16 May Day 4: The Swedish Section Office and an old Glass Factory
So the fourth day in Myanmar and we were still having a great time! We only had one booked meeting, so that meant a free morning! The group split up as some people slept in and some took the time to catch up with some studying (not sure how effective the studying sessions were though, especially for the ones who went to to the pool). After that, we were of to our meeting at the Section Office, in the ”Nordic House” in Yangon. We had a very interesting and rewarding meeting with Swedish representative Johan. The section office is a group of Swedish representatives, five diplomats, four persons from SIDA as well as three local staff members, that work as a small embassy, since the embassy of the area is located in Bangkok. The section office has tree main focuses: Peace, Human rights and Health. To reach development in these three areas, work is done mainly through civil society partners. For example, one of these partners are the International Media Support (IMS) that collaborates with FOJO Media Institute that we met up with earlier this week. The decision to mainly work with and fund civil partners was based on the thought of not supporting a government that was not elected fairly. However, in recent years the democratization and development towards a more open country has led to an increased Swedish interest in Myanmar. Johan answered a lot of interesting questions about the situation in the country, why we thought the meeting would be best narrated through a Q&A.
Why has the Swedish interest in Myanmar increased in the last few years?
– Previously, Sweden did not want to engage too muck with the government in Myanmar because they thought that they had not been elected in a fair way, that some ethnical groups were mistreated in the country and so on. Therefore the involvement with the government was very limited. But with the new government elected 2015 they recognized that they had a lot of support to give towards the democratization. Another aspect of the increased interest from Sweden is that businesses saw opportunity to market themselves in the country, but not without physical and technological difficulties.
What health standard do the burmese population have access to?
– Unfortunately, the health standard in the country is very poor compared to other surrounding countries. The section office fund a lot of money to actors who aim to make the sexual and reproductive healthcare better, such as educating more midwives, maternal health, vaccinations and so on. It is also important to understand that Yangon is a bubble of wealth compared to the rest of the country, there is a huge gap between the countryside and the bigger cities. For example, in the countryside, a pregnant woman might have to go for an hour and a half on a motorbike to come to the nearest midwife. The people who can afford preferably goes to Singapore for health care.
How do the section office contributes to the peace process?
– The Swedish embassy and with that, the section office, has made an active choice not to contribute to the big international fund that the Myanmar government has access to, unlike many other european countries. Sweden is a part of financing the peace support fund which aids civili society organisations. But there will not be peace in Myanmar for at least ten years.
What is the Section Office view on the Rohingya situation?
– The Swedish view on the Rohingyas is firstly that it is irrelevant how long they have been in the country, who identifies as Rohingya and what other people think about their religion – at this point the treatment of the ethnic group is considered discrimination. But what is important to remember is that the Rakhine state is very poor and that the problem is very complex.
Do you see any threats to democracy in the country?
– Yes. First of all these need to be peace for there to be democracy in Myanmar. Recently, there was a NLD prominent lawyer assassinated, and what is clear is that the reason of the assassination was his advocating on constitutional change. There is still a big military interest in controlling the country, and on paper the country has freedom of press but there are ways that the government can control what is written and broadcasted. Therefore there is still a long way to go before the democracy is stable. For example there is the law Art. 66D, which is a unpredictably applied and flexible law used to put people on trial for criticizing the government. Though the majority has the power to change the law it still reclines to do so. But to nuance the picture of the democratization of Myanmar it is worth mentioning that there are things working surprisingly well. For example there is, although the government is unstable it is in somewhat chosen democratically with a will to change the country. A lot of former party members previously in exile are welcomed back in to Myanmar. Changes has been made, and the country is not what it was 10, or even five years ago.
So that was some of the questions Johan answered. Thank you Johan for the interesting facts! This was hopefully interesting and possible to read, even though summarized from incomplete sentences in a note block and a foggy 40-degree memory. The day ended for some of us at an old glass factory and some took a boat over the river to watch the sunset. In short words: a great day.
By: Elsa Jerhamre and Jonna Skog