The Swedish government has confirmed that several members of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) traveled to Sweden in May as part of Swedish initiative to promote sustainable development and corporate social responsibility.
The delegates were visiting at the invitation of the International Council of Swedish Industry (NIR), which is funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
According to a statement issued by SIDA in response to the controversy created in Sweden by the visit, the Burmese delegates were invited as part of a SIDA-funded program that NIR has embarked on that involves promoting the ‘objective to create a dialogue with industry and commerce representatives on issues such as market principles in several countries, including Burma’.
Burma continues to face trade sanctions despite elections in November 2010 that brought in a democratically elected government, one that critics claim is run behind the scenes by the military.
According to the Swedish media, Jytte Guteland, the head of the youth wing of the opposition Social Democrats, issued a press release demanding that the Swedish government explain the delegation’s visit and answer whether the visit meant that Swedish policy towards Burma had changed.
The SIDA statement indicated that the delegates were brought to Sweden to have a dialogue with NIR that ‘focused on corporate social responsibility, transparency and sustainable development’.
According to SIDA, to carry out this programme NIR has “been in contact with reform-minded individuals in business organizations. The invitees were individual representatives of Burmese industry and commerce, known for wanting to pursue economic reforms’.
The Swedish news site Omvärlden first reported that the delegation included members of the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce. Both Omvärlden and Mizzima receive financial support from SIDA.
SIDA spokesperson Tove Silveira Wennergren told Mizzima that although representatives of the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce were included in the delegation they ‘were not invited as representatives of the Chamber, and there has been no direct contact with the Chamber as an institution’.
The Myanmar Chamber of Commerce was until recently headed by the EU blacklisted Burmese businessman Win Myint, Burma’s new commerce minister. While the chamber itself was never blacklisted by the EU, it does appear on the American sanctions list of entities that are identified and targeted for being close to the Burmese military regime.
SIDA spokesperson Silveira Wennergren declined to tell Mizzima what other organizations or businesses the rest of the delegation came from. ‘Unfortunately, due to the nature of this visit and in consideration of the security of the participants, Sida cannot disclose detailed information about the participants and their respective affinities’, she said.
Last month, NIR director of operations Sofia Svingby told Omvärlden that the delegation included members of Myanmar Egress, a self-declared civil society organization that is a registered business in Burma and charges tuition for students to take ‘civil society’ classes at the organization’s head office located in a Rangoon hotel.
Photos of the delegation posted on the Omvärlden Web site show that Myanmar Egress founder, Burmese newspaper and magazine publisher Dr. Nay Win Maung, was part of the delegation. Nay Win Maung, who started his first magazine with the help of Ye Naing Win, son of then SPDC Prime Minister and Military Intelligence Chief Khin Nyunt, remains a controversial figure in Burmese opposition circles.