Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks with reporters after a September meeting with the European Commissioner for International Cooperation. (AFP/Soe Than Win)

EU tiptoes toward engagement with Burma

A conflicted European Union considers a new approach toward Burma. Press freedom advocates and human rights defenders are wary. By Jean-Paul Marthoz

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks with reporters after a September meeting with the European Commissioner for International Cooperation. (AFP/Soe Than Win)
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks with reporters after a September meeting with the European Commissioner for International Cooperation. (AFP/Soe Than Win)

Published September 20, 2011

Seen from inside the Brussels beltway, the “Burma issue” is often hailed as evidence that advocacy groups can influence the European Union’s foreign policy. Indeed, the activism of the pro-democracy Burma lobby and the prestige of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi are credited with having prevented the EU from normalizing relations with the military regime.

But behind this lofty façade of principled unanimity, the EU has been constantly divided on the issue. Member states such as Sweden, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom consider Burma a litmus test for the seriousness of the EU’s human rights diplomacy. They have consistently backed a tough sanctions policy in the belief that isolating the military and its business cronies would undermine their hold on the country, reinforce the democratic opposition, and create conditions for a genuine political transition. But Germany, Burma’s biggest trade partner in the EU, and European states such as Italy, Spain, and Austria have been pushing for a policy of dialogue and engagement. France has followed a two-track approach, expressing political dissatisfaction with the regime at the same time it has sought to protect its economic interests in Burma, especially those of its huge oil company Total.

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Many EU officials say privately that the policy of sanctions has failed to persuade the Burmese regime to moderate its repressive policies. That view was expressed by the analyst Clara Portela in her 2010 assessment of EU sanctions policies. “They are undoubtedly the EU’s most comprehensive,” Portela wrote of the measures taken against Burma, “but arguably one of its most ineffective sanctions regimes.” Some say failure was to be expected because the sanctions exempt the biggest source of export revenue, natural gas, and lack enforcement mechanisms. Others claim the sanctions hurt ordinary citizens instead of weakening the rulers and their business allies. Many, pointing to the wider perspective of EU strategy in Asia, say that reappraising the Burma policy is imperative to ease relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (the 10-member geopolitical and economic group that includes Burma) and compete on better terms with growing Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Indian interests in the region.

In recent years, as the memory of the 2007 crackdown on the Saffron Revolution has faded, the EU has in fact been looking for opportunities to tone down its sanctions policy. Claiming in its official documents that it follows a “balanced policy,” it is trying to square the circle of advancing its regional economic interests without jettisoning its “prime goal, to see a legitimate, democratically elected civilian government established in Burma.” Last year, the supporters of a new approach were quick to point to two developments—a U.S. review of its own sanctions policy, and the holding of general elections in Burma—to ratchet up their claim that a change is needed.

EU officials are fully aware of the objections raised by pro-democracy groups. Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, was blunt last November in her assessment of Burma’s military-led election: “The EU regrets that the authorities did not take the necessary steps to ensure a free, fair, and inclusive electoral process.” Despite criticism of the election, though, the Brussels line increasingly holds that all opportunities should be used to engage with the new government. EU officials keen on starting a dialogue with Burma also point at divisions within the Burmese opposition on the issue of the so-called EU “restrictive measures.” In that context, pro-engagement groups in the EU have chosen to interpret the swearing-in of a quasi-civilian government and the release of Suu Kyi from long-standing house arrest as positive steps.

In April, the EU confirmed its common position on Burma and maintained economic sanctions, but it also sent a signal by lifting visa bans on certain senior Burmese civilian officials, including the foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, who is described in Brussels as the key interlocutor for any future policy of dialogue. Then, in June, a senior delegation of the European Commission led by Robert Cooper, director general for political affairs, visited Rangoon and Naypyidaw, where they met government officials including First Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo, as well as Suu Kyi and leaders of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Although EU envoys insisted the normalization process would depend on decisive government reforms, the tone clearly indicated a shift from overt antagonism toward cautious engagement.

Even with its sanctions policy, the EU has not been absent in Burma. The European Commission has been providing humanitarian aid and supporting small projects aimed at reinforcing a democratic civil society. Its latest call for proposals, issued in June, refers to “strengthening the involvement of organized civil society in the shaping of local and/or national policies regarding good governance and democratic reform, enhancing the inclusiveness and pluralism of civil society, and empowering underrepresented groups for active citizenship.” Through its European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, a budget line that serves to fund democratic groups in authoritarian countries, the European Commission has backed groups acting for human rights in Burma.

Notwithstanding this show of support for democratic groups, the trend appears to be toward some form of normalization with the regime. Reflecting the change of atmosphere, the EU is considering opening a EuropeAid office in Rangoon, and a delegation of European companies, led by the Austrian ambassador to Thailand and Burma, went on a “fact-finding trip” to Burma in April. Despite sustained pressure from unions and human rights groups and the commitment of some of its member states, the EU has also refrained from backing international legal actions against the regime, in particular the establishment of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the referral of Burma to the Hague-based International Court of Justice for its use of forced labor.

Pro-democracy groups are warily monitoring every EU move and word. Battle-tested in the Brussels advocacy campaigns and aware of the support they enjoy in some member states and at the European Parliament, these pro-democracy groups have welcomed statements by the EU representative for the region, David Lippman, who declared in June on Radio Free Asia that “any future changes will depend on the new government’s performance. The release of political prisoners and economic reform are high on the agenda.”

But advocates remain on their guard. They fear the EU will overestimate the positive effects of a gradual lifting of sanctions. “If the EU is serious,” said Mark Farmaner of the London-based Burma Campaign UK, “it needs to set clear benchmarks for change, with a time frame.” This position is in line with Suu Kyi’s declarations in March that “sanctions should only be lifted when something has changed here.” It also reflects a deep suspicion of the current government’s intentions.

When the Interior Ministry ordered Suu Kyi and her NLD party in June to stop “their illegal activities that can harm peace and stability and the rule of law as well as the unity among the people,” Farmaner was blunt. “Burma’s new dictator, Thein Sein,” he said, “is emerging as even less tolerant of dissent than [his predecessor] Than Shwe.”

Jean-Paul Marthoz is CPJ’s senior Europe adviser.