Oct. 18, 2005

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 itHIV / AIDS, humanitarian aid, or drug eradication, not to mention sanctionsor political engagement. A simple well-meaning action or statement can takeon 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'. Itis 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, orthe 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 issadly true of the Burmese democracy movement as a whole, as well as of theinternational community at large. The process for the EU is perhapscomplicated by the need to reach a consensus amongst the 25 member nations. When the Burmese military, then known as the State Law and Order RestorationCouncil (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 EUreacted by imposing an arms embargo and suspending defence co-operation in1991. With hindsight, the withdrawing of military attaches from the EUembassies 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 campaignagainst 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 campaign allowed the EU to adopt its first Common Position onBurma/Myanmar in October 1996. But while the tougher EU stance wasappreciated by democracy advocates everywhere, the policy was out of syncwith what was actually happening politically on the ground in Yangon.

In 1994, the SLORC had electrified the people of Burma by showing on statetelevision, images without a sound track of democracy icon Daw Aung San SuuKyi (ASSK) meeting with SLORC Chairman Sr. General Than Shwe and SLORC Secretary-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, infact, preceded it. From the SLORC point of view, it could perhaps be wronglyconcluded that the military's 'weakness' during the 'honeymoon' period encouraged stronger measures against it. The EU Common Position was followedby an even stronger US position in 1997.

1997 was also the year that Burma/Myanmar's became a member of theAssociation of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Prior to that, the EU couldafford 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 Positiosome restrictive measures against the regime. Realising its weakened position, the Council reiterated its desire to n 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 tobreak down in 2003, the EU Common Position was strengthened once again inApril 2003. But as previously, it consisted only of an extension of the scope of existing sanctions. Some including the then British Foreign andCommonwealth Office Minister Mike O'Brien have speculated whether arelaxation of the EU position at that time might not have helped to softenthe SPDC's position. But the die was probably already cast when the USrefused 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 ifBurma/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 ASEMS ummit, though on a level below that of Head of State or Government. As aface-saving mechanism, the EU also decided that further sanctions againstthe military regime would be implemented if it failed to meet certainconditions including the release of ASSK. The Council in October 2004 revised 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 withASEAN over Burma/Myanmar's chairmanship in 2006, it is becoming increasingly clearthat the EU can no longer take its Burma/Myanmar policy for granted or actin 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 inBurma/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.

What then should the EU do?

As mentioned at the beginning, this is a verydangerous field to be wandering in. Newly-appointed Commissioner for External Relations Ferrero-Waldner had a taste of this when the EuropeanCommission in early 2005 appointed an 'academic' to write a report on Burmarecommending options for the EU. The British Government is currently in themidst of another firefight because it is hosting an 'academic brain-storming' session on Burma/Myanmar and did not invite all those who thought they should be included.


First, the EU nations need to agree that the issue of Burma/Myanmar is nolonger just an internal affair concerning democracy and human rights. They need to agree that Burma/Myanmar has been a key obstacle in developingbetter EU relations with ASEAN, and it is becoming an obstacle in developingbetter EU relations with East Asia. It could also become an obstacle indeveloping better EU relations with the rest of Asia. In this context,Burma/Myanmar is an obstacle in developing regional trading blocs in amulti-polar world which is the EU vision. In addition, the EU nations need to agree that Burma/Myanmar is potentially a destabilising regional factorgiven its internal instability.

Second, the EU as a whole needs to decide what are its key interests in Burma/Myanmar separate and perhaps distinct from those of Burmese
democracyadvocates. Are these political -democracy and human rights; strategic;economic; or humanitarian?

Third, the EU needs to decide on who or what agency within the EU shouldhave the primary responsibility for dealing with the issue of Burma/Myanmar.

Fourth, the EU needs to develop a strategic plan to ensure that it primaryinterests in Burma/Myanmar are served, recognising that it may not
haves ufficient credibility or political clout with the Burmese generals to achieve its objectives. The EU needs to move away from the sanctions debate. Whether sanctions work or not, is not a relevant topic. The EU needs to look at the issue from a different perspective and identify its key interests.

It is clear that the generals in Burma/Myanmar will not give up power regardless of whether or not there are sanctions. Sanctions like the US banon imports have clearly hurt the textile industry in Burma/Myanmar. But the Burmese generals intend to survive, no matter what or whom is affected bythe sanctions. To them, their own survival and the survival of the' tatmadaw' is synonymous with the survival of the nation. The problem is that the generals can continue to survive for a long time, whereas, thereality is that the nation as a whole may not survive. The country may disintegrate because of the social and economic strains, and the vacuum created could be filled by one or more of the neighbouring countries. If left uncontrolled, an HIV- AIDS epidemic could wipe out future generations.

The question for the EU is, how can the disintegration ofBurma/Myanmar and instability in the region be avoided? Can the generals beconvinced of the need to change in order to 'save' the nation? What wouldconvince them? How can they be approached? Who should approach them?
When would be a good time to do so?

It is also equally clear that while the EU sees the Burma/Myanmar issue as one of democracy and human rights versus authoritarian military
rule,Burma/Myanmar's neighbours in ASEAN and China, see it in a different light.They see it as an issue of western /north /superpower nations trying to impose their will on smaller weaker nations. If this perception is not changed, neither the EU nor the United Nations will get much support
from ASEAN or China in spite of their concern for what is developing into a regional problem. If the Burma/Myanmar issue is really an issue about democracy and human rights versus military rule, should the EU concentrate on helping the people of Burma resolve their own problems rather than focus on sanctions or EU or international action to solve the problem? How can the EU help to convince other nations to work together to bring about change in Burma? The EU needs to explore in greater depth to what extent it can work with the people of Burma/Myanmar including the military, and its neighbours to bring about the desired change that will serve both the interests of the EU and that of Burma/Myanmar. However, whatever the EU does, it can no longer afford to continue to manage the Burma/Myanmar issue on an ad hoc basis.


The autor Ham Yawnghwe is the Director of the Euro-Burma Office in Brussels.

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