edge review19-25 April 2013

Photo: Flags of EU member states fly at the European Parliament in Brussels (TPCOM\flickr).

Business interests, human rights issues jostle for primacy

On April 22 last year, the European Union voted to suspend all existing sanctions on Myanmar, save for a few targeted visa bans and a longstanding arms embargo. The suspension was framed as a response to good behaviour by the country’s newly civilianised government, the catalyst being free and fair by-elections April 1 that saw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), win 43 seats in Parliament. One year later, EU sanctions on Myanmar are up for review, and how Brussels chooses to proceed will have a wide range of implications for the legitimacy of Myanmar’s reformist government.

 In a statement following the suspension last year, the EU Foreign Affairs Council praised “the historic changes in Myanmar/Burma over the past year,” and expressed a desire to see “wide-ranging reforms…continue under [Myanmar] President U Thein Sein.” Optimism was tempered by caution, however, as the EU identified a number of benchmarks that Myanmar had yet to meet.

“[T]he EU still expects the unconditional release of remaining political prisoners and the removal of all restrictions placed on those already released,” the statement continued. “It looks forward to the end of conflict and to substantially improved access for humanitarian assistance, in particular for those affected by conflict in Kachin State and along the Eastern border, as well as to addressing the status and improving the welfare of the Rohingyas.”

So how has Naypyidaw fared on these counts? Not well. No new political prisoners have been released since January 2012, and the government has only belatedly allowed international humanitarian organisations access to populations affected by the war in Kachin State. While the situation in Southeastern Myanmar’s border areas has improved, the lot of Myanmar’s long-suffering Rohingya minority in Rakhine State has gone from bad to worse as a result of sectarian clashes that started last June. Indeed, Myanmar in early 2013 is a more violent place than it was a year earlier. While the military stopped just short of annihilating the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) outright by military means, it began to employ airstrikes – a new and singularly destructive tactic – just before the New Year. And as the Kachin War has subsequently settled into a chilly stalemate, the military has turned its sights towards various armed groups operating in commercially important areas of Shan State.

Brussels’ next move depends on its priorities. Will the EU drop sanctions entirely, either by formally rescinding them or by letting them lapse on April 30, as they are set to do anyway? Will some sanctions be re-imposed as a result of Myanmar failing to live up to the EU’s published expectations? Or will it choose to maintain the status quo for another year?

Bilateral ties between the EU and Myanmar have strengthened over the past year. An embassy-level EU delegation opened an office in Yangon this past January, and Thein Sein made an official visit to four EU-member states in late February. The notion of suspending sanctions, as opposed to getting rid of them outright, is a stopgap measure to express support for the government’s reforms without granting Naypyidaw full-fledged legitimacy. The tenuous nature of the suspension, however, means that, for all the diplomatic overtures, European companies have been hesitant to invest in Myanmar to the same degree as their counterparts from Asian countries, which never imposed sanctions.  If commercial interests prevail in how the EU formulates its Myanmar policy from here on out, it is likely that the EU’s resolve to engage with the serious issues articulated last year will fall by the wayside.

The European Burma Network, a consortium of Europe-based Myanmar-focused activist groups, alleged in February that Germany has been pushing for the EU to reclassify Myanmar at the UN Human Rights Council from a country whose human rights situations “require the Council’s attention” to one that should receive “technical assistance and capacity-building.” Such assistance programs would invariably benefit German manufacturers, which build the kind of high-tech machinery Myanmar will need to further its development. Among EU states, Germany has long been singled out by human rights advocates for its anti-sanctions machinations, which predate the current period of political and economic reform in Myanmar.

As Myanmar has begun to open up, other European voices have joined the anti-sanctions chorus. In an editorial published on April 2, Derek Tonkin, a former British Ambassador to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos and a longstanding promoter of economic engagement with Myanmar, claimed that sanctions have historically been ineffective in promoting change, and that “[t]he West will not help resolve [Myanmar’s problems] by the rigmarole of first reinstating and then suspending sanctions for another 12 months.” Tonkin concedes that “[t]he civilian administration undoubtedly finds the suspension rather than the lifting of sanctions irritating,” but claims that “the argument that the suspension provides symbolic, psychological and political pressure is superficially attractive,” and that it is “immoral to seek to capitalize on this pressure based on sanctions whose effect has been massively counterproductive while they were in force.”

Naypyidaw, however, is likely more troubled by Myanmar’s continued reliance on investment from China and its ASEAN neighbours than Tonkin claims. Thein Sein has been at pains to cozy up to formerly hostile governments in Washington and across Europe in a concerted attempt to diversify Myanmar’s investment base. While the effectiveness of sanctions during the dark days of the former military regime is debatable, removing them entirely at this juncture risks turning investment in Myanmar into a race to the bottom. While sanctions are often imprecise tools, they remain the West’s only leverage to promote positive human rights outcomes in Myanmar.

The suspension of sanctions by Western powers last year was a sea change in its own right, and what the EU does next will likely be a function of path dependence. Myanmar’s failure to meet most human rights benchmarks set by the EU over the past year should in theory prompt the EU to maintain the status quo, but the stage has already been set for sanctions to be removed entirely. It is unlikely that the EU will re-impose comprehensive sanctions, and the suspension was only ever intended to be a temporary measure. In theory, European companies are allowed to invest in Myanmar as though comprehensive sanctions have been lifted, but with the prospect of sanctions being re-imposed – however unlikely – they have been reticent to make that leap.

Given the speed at which Western policies towards Myanmar have changed in the recent past, Brussels will in all likelihood remove all currently suspended sanctions next week to satiate European commercial interests. While this will no doubt raise the ire of activists like the European Burma Network – which has decried the prospect of the EU giving up its influence on human rights issues – the arms embargo and at least some targeted sanctions will almost certainly be maintained for years to come. If the EU has truly chosen to prioritise human rights issues over commercial ones, it is possible we may see a wait-and-see approach emerge that would see sanctions remain suspended for another year.

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