Mizzima Editor Myo Thant sat down recently with the new Ambassador of Israel to Myanmar, Mr Ronen Gilor, to discuss Israel-Myanmar relations, trade and aid.
The following is the full interview.
What is your priority in Myanmar?
Mingalaba, it is a pleasure to be here at Mizzima, thank you for this invitation to come and to talk with you, for me, it's a great honour to be an ambassador of Israel to Myanmar. Israel and Myanmar have had a long journey together since the independence of both nations. The priorities of the embassy are agriculture, health, education and also innovation. Innovation is something that unites all those sectors for the embassy.
How do you view your country’s relationship with Myanmar today?
I think that the relationship is a historical and fantastic one. We started our journey in the same year 1948, each nation and peoples had another journey along the years but still, we had a very good relationship since the beginning of the two countries. Prime Minister U Nu came to Israel in 1955 to visit Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Your prime minister our first prime minister had a great friendship between them, some years later in 1961 it was the Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion who came to Myanmar to visit Prime Minister U Nu, they sat together they had a very good visit and then in Jerusalem they did not know where David Ben-Gurion was because he went to a monastery for meditation. For him it was very important he talked many, many times about Buddhism and Judaism to compare the two faiths that are in a way very similar in another way different and then we had a big Embassy here in the 60s, the embassy was here because we didn't have diplomatic relations with India or with China we had a very big Embassy here in Burma. We started MASHAV – Israel’s Agency for International Cooperation to come here to assist Myanmar and also to have exchanges with Myanmar to study about many, many topics like those that I mentioned before like agriculture in particular.
So can you explain to me a little more about the agriculture center and education?
In agriculture, we believe that we can do more activities that we do already in Myanmar and also we would like very much to be very, very active in many regions and states of Myanmar. Up until now we have had some activities in Shan State for drip irrigation and greenhouses. In the meeting that we have in Israel between the chief minister of Mandalay and the minister of Agriculture of Israel we talked about Israeli high technology for agriculture and state of the art agriculture technology for the dry zone of Mandalay Region, Bago Region and we are going to continue with that. For that purpose, we now have a demonstration field in the Yezin agricultural University near Nay Pyi Taw and students of agriculture can go and study the many good technologies from Israel.
As you mentioned earlier, you had a long relationship with the previous government right now we have a new government. How is the relationship with the new government?
Democracy is something new to Myanmar. Of course, we salute Myanmar in this process of democratization. It is a baby democracy still and we believe that we have to support democracy, as the only democracy in the Middle East, we want very much to support Myanmar in its journey, a new journey of democracy. As we were friends of Myanmar before we have to also be friends now of Myanmar and we believe that with friendship we can make many, many good things for the relationship between the two countries and especially the two peoples because the people of Myanmar, you know, the people of Myanmar they know about Israel and it is such a pleasant feeling for me as an ambassador of Israel to walk in the streets of Myanmar to meet the grassroots of Myanmar to meet the leaders in Nay Pyi Taw. In the region states they all know so much about Israel it's unbelievable and you know I can work with it in so many directions. I need to focus, I need to find the right directions and sectors to work in, this is why we have those priorities that I mentioned to you before.
What I want to ask is you said our democracy as a “baby democracy”. How do you view the democratic transition?
I think that you are doing well. You have challenges but each nation has challenges. It is very, very natural, humanity is full of conflicts and along the way of the democratization of Myanmar you also have conflicts that you have to solve. Conflicts that are here from history, they are not new conflicts, we are talking about conflicts in Shan and the Kachin, Rakhine and to solve the conflicts when you have a democratic regime is very hard. It is not easy. You have the media, you have the international community, you have expectations of all kinds.
It's not easy coming from a country of conflict, we have had a huge conflict over 100 years, a conflict that grows out of history and still we have a democracy. We are playing the right game in that respect we need to have peace and at the same time secure our country, this is in a way very similar to Myanmar. We are here to help our friends in Myanmar and the people the leaders and we believe that we can do many things.
So, how do you view the crisis in Rakhine and the peace process?
It is very impressive to see the State Counsellor and the President U Win Myint when I just presented my letter of credence two weeks ago in Nay Pyi Taw. They are working so hard since the beginning of this government, with the previous president as well and the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi working so hard to renew the peace process of the Panglong Process and for me it's impressive.
Well, you know that these conflicts are very hard to solve. There are those ethnic groups that are signatories to the peace process. Others that are not and they are working on that. I think if I can see well intensively and I believe that is the right way to do that, it's not easy it's a matter of time and some of the International Community believe in that too. From time to time I have this opportunity to hear International Community leaders or special envoys that are talking about the Rakhine conflict. It's also a conflict that comes from history, many, many echoes from the history of Bangladesh, the history of Myanmar, the history of Rakhine, the Rakhine people and it's going to be very hard to solve it.
Again I can see the similarity about the other conflicts that are far away from here, between the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Israelis, between the Muslims and the Jewish people. In my country, for 25 years we are struggling with continuing the peace process since 1993 when we signed the Peace Accord of Oslo. Still, we are struggling with this, it's going to continue. I think you are doing your utmost and I would like very much to see whether we can assist the government of Myanmar because we have much experience in how to deal with those conflicts.
So, you have lots of experience, if you have a chance to advise the Myanmar government what would you like to say?
First of all, I would like to praise what Myanmar already did. Myanmar decided to put an inquiry committee with members that are coming from other countries, Japanese and Filipinos. This is very important; this is something that has a connection with something that we did. Seven years ago we had a conflict in the border of Gaza with a ship that came to the border of Gaza and the Israeli military had to (seize) the ship and to take it away, people were killed there. And we established an inquiry committee with two foreign members from other countries Ireland and Canada and you have done the same with members from ASEAN and East Asia like Japan. This is very important because it is to show the international community to go and to see the evidence of what happened there. The government of Nay Pyi Taw did other things are to be continue the dialogue with the international community. The International Community would like to have dialogue with Myanmar, they say that they would like to solve this conflict tomorrow, but they do not believe in that, they know conflicts of this kind have to be solved over time, but a dialogue is very important for the government of Aung San Suu Kyi and the president.
You know there was an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, regarding the return of some thousands of illegal migrants coming back (or) the refugees from Bangladesh. It depends on the point of view when you have two narratives to have dialogue but now you have even three narratives. There is the Bangladesh narrative, the Myanmar narrative and the International Community narrative and within the International Community narrative, there are many narratives. The narratives of the European countries, the narratives of the Asian countries, of the ASEAN organization.
How do you view Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rakhine crisis?
I think that as I told you before, Myanmar is a baby democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi now is a leader of a country. She is not any more a human rights activist. She is a leader and as a leader, she has to take care of many things. For example, the relationship with the Myanmar military, which is very important. You know, the military of Israel has a huge responsibility to secure and to defend Israel. She is a leader and she does that. Now okay, the international community has many demands of her because of the long history between her and the international community. It’s tough but I think that the future is going to bring good solutions.
Let me ask you about the Myanmar peace process. How do you view it?
You know there are signatories to the peace process and, there are those that are not signatories and there are many conflicts along the borders, especially in states like Shan State, Kachin and its hard, I know that for the Myanmar people, the expectation is huge they would like very much to see the peace process succeed, sooner than later. But, we are talking about human beings and as I told you before humanity is full of conflicts, some people are saying Myanmar is still struggling to become a nation well, it can be true but at the same time there are many interests of many peoples that were in another type of regime before and are now struggling and what is very important it is started right after the elections of 2015 with a new Government that started in 2016. She didn’t put it aside, she said it is her vision she believes that this vision is a huge target and goal, but she is not afraid and, I think it’s not going to be easy like I told you before, but again let’s be optimistic.
Another question is as you know in 2016 people were very supportive of the NLD Government but now people do not see what they expected. What is your message to our people.
This is a matter of democracy because, if I’m not mistaken, in the elections of 2015 there were two main parties now in the by-elections, and I was an international supervisor for the by-elections and I had this privilege to go and to pay tribute to the voters of Myanmar in the city of Yangon. Now I saw that there were eight parties all along the country, this is a democracy. It’s going to be very interesting to see the elections of 2020. Democracy is not an easy game. It’s a tough game. It’s a tough game for the leaders and it’s a tough choice for the people. The people are going to go to the polls in 2020 to decide. In Israel we have many parties. We need to do a coalition, maybe a coalition is going to be needed in Myanmar I do not know. I would like very much to wish success to all the parties because we are your guests.
What would you like to say about the key points regarding trade and investment between the two countries?
I would like to admit that the comparison between the historical political relationship between the two countries to the volume of trade, the proportion is ridiculous. We are so high level in our relationship, so poor in the volume of trade. This is why we need to focus on some sectors as I told you before, agriculture, health, education and innovation. For the health sector I visited a hospital, the General Hospital of Yangon, and the eye hospital and there were two Israeli, eye doctors that came to the Yangon eye hospital and they did operations, surgery for cataracts and glaucoma and they did very well. You know, they told me afterwards they had good relationship with Myanmar doctors, they had a professional symposium because they like the methods of the Israeli doctors and the Israeli technology and, we have cutting-edge technology for medical equipment. We need to focus also on some other sectors that I mentioned to you before.
Can you tell us about your empowerment programme in Myanmar?
I would like with your permission to go to a human rights issue. Empowerment of women, for example in agriculture we had an expert, she went to Shan State and she did a workshop on empowerment of women in the agricultural field. Now I would also like to talk with you about the human rights subject of the rights of people with disabilities. In Israel, we have many NGOs that are working in this field of people with disabilities. I would like very much for them to come here, to understand more about the culture here and the challenges here for people with disabilities. To bring knowledge and the technology to ease the way of people with disabilities, if you are deaf or if you are blind, if you are having trouble with wheelchair access, we have those organizations in Israel to help you. Also when you have natural disasters it is very hard for people with disabilities to survive and we have in Israel the connection here between the rights of the people with disabilities and technology especially in the time of emergency and, then we can contribute also this part of the community of the society of Myanmar.
Your country seems particularly keen on technology. Can you tell us about that?
Maybe, I would like to tell you about the source of the Israeli high-tech and Israeli technology. Israel has been known as the start-up nation. What is the reason we are the start-up nation? part of the reason is because of the strategic needs and the security needs of Israel. In this book here that I can show, it’s a book about the project of Talpiot which in Hebrew is elite, so when people are going to the military for three years of recruitment. The army can pick the right people, the most brilliant minds, take them to universities to study mathematics and chemistry and physics, and then they are going to be the new academic science elite of Israel and in the army six years and then they’re going to the governmental sector, the private sector and to the academia. In Israel also there is another factor, there is a huge connection, a very rich connection between universities and the private sector, they are establishing an organization of the implementation innovation. They would like to take the innovation out of the science laboratories in the university to the private sector and in between to arrange the right way to have the best technology level.
You can find examples of that in many sectors if it’s in health like imaging solutions, if it’s in agriculture about seeds and the DNA of the seeds. If it’s computers talking about many new investments and inventions that were done in the Israeli computer sector. Innovations became to be a culture, now we have a culture of the start-up nation of the innovation in Israel and, everybody would like to do many things to invent the new start-up or the new innovation I believe that you have here in Myanmar the intellect to go together with us hand by hand on this journey of innovation.
How do you view Myanmar’s freedom of the press?
This is again a matter of democracy. Democracy has a very good judicial system and I believe that Myanmar would like to upgrade its judicial system. Those cases that you just mentioned, one case, the Reuters case is a case before appeal, the other case is a case that is pending in the court of law. I have heard the State Counsellor talking about the rule of law and, I believe that this is so important for democracy. Every person has their time to go before the court of law and, to put his case in front of the court of law and, the judicial system is very, very important because this is the biggest instrument of the rule of law and, it is the soul of democracy.
Can you tell me then something about your work in Israel as Foreign Minister before you came here?
My background. This is my fourth continent, Asia, I’ve never been stationed in Asia and it’s a huge privilege to be stationed especially in Myanmar. I started in Caracas, Venezuela in Latin America and then I moved to Canada. In between, we always go back to Israel because according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs the system is that you have to go back to your motherland, to your home country. So I moved to Israel, then I moved to Canada, I was Deputy Chief of Mission in our embassy in Ottawa, Canada. From there I moved to Israel and then I became senior Deputy Chief of Mission in our embassy to the European Union and NATO in Brussels. There I get to know Europe and European views and then I went back to Israel. In the last three years, before coming here, I was the director for the international organizations and human rights and humanitarian affairs in Israel and I worked very hard in Geneva about all those resolutions that the Human Rights Council have each year against Israel, five resolutions each year against Israel. Does it do good for the conflict? I do not think so. I think that conflict has to be bilaterally negotiated on the table between the two parties. So there I had many, many opportunities to get a good experience on the multilateral relationship of the state of Israel and then I came here and I came here very proudly and with a big smile.
You have a lot of experience about human rights. How do you view Myanmar’s human rights now?
Human rights. You know there are two parts, two sides of human rights. Human rights are very important, what are human rights? It’s the rights of the people, it’s the rights of any person. On the other side, human rights can be a political machinery, a political instrument that can be used not in a very good way and we, as Israelis, we witnessed around the world. It’s not enough that we have our terrorist organisations in Israel that are fighting with us, terrorist organisations that are listed in many lists of organisations of terror all around the world. But at the same time you get to struggle with the world of human rights in the United Nations in Geneva. Last time that I went to Geneva we came to Geneva, to the Human Rights Council, with the special bodies of the human rights in Israel, the national bodies like the Commissioner for the Human Rights of People with Disabilities, the Commissioner for Gender Equality according to CEDAW, the International Convention for the Rights of Women, people that are working on children’s rights and the labour rights. We all came to Geneva and we told the Human Rights Council listen, take a look at how Israel is a pioneer in all those fields of human rights. It’s not just human rights within a conflict. Human rights in a conflict are very important but there are so many other aspects of human rights that have to be seen and be developed and, I think it is the same with Myanmar.
What is your hope for your tenure here?
You know the tenure of an ambassador in a country is a very limited one. I came here for three or four years, it’s a very limited time. I do not have too much time to do all the things that I would like to do here for the relationship between our two countries, so I have to be very focused. So I picked those priorities that I would like to continue to work in and I would like to be focused and to expand the results out of the focus of the priorities. This is very important for me, also I think that as an ambassador, I am the guide of the Israeli businesspeople and technology coming here because I need to work very hard on the bridge between the cultural gaps of the business. The G to G, the G to B and B to B. I have to facilitate those gaps. I need to guide the people that are coming here from Israel. They are not going to have, you know, many days. They are coming here and everybody is enthusiastic to have a business. But, you know, in any country you cannot do business, right away in a very short time. For that, they have the embassy and in the embassy, I have colleagues, Myanmar colleagues, Israeli colleagues they are working very hard on bridging those gaps and promoting the opportunities of Myanmar. Myanmar, your country, is a country of huge potential and Israel would like to be here to play its part in this huge potential.
Would you like to add anything else?
I would like to thank you. I would like to thank you very much that you cover the Israeli endeavour here in Myanmar. It’s the second time that we met and I hope that we are going to meet many more times. It’s very important for us to bring our message to the people of Myanmar, so to the leaders of Myanmar when we are meeting them. This is very important for me and I would like to take a very modest part of the long history of ambassadors who came from Israel to Myanmar. I am the 23rd ambassador, proud to be, so this is my message for today. I would like to take a part in this journey of ambassadors of Israel to Myanmar.