Myanmar’s ambassador to Norway: ‘The military should never have seized power’

‘It’s heart-breaking to see the blood in the streets,’ says Daw Maw Maw in an interview with Bistandsaktuelt. The ambassador believes it was wrong of the commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing to seize power, and says Aung San Suu Kyi must be released. However, the experienced diplomat will not echo the UN ambassador for Myanmar’s support for the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).

‘This is simply tragic,’ says Daw Maw Maw.

The Bistandsaktuelt publication asked Myanmar’s ambassador to Norway what she thinks about the scenes playing out in her homeland and about the military’s violence against young protesters. We are sitting in a sterile meeting room behind the Norwegian parliament, Storting, in Oslo. Daw Maw Maw considers the question, and responds:

‘It’s very painful because our country had been moving in the right direction over the past decade. Myanmar was more relaxed, more open – people were talking to each other again.

The ambassador says that she has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1983 and has seen the developments in Myanmar from the inside.

‘After 2010, we actually became part of the international community. There’s no doubt that the democratisation process has been slow, but it was ongoing. And we then ended up in this tragic situation. We were supposed to be communicating with each other, but we never managed to achieve that on this occasion, so the military leadership thought that a coup was the right course of action. But that was completely wrong.’

‘Why was it wrong?’

‘This is 2021. It’s ethically reprehensible to seize power from those who are democratically elected by the people of Myanmar. If irregularities were suspected in the election process this should have been tested in a court of law, as is done in a democracy. They should never have seized power.’

 

‘Do you support the CDM in Myanmar?’

‘Why is that important?’

‘I’m wondering if you support the people’s right to express themselves, to demonstrate, and the protection of basic human rights?’

‘Of course.’

‘But who do you represent in Norway?’

‘I represent Myanmar and am sticking to that. If I express support for the CDM, it’s goodbye to this job.’

‘Were you given an order?’

‘It was a friendly piece of advice from the capital. My job is to act as a bridge between Norway and Myanmar, listen to the Norwegian authorities and report back home. My feedback may end up in someone’s inbox without being read, but my job is to report faithfully.’

‘Report faithfully?’

‘Yes, I do. Ine Eriksen Søreide made a very strong statement. In Myanmar’s foreign service it is not customary to embroider criticism from outside, but after the Norwegian Foreign Minister’s statement I took the liberty of translating the entire text into Burmese. I wrote that she is very concerned about the military’s use of force, that she condemns the coup,’ says Daw Maw Maw.

‘For those with no knowledge of the internal dynamics in Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it’s easy to think that you are now the ‘extended arm’ of the junta’s or the military’s newly established State Administrative Council (SAC) in Norway. Is that assumption wrong?’

‘Yes, that's wrong. Because I use my own judgement in everything I do. If I did everything according to the instructions that I’m now receiving from back home I would be SAC’s extended arm. But that's not how I see my role. If I was a lackey for SAC, I would not be sitting here having this conversation with you,’ says Daw Maw Maw.

‘But is the State Administrative Council a legitimate authority in Myanmar?’

‘I’m not going to answer that question.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because you are asking me as Myanmar’s ambassador and I have to answer as that. There are a lot of things that someone in my position cannot comment on publicly.’

 

On the night of the coup itself, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint were arrested along with a large number of politicians and human rights activists. More than 1500 people have been arrested since 1 February. Bistandsaktuelt asked Ambassador Daw Maw Maw if she thinks Aung San Suu Kyi should be released.

‘Yes. She should never have been arrested,’ says Daw Maw Maw.
As the daughter of a diplomat, Daw Maw Maw spent much of her childhood in Canada and was educated in Switzerland. She has served in the UN delegation in New York, and in 2015 was appointed ambassador to Norway by President Thein Sein.

She says the job has been challenging following the coup.

‘Emotions are running high. The Norwegian-Burmese diaspora wants to help people in their home country and demonstrated outside the embassy here. I wanted to hear what they had to say so I could report on this back home. But they wanted me to express support for the CDM, and they also wanted to know if I supported the military or the CRPH [Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – a national legislative body representing the ousted members of the Burmese Assembly of the Union]. I do not support any of them. As a diplomat, I cannot make such a choice, but I have said that I don’t support the military, and that this is an extremely difficult situation for our country.’

The ambassador seems to be under pressure, and says that false rumours have been circulating about her since the meeting with the Norwegian-Burmese diaspora last week. She says it was broadcast live on Facebook without her knowledge, and that it has created problems for her family back home.
‘They didn’t like the answers I gave them. Now I’m being called a traitor and I’ve received death threats. It’s all turned very ugly.’

‘But what is happening on the streets of cities like Yangon and Mandalay is also very ugly is it not?’

‘It’s tragic, but the CDM and activism are not the only way out of this crisis. I’m doing what I can to find a solution, and my job is to act as a bridge between the Norwegian and Burmese authorities, regardless of who they are,’ says Daw Maw Maw.

 

‘I saw a video clip yesterday of what is said to have been a demonstrator, dying in the street in Yangon, shot in the head, gasping for air, with his brain and blood splattered across the asphalt. It’s perhaps not that difficult to understand that the situation evokes strong emotions?’

‘No, it’s not. What’s happening is heart-breaking, and I can well understand why young people are demonstrating in front of our embassy.’
‘But the hands and feet of all of Myanmar’s ambassadors are tied. We get instructions that we have to follow, and we can never come up with the black and white answers that some quarters want to hear. It won’t help my home country to get out of this situation if I resign.’

‘Ok, but does the steady flow of pictures coming out of Myanmar via social media give an accurate picture of the situation?’

‘My generation knows how bloody it can be when the military takes control. Many people now use social media to incite young people. I’m not saying that it’s lies that are being spread, but emotions are running very high. It’s difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.’

The ambassador says that she has a 15-year-old niece who called her a few days ago:

‘“Aunt Maw, I’m demonstrating,” she said. I asked her why and told her it could be dangerous. “I want to change the whole system,” she said. I said, “Okay, do it, but be careful.” I’m telling you about this to show that I understand young people’s frustration, because until now they have grown up without fear. But we also need to understand that there are forces that use this situation to their own advantage. Many express a desire for the UN to send forces, use R2P to seize power from the military. It’s simply tragic that such a message is being spread,’ says Daw Maw Maw.

 

‘The military leadership thinks the election was rigged, what’s your view on that?’

‘Tatmadaw said they took power because irregularities had been revealed in the voter registration system. Two days after the election, the opposition party USDP began collecting data on how the election was carried out. They claimed to have uncovered irregularities and complained to U Min Aung Hlaing. The commander-in-chief took the claims very seriously, but instead of taking on the role of ‘judge’, he became a contributor to the mess. In my opinion, any disagreements about the election result should have been resolved in the courts,’ says Daw Maw Maw.

‘Myanmar’s UN envoy recently expressed to the UN General Assembly that he is breaking away from the military regime. He condemned the coup and called on the international community to help restore democracy in Myanmar. Can you appreciate why he made such comments?’

‘This is getting very personal. I know him very well and know why he did what he did. A black and white picture is now being drawn of the situation, where those who don’t express support for CRPH and the CDM are being described as an enemy of the people.’

Daw Maw Maw is silent for a few seconds, then says she will ‘get in trouble’ if she comments on what she thinks about UN envoy U Kyaw Moe Tun’s speech to the UN General Assembly.

‘I believe he chose the wrong path. He actively sought advice from the capital Naypyitaw on what to say, pretending to faithfully follow the orders he was given to share the usual hard-line talking points. But then he did a U-turn at the last minute, talking about the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and UN intervention. But we have to be realistic now: will the UN really get involved in this?’

 

Daw Maw Maw does not answer her own question, but draws a parallel to the situation before the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi, pointing out that large parts of Libya’s UN delegation broke away from the leadership in their home country, before coalition forces – including Norwegian fighter jets – bombed Libya.

‘I’m terrified that Myanmar will end up as a failed state, that the Burmese army – the institution, not the generals – will be crushed. And that’s why I say I don’t support the CDM, that I don’t support CRPH. Our ambassador to New York let emotion take over and argued for measures that could see Myanmar ending up like Libya.’

‘It’s extremely dangerous. We cannot jeopardise the country’s existence based on emotions.’

‘If the UN ambassador chose the wrong path, what is the right one?’

‘Activism is not the only way out of this crisis. What we need is an honourable exit for both sides. Myanmar needs the help of an honest mediator, one who can help both sides to sit down and talk. And we must find one that both Min Aung Hlaing and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will listen to. This situation requires discrete diplomacy.’

  • Translated by Carole Hognestad, for Akasie språktjenester AS
  • Original text available here.
Publisert: 09.03.2021 16.29.04 Sist oppdatert: 09.03.2021 16.29.04