An EU strategy for Burma ?
S.H.A.N. & Burma's News Published by Burma's Chinese
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Oct. 18, 2005
The autor Ham Yawnghwe is the Director of the Euro-Burma Office in Brussels. Established in 1997 to help the Burmese democracy movement prepare for a peaceful transition to democracy after four decades of military rule, the Office was a joint project of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
The Euro-Burma Office manages the National Reconciliation Programme forBurma and in 2005, received funding from the Peace building Fund of the Canadian International Development Agency, the Danish International Development Agency, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Irish Catholic development agency.
An EU strategy for Burma/Myanmar?
by Ham Yawnghwe
It is difficult to talk about a European Union strategy for Burma/Myanmar when everything about the country is so politicised and polarised - be it HIV / AIDS, humanitarian aid, or drug eradication, not to mention sanctions or political engagement. A simple well-meaning action or statement can take on unintended complex consequences and draw intense criticism from all quarters. The United Nations Global Fund to combat HIV-AIDS, Tuberculosis ,and Malaria in Myanmar has become the latest victim in this 'Burma war'. It is a battle where one is more likely to be killed by 'friendly' fire than by enemy fire. The issue of a European Union strategy for Burma/Myanmar is further complicated by the question of whether the strategy should be developed and implemented by the Commissioner for External Relations, or the EU High Commissioner for Foreign Policy, or the rotating EU Presidency, or the various EU Ministries of Foreign Affairs who more or less deal with Burma/Myanmar on a daily basis.
EU-Burma relations in review
The European Union's policy towards Burma/Myanmar has unfortunately been a reactive one rather than a carefully thought through strategy. This is sadly true of the Burmese democracy movement as a whole, as well as of the international community at large. The process for the EU is perhaps complicated by the need to reach a consensus amongst the 25 member nations. When the Burmese military, then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), seized power in 1988 killing thousands, the EU reacted by suspending all bilateral aid. When the SLORC in 1990 held general elections, lost by a landslide and decided to ignore the election results, the EU reacted by imposing an arms embargo and suspending defence co-operation in1991. With hindsight, the withdrawing of military attaches from the EU embassies in Yangon is proving to be a key weakness in EU strategy. But after the initial furore over the elections, Burma/Myanmar was again forgotten as EU companies joined others in the rush to invest in the new open 'frontier' economy. Then, in 1995, the spotlight was turned on the regime's forced labour practices by the democracy movement as a campaign against the SLORC's "Visit Myanmar Year" tourist campaign. This eventually led, in 1997, to the EU withdrawing General System of Preferences (GSP)trade privileges from Burma/Myanmar. This also led to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) taking action against the Burmese regime in November 2000. The heightened awareness created by the GSP and 'slave' labour campaigns allowed the EU to adopt its first Common Position on Burma/Myanmar in October 1996. But while the tougher EU stance was appreciated by democracy advocates everywhere, the policy was out of sync with what was actually happening politically on the ground in Yangon.
In 1994, the SLORC had electrified the people of Burma by showing on state television, images without a sound track of democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) meeting with SLORC Chairman Sr. General Than Shwe and SLORCSecretary-1 Lieut-General Khin Nyunt. This was followed by her eventual release from house arrest in 1995. The situation was reversed towards the end of 1996 when ASSK's National League for Democracy (NLD) withdrew from the SLORC-sponsored National Convention. But in theory, the stronger EU position should have come when the SLORC-ASSK 'honeymoon' broke down. It, in fact, preceded it. From the SLORC point of view, it could perhaps be wrongly concluded that the military's 'weakness' during the 'honeymoon' period encouraged stronger measures against it. The EU Common Position was followed by an even stronger US position in 1997.
1997 was also the year that Burma/Myanmar's became a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Prior to that, the EU could afford to have any policy it wanted without affecting any of its interests. But the issue of Burma/Myanmar became a bone of contention between the EU and ASEAN and it affected their long-tern relationship for many years. And when the EU Common Position was strengthened in October 1998, not much was added beyond widening the visa ban on Burmese officials.
In early 2000, the now renamed State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)launched a campaign to 'annihilate' both ASSK and the NLD. But by then, the EU no longer had any means/1eft to influence the SPDC, and in April 2000,the Council had to take the mainly symbolic action of adding to the Common Position some restrictive measures against the regime. Realising its weakened position, the Council reiterated its desire to establish a meaningful political dialogue with the SPDC and indicated that the visa ban for the Burmese Foreign Minister might be waived where this would be in the interests of the EU. This in fact, contradicted the earlier position adopted nine years previously to downgrade official contacts. But the real difficulty was not having military attaches in situ since 1991. This meant that the EU had no real channels through which it could talk with the Burmese military.
Fortunately for all concerned, the SPDC backed off its campaign to 'annihilate' ASSK and the NLD, and instead embarked in October 2000 on 'confidential talks' with ASSK. When the 'talks' with ASSK which were 'facilitated' by the UN Special Envoy for Burma, Ambassador Razali, began to break down in 2003, the EU Common Position was strengthened once again in April 2003. But as previously, it consisted only of an extension of the scope of existing sanctions. Some including the then British Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Mike O'Brien have speculated whether a relaxation of the EU position at that time might not have helped to soften the SPDC's position. But the die was probably already cast when the US refused to "certify" the SPDC's drug control efforts in February 2003.
The EU position on Burma/Myanmar took a strange turn in 2004. Until ASEAN, Burma/Myanmar was a side issue and was becoming an irritant. But with the expansion of the EU, the expansion of the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) became a crucial issue and the inclusion of Burma/Myanmar became the centre of the dispute. In a bid to influence ASEAN, the EU threatened to boycott ASEM if Burma/Myanmar was included, and in April 2004, the EU Common Position on Burma/Myanmar was extended by the Council. But when ASEAN called their bluff, the EU had to agree to Burma/Myanmar participating in the ASEM Summit, though on a level below that of Head of State or Government. As a face-saving mechanism, the EU also decided that further sanctions against the military regime would be implemented if it failed to meet certain conditions including the release of ASSK. The Council in October 2004revised the Common Position and further tightened sanctions on the SPDC.
While the EU Common Position was renewed in April 2005, no changes were introduced. With the ASEM debacle in 2004 and the recent tension with ASEAN over Burma/Myanmar's chairmanship in 2006, it is becoming increasingly clear that the EU can no longer take its Burma/Myanmar policy for granted or act in an ad hoc fashion every time anew issue arises. While EU exports to Burma/Myanmar are negligible, totalling 54 million in 2003, and imports from Burma/Myanmar totalled only 388 million, Burma/Myanmar is becoming a major obstacle in the EU's relationship with ASEAN and its east Asian partners -namely China, Japan and South Korea. The socio-economic conditions in Burma/Myanmar are also worrying. There is a high risk of instability. Former Commissioner Chris Patten has stated that we could be witnessing the development of a failed state in Burma/Myanmar.