Norwegian ambassador: No repatriation of Myanmar refugees

Katja Christina Nordgaard, Norwegian ambassador to Thailand, Cambodia and Burma meets Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul in Bangkok.

The Norwegian-led Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI) was launched earlier this year to prepare the ground for the eventual return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Burma’s border areas in the wake of government ceasefires with ethnic armed groups.

However, local non-governmental and community-based organizations (NGOs and CBOs) have criticized the scheme for supposedly cutting traditional cross-border funding and acting too hastily when Burma’s nascent political reforms appear fragile.

This culminated in a group of Shan CBOs calling for the postponement of a consultation meeting in Chiang Mai on Aug. 27 citing a lack of notice, and also protesting about a door-to-door survey of Koung Jor refugee camp, northwest Chiang Mai Province, which was apparently earmarked for a refugee return project.

Katja Christina Nordgaard, Norwegian ambassador to Thailand, Cambodia and Burma, talked to The Irrawaddy journalist Charlie Campbell about the MPSI and the recent concerns of local groups.

Question: Is the MPSI currently preparing for the return of refugees?

Answer: The repatriation of refugees is not going to happen. This is an ongoing consultation program and there has to be some changes and refinements in relation to what came up in the first discussions. There will not be any repatriation of refugees, it will be focused on IDPs.

Q: So there was no consultation in refugee camps in Thailand?

A: No, nothing like that. That comes much later with the return of refugees—that is not part of the MPSI at all. The repatriation of refugees is absolutely not on the agenda. It is a difficult issue that has to be handled in quite a different context and with other actors, of course.
It is all going on inside and it is about having pilot project interventions in the ceasefire areas in order to provide the ground opening up and building confidence and interaction between local actors to open up space for more aid to come. And the refugee repatriation is something that will come later and be quite different when that comes on the agenda. It will not be something that the MPSI will handle.

Q: What happened with the Chiang Mai meeting in September which Shan groups tried to call off?

A: That took place and maybe there was an issue with some groups being upset about the timeline before the meeting. We went ahead as we had so many different people coming along so we thought it was worthwhile having the meeting anyway. But that was not about refugees at all. MPSI is not about the returning of refugees. That is very important as that would be a misunderstanding.
The response [on our website] acknowledged that ideally we should have had more time in advance but because we brought along different groups and ourselves—we had groups talking about the peace centers and the ILO [International Labor Organization] there—so we decided to go along anyway and have more meetings at a later date.

Q: Is there much progress being made with the MPSI?

A: Absolutely, we are going out in the different states, of course, with different groups. So it is not like one big consultation process.

Q: Do you think that NGOs are objecting to the MPSI out of self-preservation?

A: I think that’s a natural thing and it is strange now but I think that everybody at this time has to be prepared to change and it’s about acknowledging that we are now facing a new situation and, of course, that goes for the groups on the border.
Again one of the misunderstandings is that Norway has tried to advocate that there shouldn’t be any more aid given to the groups and rumors like that. And, of course, we have not done that. And, of course, the groups that are there represent some expertise and knowledge and have been good players for many years.
There will be room for them also and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was resistance to that but the aim has to be part of a normal structure inside and that’s what we are working for. We are not there now but we are trying to open up space so it will be possible for NGOs and the international community to come in with aid for people from the inside.
There’s a lot of misinformation around but it’s important to try and actually look at what’s going on and it’s never been about kicking anyone out and we are still supporting the camps and everything. I would be surprised if these groups are not in favor of these areas opening up for aid and trust-building and a normal situation—it’s their people.

Q: How much consultation has there been with NGOs and groups established on the ground?

A: We have been going to Chiang Mai and meeting with [UN Envoy] Charles Petrie and his people and so trying as much as possible, but it is also important to see that the MPSI is not doing anything that has not been asked for or agreed by parties [on the ground]. Maybe one has to look into the amount of consultation going on between non-state armed groups and their civil society CBOs and NGOs.

Q: Are armed groups pushing for peace for economic gain?

A: I’m not sure about that actually. We also receive a lot of positive feedback from groups at the borders. There are some which are very critical but it would be good to speak to people on the inside. There are groups who have legitimate concerns and we are trying to accommodate and listen to everyone. I think it’s very important to sound out several stakeholders.

Q: Is there one area of the border region in which MPSI work seems the most promising?

A: I don’t think there is any area … they are so different—different faiths, different groups and the different circumstances on the ground with different dynamics and different roles. The situation is different from place to place but what we have done in the pilot area in Kyaukkyi [in Kachin State] is where the intervention has materialized the most.
In some of the other areas it is a lot about consultations. It’s being concentrated by the different actors, it’s not that you can say somewhere is more successful than somewhere else—it’s a continuous process going on. It’s possible to have concrete projects by the end of the year. There are different types of projects—the IDPs in Kyaukkyi are already receiving aid and some livelihood equipment and such.

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