- May Hnin Aye
While Myanmar celebrates its sixty-ninth anniversary of independence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) turns seventy. In human nature, seventy year-old is an aging grandpa or grandma; for an institution, seventy years’ existence is just the age of maturity.
In olden days of monarchy, there were remarkable diplomats such as Shin Di-tha-pa-mauk, U Kaung and Yaw-min-gyi U Pho Hlaing who did effective negotiation in resolving crises, but there was no foreign ministry. Under the British colonial rule too, since there was no sovereignty, foreign relation was managed by the Defence and External Affairs Department according to 1935 Burma Act. During the Japanese occupation 1942-45, Myanmar had Chancellor Dr. Ba Maw and Foreign Secretary U Nu (1943-44) and Thakin Mya (1944-45). However, this administration did not have real power to manage, and there was no linkage with the future administration structure.
The Aung San-Attlee Agreement, which paved the way for Myanmar’s independence was signed by General Aung San and Prime Minister Lord Attlee in London on 27 January 1947, was also the origin of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In line with this agreement, Governor’s Executive Council composed of six members of AFPFL led by General Aung San and five members of British representatives was to act as an interim government. Therefore, the Department of Foreign Affairs, which is a necessity for a functioning independent state, was formed on 17 March 1947 with the Government decree No. 77 D (MM) 47. Since General Aung San was Vice Chairman of Governor’s Executive Council, he was in charge of Foreign Affairs and was regarded as the first Foreign Minister; ICS U Shwe Baw was the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Without sovereign independence, a country cannot engage with defence and foreign affairs. That is why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the symbol of sovereignty as it safeguards the sovereignty through diplomacy and works for the national interest. As a saying goes, “Diplomacy is the first line of defence”, an army protects the sovereignty of a nation with physical strength while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs does the same with the intangible, tactful diplomacy.
Even in the independence preparatory period, High Commissioner U Win for the Indian Union and U Pe Khin for Pakistan were appointed on 5 August 1947. Diplomatic missions were established in 1947 with countries important for Myanmar including Pakistan, United Kingdom, India, China and the United States of America. Soon after the independence in 1948, Myanmar diplomatic and consular missions were established in Thailand, France and New York. Since independence, the establishment for foreign affairs was known as “Foreign Office” and that name was changed into “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs” on 25 May 1967 by the Revolutionary Council government.
At its seventieth anniversary, the physical progress can be seen in diplomatic relations with (114) countries and functioning of 35 embassies, 3 missions and 6 consulates throughout the world. There are also seven departments and over one thousand personnel at headquarters and missions abroad. Apart from this tangible progress, there are also records of incidents and crises that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had diplomatically intervened in the interest of the country and its people. Foreign Policy is formulated by the ruling government, but the execution and implementation is done by the Foreign Ministry which diligently highlighted the determinants of foreign policy and added value with wisdom, experience and efficiency reflecting the Ministry’s integrity.
During the decade of 1947-1958, when the Foreign Ministry was just established, the Ministry performed well in establishment of new diplomatic relations with the countries of the world, membership to the UN and other international institutes and treaties, reparation from Japan and border demarcation relying on the experience of former British civil servants, strengthening with some Myanmar experienced ICSs and adding up with the seasoned politicians and academics. The relationship with the political elites in China and India in struggle for independence also supported Myanmar’s foreign relation activities after independence.
Especially Myanmar’s firm position on non-alignment between the East-West blocs at the peak of cold war was highly appreciated and respected in the region. Myanmar took active part in the Bandung Conference fostering Africa- Asia relations, in creation of the third group of power as the Non-Aligned Movement. Myanmar could even support China’s membership to those groupings while China was under pressure from the Western bloc. Myanmar’s active participation in UN also suited well in handling the Kunmington which intruded into north eastern part of Myanmar with strong backing from a powerful state. Although Myanmar was a newly independent country, Myanmar’s active engagement in world affairs and efficiency of its diplomats earned a first Asian Secretary General of the United Nations from Myanmar- U Thant.
After 1962, there was political change in Myanmar and Foreign Ministry contributed to the successful deliverance of Myanmar socialism. Although Myanmar maintained friendly ties with western countries and enhanced cooperation with socialist countries, it could not play an active role in regional and global affairs.
In 1979 when unprecedented tensions between the East and the West blocs, the influence of super power penetrated to the decision of the Non-Alligned Movement, Myanmar reacted in strongest terms and left the association. MOFA also successfully contributed to the end of China’s support to Burmese Communist Party (BCP) by approaching China at the right time. The Ministry also had the rare experience of issuing statement in severing the diplomatic relations when the third country attacked the visiting delegation within our own territory.
From 1980 to 2010, the Ministry also had unprecedented experience in diplomatic front. Myanmar diplomats found themselves in a very difficult position in facing with accusation, blames and insults. Normally, diplomatic channel is always open even in the time of war. However, Myanmar had to cope with isolation.
Despite those difficulties, MOFA seek new friends, established diplomatic relations with more countries and joined the regional groupings like ASEAN and BIMSTEC, rejoined NAM and tackled the actions at the United Nations Security Council. We had to state that situations in the country was our own internal affairs; on the other hand we were seeking the international acceptance. We had to convey the message of the international community to our own government while trying to reintegrate in international system through our engagement with the UN and ASEAN.
On 2nd and 3rd of May 2008, Myanmar was severely hit by the Nargis cyclone. International communities were impatient to render humanitarian assistance. The then government was reluctant to receive them in fear of humanitarian intervention. Finally we were able to formulate the mechanism of TCG- Tripartite Core Group of ASEAN-Myanmar and the UN. It was indeed a successful diplomacy. Within a few days after the cyclone, Myanmar hosted an international donars’ Pledging Conference attended by nearly 500 delegates from 51 countries including the UNSG and Ministerial delegations. It was really a challenge for MOFA to host a conference at such a scale in 6 days of preparation. Then, the Ministry also facilitated the citizens abroad’s participation in 2008 constitution referendum and 2010 general elections which were important for the political transition.
For the period of 2011-2016, Myanmar experienced a peaceful transition to democracy under a quasi-civilian rule. International community recognized the change, and delegation after delegation were queuing to engage with the government. The number of foreign diplomatic missions were increased significantly (currently 47 embassies. 4 consulates, 8 honorary consulates and 17 UN agencies) MOFA had to respond to those changes with limited capacity in human resource, expertise and experience. In last two decades, we did not have much experience in state level foreign trips, but we had to arrange head of state’s visit to the USA and other European countries with our simple and earnest effort.
In 2014, Myanmar had to take the rotating presidency of ASEAN for the first time since we joined the association in 1997. MOFA is the most responsible ministry for the ASEAN Chairmanship, and we successfully accomplished the task of the Chairmanship with the help of friendly and partner countries. Then, the 2015 General elections came with high emotion of Myanmar citizens abroad to cast a ballot. This was a challenging task for many of our embassies abroad.
Then, the new democratic government was elected by people and the Ministry assisted a peaceful government transition in the aftermath of 30 March 2016. We had guidance from leaders to practice “the people-centered diplomacy”. We made efforts to balanced diplomatic maneuver, to serve our citizens most, to use diplomacy positively for everybody’s concerns, not only for our own country but also for the countries which we are engaging, to contribute to peace and national reconciliation and holding up national unity with wider perspective.
When we are tasked more duties, it’s a call for own service personnel to make more efforts to be more effective, efficient and compatible.
Throughout seventy years’ journey, the generations of MOFA service personnel were able to serve the national interest with different approaches, depending on the policies of consecutive governments. Foreign Policy is formulated by ruling government, diplomats are implement it through diplomacy. Since independence, the consecutive governments declared its foreign policy of independent active and non-aligned based on the country’s geological position, power structure and in line with international order.
When we assess the seventy years’ journey of MOFA , there are success, weakness, difficult challenges, struggles, suffering, satisfaction and valuable experiences. Such experiences drive us to be stronger and more mature institution.
Responsibility for development of a nation lies with all citizens. In the same way, all service personnel are responsible for the building up of MOFA as a perfect institution. Man is mortal, but experiences and lessons learned can be handed over generation to generation. The strong point with institution is the handing over of institutional memory so that the institution be respectable and honorable with dignity. Seventy years journey is the collective journey of two to three generations.
There are many diplomatic academies in the world, but the study of diplomacy is incomplete if we don’t count on sharing experience, continuous learning, apprenticeship and nurturing. Tha-Kaung-taman (good diplomat of the motherland) always takes bold step in all eras to serve the country and its people preventing the crisis. We will continue our efforts in defending and promoting our national interest.
May the MOFA be perpetual and developed to serve the country and people most!