By PATRICK BOEHLER
Border areas will be among the focus areas of Denmark's engagement efforts with Burma, visiting Danish Minister for Development Cooperation Christian Friis Bach told The Irrawaddy earlier this week.
Bach made his remarks after returning from Burma, where he met with President Thein Sein, several government ministers and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and also traveled to Shan State.
“We will pay special attention to development in the border areas and working primarily from inside [Burma] and making sure that the peace process is translated into concrete progress, especially in areas that have been affected by ethnic conflict, where poverty is severe and where the rights of the people have not been protected,” he said.
Bach also announced a doubling of Danish development assistance to Burma from 50 to 100 million Danish kroner (US $17 million) in 2012.
The Danish visit to Burma comes a week after Denmark assumed the presidency of the European Union (EU), giving Bach's voice additional weight when deciding how to deal with the Southeast Asian nation's political reforms.
Bach, a former journalist, economics professor and consultant for international organizations, said that his visit was a “signal that we will engage more” to make sure that “the democratic transition brings real benefits to the people of Burma.”
He announced the establishment of a Danish Technical Cooperation Office in Burma. “We stand ready to open the office as soon as possible after the by-election on April 1,” he said.
The office will serve “to increase our dialogue with all actors within Burma, ranging from civil society, the private sector, opposition parties and other democratic forces as well as the government,” the minister added.
Bach's comments came only days after the EU announced it would set up a representative office in Rangoon in the near future.
Michael Mann, spokesman for the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, told The Irrawaddy that the EU representative office will also be established “as soon as possible,” but no decisions had been made on who will be its head or how many staff will be allocated.
Asked about the possibility of lifting EU sanctions against Burma, Bach remained cautious.
“I cannot foresee a situation where all sanctions are removed, but I can foresee a situation where we will have a dialogue in Europe on how we can engage in a more constructive way in order to support the democratic transition,” he said.
Bach said this “stronger engagement” was based on three conditions which he emphasized in conversations with Thein Sein, several ministers and members of the Union Parliament.
The conditions he set out were the freeing of all prisoners of conscience, free and fair by-elections on April 1 and tangible efforts in bringing peace to ethnic conflicts.
For the latter, he demanded a cessation of violence and increased access to disputed areas, “in order to build schools, health clinics, improve livelihoods and make sure the peace process is followed by progress on the ground.”
He added that the realization of the three conditions was only a first step. “What we really need to build is rule of law in a very comprehensive way so that the rule of law can be achieved for ethnic minorities, political prisoners, opposition parties and the population in general,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Bach held a joint press conference with Suu Kyi in Rangoon on Jan. 6 congratulating her for the re-registration of the National League for Democracy (NLD) as an official party.
The NLD won Burma's last undisputed elections in 1990 by a landslide, but was never permitted to take power.
The party was disbanded after refusing to stand for the 2010 Burmese general elections in protest at the widely condemned 2008 Constitution, which guaranteed a large proportion of Parliamentary seats to the military.
“Scandinavian countries are shining examples of people-oriented government, therefore we put particular importance into relations with Scandinavian countries,” Suu Kyi told Bach and a group of journalists gathered at her residence in Rangoon.
Bach traveled to Burma from Jan. 6 to 9. His last visit to Burma was in 2008, when he was the head of the international department of DanChurchAid, a Danish humanitarian and development NGO.