The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) has denied having links with the new Burmese government or violating EU economic sanctions in connection with a program in which it is indirectly financing Burmese groups for the purpose of economic development.
The denial was issued following Swedish media reports about a meeting on May 20 in Stockholm between Sida representatives and a Burmese delegation that reportedly included members of Myanmar Egress, a Rangoon-based Burmese NGO, and possibly with individuals connected to the Burmese Chamber of Commerce.
Myanmar Egress is known in Burma for its pro-government stance, including support for the controversial election in November of last year and opposition to Western economic sanctions.
Burma’s Chamber of Commerce is technically independent of the government but is known to be government-influenced. For example, the previous chairman of the Chamber of Commerce was Win Myint, who is also the minister of commerce.
The Local, a Swedish news website based in Stockholm, reported last week that the Burmese delegation was invited by the International Council of Swedish Industry (known as the NIR in Sweden), which on its website describes itself as the independent associate of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, representing some 60,000 member companies.
The Burmese delegation met with representatives of Sida, Swedish foreign ministry officials and the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. News of the meetings has raised the issue of whether Sida and the NIR’s relationship with the Burmese government and groups close to it might be in violation of EU policy towards Burma.
In April, the EU lifted its visa ban on certain Burmese senior government officials, including the Burmese foreign minister, but decided to maintain its economic sanctions against Burma, known as the the EU Common Position on Burma.
Speaking with The Irrawaddy on Friday, Johan Akerblom, a senior adviser at Sida who met the Burmese delegation, said that one and a half years ago Sida began providing 12 million Swedish Kroner (US $ 1.9 million) annually to an NIR project involving several countries to promote â€œmarket development, human rights and democracy,â€ and Burma was only a small part of that project.
â€œThis exchange with the Burmese delegation is part of an agreement between Sida and NIR,â€ said Akerblom, who added that the Burmese individuals he met were not representing the new Burmese civilian government.
In interviews with The Irrawaddy, both Sida and NIR officials declined to comment on the identity of the members of the Burmese delegation, citing policy reasons, and reaffirmed that both Sida and the NIR were in line with the EU Common Position on Burma.
But when asked if they had confirmed that the Burmese individuals in the delegation were not linked to the Burmese government, Akerblom said that Sida has asked the NIR for an explanation about these individuals and expected to get an answer by Tuesday.
â€œWhen it comes to Burma, it is very important to underline that Sweden follows EU policy and the NIR has to work in line with that. We are not cooperating with the regime,â€ he said.
The NIR’s director of operations, Sofia Svingby, conceded in a local Swedish report that the Burmese delegation included members of Myanmar Egress. When speaking with The Irrawaddy on Friday, however, she said the NIR does not work with Burmese government and individuals connected to it.
Regarding the NIR’s intentions for its programs directed towards Burma, Sofia said that the organization is now investigating what it can do for positive economic development in the country.
Asked whether the NIR is going to implement its programs in Burma regardless of the country’s political conditions, she said, â€œEconomic development, that is what we want. We are not into politics. We don’t work politically.â€
In the report in The Local, NIR CEO Erika Molin was quoted as saying that they [the Burmese delegation] believe that economic growth and a functioning industry is a fundamental prerequisite for the development of the country and the people.
â€œThat’s why we have invited these people,â€ she said.
Despite the EU decision to maintain its economic sanctions against Burma, Burmese opposition groups have expressed concerns that some of the bloc members, such as Germany, are trying to lift sanctions for business interests before any political progress is made.
According to a 2008 diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Berlin that was disclosed by Wikileaks, German officials had previously expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the EU’s economic sanctions against Burma, and members of the German parliament did not want to see ordinary Burmese people hurt by sanctions,.
The US cable quoted the then German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as having the impression that the sanctions were â€œlargely counterproductive, had helped to forge solidarity within the military, had increased China’s influence and had given the regime excuses for legitimizing its rule.â€
Early this month, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a German foundation based in Berlin, invited a Burmese delegation, which included a representative from the Myanmar Egress, to come and speak about Burma in the post-election period. The Irrawaddyâ€™s editor Aung Zaw also attended the conference.
Burma analysts have noted that some EU governments are eager to engage the regime and its proxies, such as the Myanmar Egress, who claim to have established civil society groups inside Burma. Government critics also point out that mainstream opposition members inside Burma cannot travel outside of Burma, but some â€œthird forceâ€ members, such as the Myanmar Egress representatives, enjoy the freedom to travel internationally and are frequently invited to Western capitals to present their political views and paint the Burmese picture in a positive light.
As a result, critics say, international officials who have the responsibility to determine Burma policy on issues such as sanctions only hear the pro-government arguments while attending international events.