be recognized.
Of course people are always impatient and would like things to go faster. Long-awaited change has not yet reached the homes of millions of people in this country and living standards are still lagging behind compared to other countries in the region. Much will therefore depend on whether the government will be able to build on the initial positive dynamic, in particular in the economic sector.
Economic growth and a boost to the job market will have a direct impact on the lives of the people and consequently boost the public’s confidence in the new Myanmar, thereby having a multiplying effect on the support for that route.
Myanmar’s transition is highly complex and has to be taken one step at a time. To lead transitions you need three things: political will, leadership and strong support among your country’s “agents for change” and civil society. As opinion leaders, they are the ones to help political leaders overcome the immense challenges of this transition.
The international community can equally assist and bring positive change, not only in the development sector but especially when it comes to boosting the economy and help creating new jobs. If Myanmar succeeds in creating a business-friendly environment, the country will greatly benefit from foreign direct investment that comes hand in hand with know-how, technical expertise and skills – all ingredients to sustainable economic development. However, foreign investment in Myanmar has slowed down. I see a number of reasons for this, starting first and foremost with the ongoing conflicts in the country. Instability is deterring investments. Second, the need investors have for clarity about the policy and the overall direction of the economy. Third, the overall conduciveness of the economic environment.
European investors are looking for sustainable, long-term investment opportunities, but this requires an environment that provides for the necessary security, both from an overall political stability point of view and regarding legal security of a predictable business environment. Myanmar needs to keep up the pace of reform to become an attractive place for high quality foreign investments that are made to last. The quick wins are not always lasting wins. Investors want predictability, legal certainty, transparency and a reasonable capacity to forecast. Myanmar also needs to show companies that they will be treated fairly, equally and won’t be discriminated against local businesses or businesses that use different commercial behaviours. Investors want a level playing field with fair competition to be able to work in a fair environment and ensure sustainable investments.
Q: Can you tell your opinions on the ongoing Rakhine issues?
A: The situation in Rakhine is a difficult, emotional and deep-rooted issue that is going back a long way in history. It is a complex problem of a state at the periphery that struggles with inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions, underdevelopment, fear and poverty. Members of all communities in Rakhine are poor and struggle to survive; they should all be supported if one is serious about a lasting solution. There is no time to lose in addressing the issues in Rakhine, as these difficult living conditions do not only cause suffering for the people, but are also a fertile breeding ground for extremism. What I think is needed is a joint effort of the government, local political and religious leaders as well as civil society to bring about an end to violence and long-overdue improvements to the difficult living conditions of so many families in Rakhine.
We have to bear in mind that the security situation in Rakhine State affects security and stability not only in Rakhine, but in the whole of Myanmar and in the wider region. The recent violence has resulted in dozens of thousands of people fleeing their homes, adding further to the already significant number of people displaced in Rakhine. Violence, conflict and segregation have resulted in great human suffering: there are families without a roof over their heads while the monsoon season is in full swing; generations of children with no education and no hope for a better future; thousands of sick people with no access to health care and many deaths that could well be prevented. People in Northern Rakhine from all communities are desperate. And as we could observe in many other areas of the world, this desperation and lack of perspectives is a very fertile breeding ground for extremism and ultimately further violence. Indeed, we have already seen some reports about possible links to foreign terrorist organisations growing in the area. If people are not offered a perspective for a peaceful existence in dignity, it is only a matter of time until they will turn to radical groups who offer them “a way out”. It is up to national and local leaders to stop and reverse this trend of growing radicalisation in Rakhine before it gets even more complicated and spills over.
The EU is offering its full support to the Myanmar government and we stand ready to facilitate dialogue and extend our peace building support to the area. A number of grass-root level initiatives are already under way. EU support promotes inter-communal understanding and reconciliation and offers aid to improve access to education, healthcare, livelihoods, as well as sanitation, water and food. Humanitarian and development access should continue to be opened as much as possible, and target all.
I will leave this country being sad to see that the situation in Rakhine is not a positive curve. This applies also to Shan and Kachin States. Each of these conflicts has its own roots but they all have the same effect: people who are suffering from tensions and conflicts. Reconciliation is both a political concept but also a human concept. You need reconciliation between the people in all the ethnic states to rebuild trust. You need to rebuild trust and a sense of living together – this is what will make the Golden Land shine.
At a certain stage this overall political transition will need to look at ways to deal with the past, to possibly have transitional and restorative justice, heal peoples’ wounds, otherwise peace will not last and the transition will remain incomplete. If people do not feel that their their grievances have been addressed, old wounds shall open up again one day. This is a very difficult process in all transitions, but a necessary one. I hope that the people of Myanmar will value and embrace the country’s diversity as a treasure, not a curse. For me as a European, this seems the only way for a brighter future, more socio-economic development and full democracy.
Q: What is your impression for the “Golden Friendship” with EU and Myanmar and your thoughts on terrorism?
A: I hope that the relationship between Myanmar and the EU will continue to be a golden relationship and I think we have started well. The basis of our relationship is the EU’s respect for Myanmar’s sovereignty and independence, while honestly expressing opinions. This mutual respect allows us to have open and frank discussions where we share ideas; sometimes we agree and sometimes we disagree. As Europeans we tend to be outspoken, we say things clearly because we believe this is the best way to move forward. If you just keep silent and say ‘yes’ to everything, I’m not sure you can move forward. Being able to freely exchange ideas and opinions reflects the beauty of a true friendship and I think this is what Myanmar and the Europeans share.
You mentioned a difficult issue, terrorism. This is not only a Myanmar issue; this is a regional and an international issue where Myanmar, Europe and the whole world share challenges in common. How to fight this rather new and emerging threat that is international terrorism? Through cooperation. No one will be able to tackle terrorism alone. Global threats require coordination and a global response. This is why it is in the interest of Myanmar to have the strongest possible cooperation with its neighbors and the wider international community.
What happened in October last year when the border post guards were attacked is very worrying, and the EU has immediately condemned this attack against the Myanmar authorities. It is very worrying because it shows that there is a new trend building up there. If Rakhine, as claimed by a number of constituencies, is increasingly hosting terrorist activities it only shows my previous point; we need more cooperation.
When people in any region start to become desperate and lose hope then this is the best breeding ground for terrorism. (MRTV: They are vulnerable, they have no choice?). Exactly. If they are poor and segregated and if they have no hope for their children then they will do things that are dangerous. So the best way to address terrorism is not only international cooperation but it’s to try to work on the ground to give a sense of future to all the people.
Q: My last question is about EU and Brexit. How will it affect small countries like Myanmar?
A: Brexit has been a shockwave and a great surprise for everybody including half of the British who did not want to leave the European Union. But it is a democratic choice we have to respect it. The European Union is a free union and you can get in freely and you can get out freely.
I do not think Brexit will have a big impact on Myanmar because the EU will continue to be here with 27 European States continuing their strong support to Myanmar. The UK will work bilaterally. And we should not forget that while everyone is talking about one country leaving the EU, there are currently six countries that want to join the EU as soon as they can, and are negotiating their accession. This shows that the European project is still very attractive and in a state of expansion. And in today’s unstable and unpredictable world, Europe is definitely a pole of stability, politically and economically.