Interview with Ashok Nigam, former UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar

Ashok Nigam, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar. UN Photo/Mark Garten

30 July 2012 – The United Nations has been present in Myanmar since the country gained its independence in 1948. The UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator is the top UN official in Myanmar for humanitarian, recovery and development activities.

Ashok Nigam was appointed to this position last year, prior to which he served with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in various capacities, as well as with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

While in New York recently, the UN News Centre recently spoke with Mr. Nigam about the various changes that are taking place in the South-east Asian nation, and the challenges that the country faces on the path to greater democracy and national reconciliation.

UN News Centre: What are the main challenges for Myanmar in terms of development?

Ashok Nigam: Myanmar has embarked on a process after the last elections for greater democratization, and the Government has actually accelerated the pace at which reforms are being announced in this context. It has shown a greater openness and certainly a move towards having all the three branches of government – the executive, legislature and judiciary – and trying to have the separation of powers between them.

It has got in front of it a formidable development agenda. As you know, Myanmar has not received a lot of international development assistI see the role of the UN as supporting the Government and the people of Myanmar in a process that will lead them to a democratic and free society.ance over these years. It has relied on its own resources and while it has made progress over these years, there are tremendous development challenges.

Poverty in the country stands at roughly 26 per cent. The Government’s aim is to reduce this by half by 2015, which is an immense challenge. In that context, since the country is primarily an agriculture-based economy, agricultural productivity needs to increase. Myanmar used to be the “rice basket” of East Asia at one point. Since then, productivity levels have gone down and the Government is aiming to really use the agricultural sector, since most of the population still lives in rural areas, as the growth centre for the country.

Meanwhile, it is looking to try to accelerate the manufacturing sector, the industrial sector and the service sector. And it is in the development of the manufacturing sector that it is looking at the various options because, now with the country opening up, there are many more opportunities that are coming up for investments.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) meets with Myanmar's President Thein Sein, in the capital, Naypyitaw. (April 2012) UN Photo/Mark Garten

At the same time, it is very conscious of the environmental impact of development. Very early on in the process, the Government had initiated a dialogue process in terms of – and this was really initiated by civil society but very much also supported by the Government – the need to protect the environment as they develop.

The President [Thein Sein] has indicated that he relies very much on what Myanmar as a late starter can learn from other countries and really accelerate the growth that it is looking at. But all of this predicated on ensuring that the right kinds of environmental protections are in place and that it is the people ultimately who really see the benefit of the changes and it’s their lives that should improve.

Myanmar is also quite resource-rich and therefore the use of their resources more judiciously and for the benefit of all the people of Myanmar is going to be a challenge for the coming phases and developing its policies and projects as they move on.

UN News Centre: How is the UN family in Myanmar assisting the country with these challenges?

Ashok Nigam: The UN has been in Myanmar right from its independence. We have been there through thick and thin. We have followed the country’s development and political processes over all of these years. So we are there and we have 16 agencies that operate in Myanmar. All the agencies are contributing accordingly, based on their mandates. The UN has made significant contributions [following] Cyclone Nargis and subsequently Cyclone Giri. We’ve been there and helping the Government on the humanitarian front since 2008, and we have really stepped up the humanitarian efforts because the humanitarian challenges still exist.

On the development front, agencies have been operating within their mandates... and some agencies had a restricted mandate and therefore the UN was not able to contribute to the full extent of its potential, but those restrictions have been lifted and the opportunities now are greatly increased for the UN to operate.

A town in Myanmar recovers from the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in 2009. Photo: Laura Sala/OCHA

UN News Centre: During his visit in April, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced a new partnership between Myanmar and the UN to support the country’s first census in 30 years. Can you tell us more about this?

Ashok Nigam: The President of Myanmar requested the Secretary-General at the last ASEAN [Association of South-east Asian Nations] meeting for support from the UN for doing the census. It will be the first census after 30 years. It is a very important exercise.

As you know, Myanmar has about 135 ethnic groups and a census has not been conducted for all of these years. The census forms the basis of much of development planning, much of the democratic process that forms the country. The request has been received. The Secretary-General has responded very favourably. We have signed a MOU [memorandum of understanding] with the Government on the census, and the process for holding the census is currently under way. It is going to be an exercise led by UNFPA [UN Population Fund] but with contributions from other parts of the UN and we expect that this will require a considerable amount of technical capacity-strengthening of the Government. We expect the census will be held in 2014.

UN News Centre: What are some of the major changes that have taken place for the people of Myanmar since the political reforms began?

Ashok Nigam: Probably the biggest change we sensed in many ways is that the expectations of people have changed. They are looking to a much more democratic society as they move forward. They are looking and hoping for a more open society as they develop. The voices of the people would be heard much more in the legislative process, and that is work in progress. They are looking for greater participation of civil society in these processes.

And ultimately, with this kind of openness, we – as in most democratic societies – hope that we will get a much more participatory approach, much more inclusive development and growth in the country, which itself has great merits in terms of how the country progresses and develops.

At this stage, I think the changes in the lives of the people are yet to happen. The Government has taken the first steps in terms of announcing policies and it is now the translation and the implementation of those policies that is critically important. Here, the international community has a very important role to play in providing the trade opportunities for Myanmar, in providing it availability to access other markets, availability to be able to export goods, availability to be able to import elements for its own industrial and agricultural development. Ultimately, all of these investments that are required in Myanmar are what will make a difference. As things open up and gradually move in that direction, we expect that the lives of the people would improve. But at the moment it is a slow process but the framework is being put in place by the Government.

Two men sit under the the remnants of their homes in Sittwe, the provincial capital of Myanmar's western Rakhine state, following ethnic violence there. Photo: IRIN/Khine Thurein

UN News Centre: What is the current situation in Rakhine state following the recent violence, and how the UN has been responding to the needs there?

Ashok Nigam: We had, in early June, a disruption in Rakhine state. It was a communal conflict that erupted as a result of certain incidents that had happened in the country. The scale of it actually escalated very rapidly. The Government, however, has now managed to bring law and order in those areas in the initial aftermath of what had happened. Though there may be sporadic incidents, it has been brought under control by the Government.

But it brought to the forefront the fact that we need to deal with the Muslim population in northern Rakhine state, and also the relationship between that community and the Rakhine people. That has been a very difficult issue, which needs to be addressed now. People need to live in harmony and therefore we need to look at the more medium- and longer-term solutions to that problem.

In the immediate aftermath, the UN was requested by the Government to provide humanitarian assistance and immediately after the unrest took place. We were requested to provide food in Sitwe and we immediately brought in supplies to try and meet the requirements.

We have, right from the onset of this man-made humanitarian crisis, provided humanitarian assistance based on what the Government has requested and the needs of the people. We are just completing a rapid needs assessment.

As you know, the UN provides its assistance in a very impartial manner and it is neutral in its approach and we provide on the basis of needs and therefore we need to do this independently. Based on that, our agencies are all prepared to provide the assistance that the Government has requested, which are in the areas of shelter, food, medicines, and water and sanitation.

UN News Centre: Last month, Myanmar signed an action plan with the UN to prevent the recruitment of children in the country’s armed forces. What is being done to implement that plan?

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets local villagers in Kyauk Ka Char, Shan State, during a visit to Myanmar. (April 2012) UN Photo/Mark Garten

Ashok Nigam: This was indeed a very remarkable achievement for the UN and for the Government of Myanmar. We have been working with the Government over the last three years or so to try and agree with them on a plan of action to prevent the recruitment of children into the army. Earlier this year, we had a set of discussions with them. We found a very responsive Government and we were able to address the outstanding issues that had been pending for a long time.

It was really because of the willingness of the Government – that it does want to be de-listed [from the UN Secretary-General’s list of parties that recruit child soldiers] and it does want very seriously to ensure that children are not recruited into the armed forces. So, the Government actually wanted to sign this very soon and we have managed to address the outstanding issues.

We have now moved to the stage of implementation where a joint committee has been set up. The committee has already started its work and we will soon start the inspections and the monitoring that is required under this plan of action. We hope that Myanmar will be de-listed, if it stays on track in that context. We think that it will probably be until about 2014, since we need a period of monitoring and then a period of further assessment in that context before the country can be de-listed.

But if we are well on track, then we expect that by 2014 Myanmar could be de-listed. But there’s a lot of work to be done still, and we need to get those assurances and we need to be confident that children are no longer being recruited in the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s armed forces].

We also agreed with them that they will facilitate for us to be able to engage with non-State actors because there is child recruitment even by non-State actors, and we need to start that dialogue process as well to try and see that we can actually work with non-State actors in some form to ensure that children everywhere are not recruited or are in the armed forces.

UN News Centre: There was a lot of attention on Myanmar with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. And now with so many competing international issues, has there been any impact on the world’s engagement with Myanmar?

The Rohingya, an ethnic, linguistic and religious minority in Myanmar. Photo: IRIN/David Swanson

Ashok Nigam: Myanmar is a country that is very strategically located. It’s a country that provides for the international community an example of a transition from a military dictatorship to a democratic system and hopefully in a very peaceful manner. And in that sense, it can serve as a beacon in its example to other countries and there are other countries which have had non-democratic systems in that context.

It can really serve of how we can actually achieve a peaceful transition and we can actually bring improvement to the lives of ordinary human beings… So it is critically important that Myanmar is a great success and I think the international community needs to be behind it to try and see that the pace at which and the direction of the change moves in that direction, that the people see a difference in their lives, and that the international community has played an important and significant part in that process as a family of nations.

So, I think Myanmar and the role that is being played by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition groups is a very positive and constructive role, and we have to be concerned as an international community that we are seeing through a transition process that remains peaceful and it allows people to really live in a free and democratic society.

I think we are going through a very interesting phase in Myanmar. The country provides opportunities for the people; it provides challenges; the transition is fragile; there are issues that the country still has to address. We have seen very positive signs, we’ve seen opportunities but there are still challenges. I think people should not underestimate the challenges.

I think this is the time for the international community to come together and to work in a very coordinated manner, and [for] the UN to work in a coordinated manner, to help and make sure that the assistance that is provided is effective. We should be there to facilitate the transition of the society and for people to be in the driving seat, for the Government to be in the driving seat. I see the role of the UN as supporting the Government and the people of Myanmar in a process that will lead them to a democratic and free society. I think this is an important time and we are very glad to be a part of this.

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