Visit to Burma
THE MINISTER – I had the great fortune and the great honour of meeting Mrs Aung San Suu Kyi this morning for a little more than an hour. It was my first contact with her; I was very impressed by her charisma, calm and determination. I expressed to her both the admiration and the support of the French government and people. As you know, President Sarkozy had the opportunity to call her on the telephone 48 hours ago. So I handed her the letter the President had asked me to pass on to her, confirming his invitation for her to visit France.
As you also know, I shall decorate her this evening with the Légion d’Honneur: she will be made a Commandeur of our national order.
I had the opportunity to meet the leaders of several political parties this afternoon, and a number of representatives of civil society at lunchtime – economists, academics, experts on sustainable development – and we exchanged viewpoints and ideas at length and very frankly.
From those different meetings I’ll highlight three points:
The first issue is of course the release of political prisoners.
President U Thein Sein decided 24 hours ago to release 651 of them, including many very well-known prisoners. You’ve met several of them; I myself have met Min Ko Naing, the leader of the 88 Generation, and Khun Htun Oo, the chairman of the minority Shan [Nationalities] League for Democracy. I was also very impressed by their courage and determination.
The issue that arises is whether today we can consider all the political prisoners to have been released. The viewpoints expressed don’t all coincide, and we hope full clarification on this point can emerge from the dialogue between the authorities and the different parties and associations.
Tomorrow I’ll ask the government authorities to authorize the Red Cross to return to the prisons as it did before 2008, because – beyond the political prisoners – the issue arises of how prisoners more generally are treated in Burma’s jails.
The second big issue is the by-elections due to be held on 1 April, which will put up for renewal 40 seats in the House of Representatives (lower house), several in the upper house and also seats in the provincial governments. Of course, it’s very important for us that these elections should be transparent and perfectly free and fair; we’ll observe how they progress, in liaison with our embassy of course.
Finally, the third issue – doubtless the most difficult one in this process of Burma’s democratization, liberalization and pacification – is relations with the ethnic nationalities. Ceasefire agreements have already been reached, very recently, with the Karen ethnic group but, according to all the people I’ve met, these ceasefires are only a first step. They must then lead to more comprehensive negotiation, probably about a change to the constitution allowing equal rights to be guaranteed to all these peoples, and about a more comprehensive political agreement.
So there’s still some way to go. What I heard generally was an expression of confidence in the President’s willingness to move forward, but there are of course – as in all processes of this kind – obstacles, hesitations and attempts to turn back the clock.
That’s why, before fully and definitively lifting the European Union’s sanctions, we’re going to observe how the process goes. We will of course talk to our European partners about it at the next meetings of foreign ministers, to see how to organize this lifting of sanctions.
Personally, I think we must send signals of encouragement to the authorities engaged in this process, while keeping incentives so that they can complete what deserves to be – but hasn’t yet been – completed. (…)
Q. – What support can France today provide to Aung San Suu Kyi?
THE MINISTER – First of all, moral and political support. She hasn’t lacked it in all these years. I renewed it quite dramatically today, because I’m the first French foreign minister to visit the country and therefore to see her at her home.
Secondly, France can provide political support to the government authorities. We’re encouraging [them] to move ahead with the process of democratization and liberalization. There, too, we’re moving in the same direction as Aung San Suu Kyi. Moreover, once she holds responsibilities – which I hope she does, as I’ve said – one of the big challenges is also to help Burma or Myanmar emerge from the state of under-development it’s currently in. It’s a country that has resources but is extremely poor, first of all because those resources haven’t been sufficiently invested in development and in the population’s wellbeing, and secondly because it’s true that the sanctions have doubtless slowed economic momentum.
And on that point, I was very struck, in the meeting I had during lunch with the representatives of civil society, by the importance they attach to economic development. Fighting inequalities, encouraging national reconciliation and enabling the ethnic minorities’ problems to be resolved – those things depend largely on the country’s economic development, and France will also help with that.
Q. – People abroad often talk about Aung San Suu Kyi as the opposition leader. You also met the ethnic minority parties this afternoon, as well as other pro-democracy parties, and relations with Aung San Suu Kyi aren’t always very simple for them. Don’t you get the feeling there’s a wider opposition that is more complex than the vision we currently have of it?
How can France help?
THE MINISTER – It is indeed complex, but ultimately we’re not prescriptive about clarifying the political parties’ lives. That may be the price of democracy, after all. I simply questioned those parties to find out whether they were going to try to regroup, in the run-up to the forthcoming by-elections or beyond.
I received mixed answers. In fact I was keen to see pretty much all of them; there were very many of them at the meeting held at the cultural institute. It’s obviously up to them to take decisions in this field.
Q. – And on the lifting of sanctions, they don’t all agree?
THE MINISTER – I actually found, at the round table at the Institut français, that there was quite broad unanimity. Aung San Suu Kyi herself would like us to be vigilant and set a timetable for lifting sanctions as the process moves forward. I think we must also consult our European partners. We’ll also have to take into account the Americans’ attitude, because many sanctions depend on American decisions. There’s a whole approach to coordinate and adopt in light of these two concerns: sending signals to encourage the process to continue and, at the same time, keeping in reserve some incentives for going further. (…)./.