RANGOON — Sweden opened its first embassy office in Burma on Friday. The two countries have had relations since 1955, but Swedish officials previously worked with their Burmese counterparts while based at an embassy over the border in Thailand. At the opening of the new Swedish embassy office in Rangoon’s Mayangon Township, The Irrawaddy spoke with Swedish Ambassador to Burma Klas Molin about business relations, foreign investment and press freedom.
Question: Are you the first ambassador to Burma in over half a century?
Answer: Good question. We have had relations since 1955, but no-one [Swedish ambassador] has been resident, living in the country. We’ve been covering this country from outside—first from India, and for many years from Thailand. In that sense, there is no change. I am an ambassador and I am a resident in Bangkok, and I am accredited to Myanmar [Burma] from Bangkok. What is new, and what is interesting, especially today, is that we’re opening an embassy office here in Yangon [Rangoon]. Technically, it’s an office under the embassy in Bangkok. But it will have staff from Sweden.
Q: Can Burmese citizens apply for Swedish visas through this embassy office here, or must we still apply in Thailand?
A: Still through Thailand. We’re working on facilitating the possibility of applying through another European embassy in the Schengen cooperation. But so far, we don’t have an agreement with another country that has an embassy here, so unfortunately for the moment there is no change on that front.
Q: Do Swedish investors have their eyes on Burma?
A: Yes, many Swedish companies, just like companies from other countries, are very interested. But only a few have established themselves, so far, mostly through representative offices or a local agent. It’s usually retail, they have someone who has an organization. For instance, we have bus companies, Scania and Volvo, and they both have local representatives that are supplied from outside, from Thailand and Malaysia, where there is manufacturing and assembly of buses and trucks, construction equipment. Also Ericsson, the big telecommunication company, is here with several people, and they are expanding because they are also active in helping set up a telecommunications network in Myanmar.
Q: Are companies particularly interested in heavy industry here?
A: We have companies with lots of experience in those sectors. I think they, as many others, are cautious because the legal framework can be a little opaque, not quite clear to them yet, while infrastructure is not fully up and running. There’s a big need for modernization. And it’s also hard to find staff. Sometimes I think they are deterred because things have gotten very expensive, especially in Yangon—the prices for rent, for housing, for the good staff. And it’s good that there is demand, but it’s also a bit of a deterrent perhaps for smaller companies. So a lot of interest, still a slow trickle of companies actually coming in, but many delegations traveling here and studying different sectors.
Q: Do you think Burma’s economy is on track?
A: If you look around, obviously things are changing very quickly. There is a very ambitious reform program that the government has put forward. Many challenges remain. It’s been a long time when the country was more or less isolated from the outside world, from the international economy, so you don’t change that overnight. But again the interest is there, and continued understanding that trade is good and can be a very positive factor. … The government is very interested in attracting foreign direct investment, and that’s one good factor, but in order to actually convince investors there needs to be a lot of things instituted in the legal framework, on infrastructure, on salaries, education and training. It’s happening, but it will take some time, and everyone understands.
Q: The government’s negotiations with ethnic armed groups are not over yet. Does ongoing fighting make investors hesitant to enter the country?
A: You would have to talk to companies obviously, but they all very interested in learning. And when we dialogue with companies, we think it very much in our mandate to give them our assessment of what’s going on. Also, here it’s very positive that there is structured dialogue around a national ceasefire. It’s not an easy thing, and we see that, and everyone knows it’s not an easy thing, or you would have had a national ceasefire agreement by now. Even when you have a national ceasefire agreement, of course that’s not necessarily the same thing as peace everywhere, and we understand that, and I think the serious investors will also understand this. To answer your question specifically, I’m not sure how much it deters them. I think it’s the factors that I have been pointing to before, on infrastructure, legal framework, etc., but of course those who do care and who take time and learn about this will ask more and will want to know. We are happy to see there is movement, that there is development, but we also realize there is a long way to go.
Q: What would you say about the state of Burma’s press freedom?
A: I see changes, especially in print media the last few years. There has been certainly a dramatic change and the possibility for certain publications to come to Yangon and have their offices in the country, and we think that’s very positive. Media freedom is extremely important to us, it’s part of the overall democracy and human rights concept. On broadcast media, we see that there are stronger restrictions. It’s not as open, it seems to us that there’s more to be done there.