Diplomatic ties between Germany and Myanmar have seen ups and downs. But Myanmar's President Thein Sein's Germany visit could strengthen trade and cultural cooperation between the two countries.
Myanmar's President Thein Sein is currently on a European tour. His first stop was Germany, and the president will also travel to the Netherlands and Switzerland. On Wednesday, September 3, Thein Sein had a lunch meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Myanmar's government did not reveal much about the agenda of the meeting, however, the country's press said the president would extend "friendship and cooperation" to Germany.
Diplomatic ties between the two countries date back to 1954 when the first German consulate in the Southeast Asian country was set up in Yangon. To mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties - which have seen many ups and downs over the past decades - the German foreign office in Myanmar will organize an exhibition in early October.
German President Gauck visited Myanmar in February where he also met with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi
After the World War II, Germany became Myanmar's (then known as Burma) second largest trading partner. At the time, the West German arms manufacturer Fritz Werner, supplied guns and ammunition to the Burmese armed forces that were engaged in a long battle with the former Chinese army (Kuomintang) in Myanmar's north.
As part of this cooperation which lasted until the 1970s, hundreds of Burmese soldiers, were trained, as analyst Hans-Bernd Zöllner points out in an essay to commemorate the 60 years of bilateral relations. In 1965, Fritz Werner went bankrupt, and was taken over by the state. The company, however, continued to provide assistance to the country's security forces.
"The cooperation between the German company and its Burmese partner strengthened the relations between the two governments," wrote Zöllner.
The 1962 military coup by General Ne Win did not harm German-Burmese ties. On the contrary, the General regularly visited the German region of Rheingau, where he met with government officials, politicians and businessmen. In the mid 1970s, Germany also initiated a number of other development projects in Burma under the auspices of the Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), which is now called GIZ.
Resumption of ties
The German-Burmese friendship ended abruptly, nevertheless, when the Southeast Asian country's military junta cracked down on a nationwide pro-democracy movement in 1988. Diplomatic relations between the two nations were reduced to a minimum, and the development cooperation was suspended.
23 years later, the diplomatic "ice age" ended as quickly as it had begun. Since late 2010, the government in Myanmar has triggered an unexpected reform process. In April 2012, the European Union lifted all sanctions against the country with the exception of the arms embargo. German President Joachim Gauck visited Myanmar in February this year, saying that "as long as the reforms are on the right track, they can't go fast enough."
But the fast pace is also full of risks. "No one was prepared for the changes in Myanmar. Our knowledge of the country decreased during the years of sanctions," Gerhard Will, analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), told DW.
The focus of bilateral development cooperation is now set on medium enterprises and reforms of the financial system. Berlin is also supporting a project dealing with the training of journalists by the DW Academy.
"I am surprised that Myanmar's rural development is not our priority considering the fact that Germany has a great expertise in the area," Will said. "Cooperation in this sector would be interesting because we can achieve great results with little investment," he added. The expert is of the view that rural cooperation between the two countries would be helpful especially for the villagers who have so far not really benefited from the reforms.
On the economic front, the German commitment to Myanmar has so far not been very successful, says Will. The reason, he adds, is that China and Thailand have dominated Myanmar's market for a long time; hence it is difficult for German companies to compete with them.
German companies Henkel and Stada are now in the race. Henkel manufactures detergents, whereas Stada will start producing pharmaceutical products by 2015. Despite limited economic cooperation, Germany is still the EU's main trading partner for Myanmar. Germany and Myanmar are hopeful that the economic cooperation will expand soon.