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Myanmar President Thein Sein visits Europe

1 March 2013

The arrival of Myanmar's President Thein Sein in Oslo on 26 February inaugurated the president’s first trip to Europe. After Norway, he will visit Finland, Austria, Belgium and Italy. Even though precise details on the visits are not available, it has been reported that Thein Sein will fly back to Myanmar on 8 March. The European trip tops a series of important events in the history of the country, which seem to confirm that Myanmar is stepping out of the isolation which characterized the country over the past decades.

Most of the non-military sanctions on the part of the US, the EU and other countries were loosened in spring 2012. This was followed by an announcement by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, of the opening of an EU delegation to Myanmar in the near future. This paved the way for the visit of President Thein Sein to the US. The visit, which took place at the end of September 2012, was the first trip of a Burmese leader to the US in 46 years, and was followed by an unprecedented three-day stay by President Obama in Yangon in November.

Continuing steps are being taken in 2013 to further engage Myanmar in international politics. Nearly one month after the January 2013 confirmation of the opening of an EU delegation to Myanmar, Catherine Ashton met with the country's Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin. The High Representative once again praised the historic changes undertaken by the country, and pointed out the challenges for the nation in terms of democratisation, economic development, human rights protection and national reconciliation. The official EU statement reports that “the two sides discussed ways to strengthen economic cooperation notably through the organization of a Myanmar-EU Task Force, further normalise relations and render the EU's support to the reforms under way more effective. The High Representative reiterated the invitation for President U Thein Sein to visit Brussels soon”.

This series of events and meetings shaped the background of the on-going visit. The president’s stay will set the basis for further cooperation and aid between European countries and Myanmar. Norway was among the first states to lift the sanctions on Myanmar. Furthermore, the opening of a Norwegian embassy in Yangon was announced in November 2012, on occasion of the visit of the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. This news was confirmed during a press conference in Oslo on 28 February, during which Myanmar's president praised the Norwegian government for helping his country emerge out of international isolation. The Norwegian prime minister commended Myanmar’s significant advances in reforms, and both parties expressed mutual interest in promoting a telecommunication partnership in Myanmar.

During the Ninth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), held in Laos’ Vientiane in late November 2012, Myanmar opened a dialogue aimed at improving its relations with other European countries, including Finland, Austria and Italy. It is expected that during his upcoming visits to these countries, Thein Sein will continue on the path initiated in Vientiane, and will aim to further strengthen and deepen ties with these countries. During the meeting, Finnish Prime Minister Jykri Katainen remarked that his country's business community is seeking investment opportunities in Myanmar, and is willing to get involved in the development of the Asian country especially in the fields of education and exploration of oil, gas and mineral resources. This stance was confirmed again in January by Finnish Minister of International Development, Heidi Hauta, who invoked mutual cooperation in promoting diplomatic ties between the two countries.

During the same ASEM meeting, technological assistance to Myanmar, intended for the development of infrastructure and the agricultural sector, was at the centre of talks between President Thein Sein and Austrian Deputy Finance Minister Andreas Schiender. Other issues, such as cooperation in energy and environmental conservation, food security, education, health, banking services and finance and technology were also discussed. The dialogue between Italian former Prime Minister Mario Monti and his Burmese counterpart mostly focused on writing off loans and giving assistance to Myanmar in the field of conservation of cultural heritage.

When he visits Belgium in early March, President Thein Sein is expected to attend high level EU meetings. Topics such as sanctions, development aid, economic reforms, human rights protection and internal conflict in Myanmar are very likely to be addressed.