Myanmar’s sweeping reforms have forced the EU to reformulate its policies towards the country. For 20 years, EU policy has consisted of designing sanctions against the ruling military junta, while its assistance has been limited to little more than health, education and refugee issues. Now, almost overnight, the EU has had to face the challenge of helping to consolidate the reform process while addressing a fast-moving and highly complex situation there.

The EU’s condemnation of Myanmar’s leadership stemmed from the military junta’s failure to honour the outcome of the 1990 parliamentary elections which had seen a landslide victory for the main opposition party, the National League of Democracy (NLD) headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta seized power in 1962, but it was only in 1990 that sanctions were imposed. What followed was a sanctions regime that was tightened regularly. It began with an arms embargo and went on to include further measures whenever human rights breaches by the junta made headlines.

As with many EU sanctions, they were often imposed in conjunction with the U.S. and such others as Australia and Canada. Preferential EU access for Burmese products under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) was withdrawn in 1997, but the continued misbehaviour of the junta led many to despair at the measures’ ineffectiveness. The argument that sanctions were not working rested on the assumption that their primary objective was to alter the junta’s policies. In essence, though, the sanctions were the result of a balancing act between the need to assuage public outrage in Europe over human rights scandals, persistent lobbying by exiles and diaspora groups and a desire to protect European business interests, notably in the extractive sector. The result was a package of so-called ‘targeted sanctions’ singling out individual officials to be held responsible for violations. The EU, meanwhile, continued to give aid for health and education and never banned trade, other than for arms, until its 2007-2012 ban on timber, gems and semi-precious stones.

The breakthrough came in 2011 with the inauguration of a new Myanmar government composed mostly of nominally civilian retired generals, and the reform process resolutely launched by the country’s new president, Thein Sein. Under his new leadership, opposition parties and trade unions were legalised, a large number of political prisoners released and media censorship abolished. Forced labour was banned. Then, in 2012, parliamentary by-elections brought NLD candidates who included Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament. This handover of power by the junta to a new leadership had been announced back in a 2004 roadmap, but its implementation had so often been postponed by the discredited junta that nobody believed it could ever introduce change. Thein Sein’s reforms caught the EU and the world by surprise.

The EU response was the obvious steps of lifting the sanctions and reinstating the GSP in mid-2013 so that Myanmar now has access to the “Everything but Arms” (EBA) regime. The EU more than doubled its aid with a wide-ranging package of €150m. Last year it opened an EU representative office in Yangon (Rangoon), and this has now been upgraded to a Delegation. A succession of visits by the EU’s Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, and the Commission’s President Barroso have sealed Myanmar’s return to international respectability. Even the official name ‘Myanmar’, that was formerly rejected by the EU as a way of contesting the junta’s legitimacy, is making its way into EU discourse, suggesting a gradual dropping of ‘semantic sanctions’. In just two years, the EU has switched from sanctions mode to the rebuilding of a co-operative relationship, compelled to some extent by fatigue with its own sanctions regime. The reform process has offered Europe an opportunity to change course, even if – strictly speaking – the ongoing reforms have not yet amounted to democratisation. The EU is rewarding relative progress, which in view of the speed and depth of the reforms, has been nothing less than spectacular.

The question is: what comes next? Once the objectives of the original 1990 sanctions have been met – the hand-over to a civilian government plus ‘progress towards national reconciliation’ – new priorities have had to be set. David O’Sullivan, the chief operating officer, or No 3, of the European External Action Service (EEAS) the EU’s “diplomatic service”, announced at the start of 2013 that the EU’s aim is “to deepen support for the political reform process underway”, hinting at “EU support in the area of ethnic peace” as an avenue. In April of this year, the European Council listed such “concerns” as the release of all remaining political prisoners, an end to inter-communal violence and the humanitarian risks still faced by the Rohingya. This led to the adoption of a ‘Comprehensive Framework’ for EU support to Myanmar in July.

 The priorities spelt out in April and July are clearly a step in the right direction. What the EU now needs to do to be seen as relevant by all the political and societal forces in Myanmar is to help them address their most pressing problems – and to be seen to be doing so. Inter-communal violence is a major challenge. Anti-Muslim raids have of late left hundreds of Muslims killed and their places of worship destroyed. The relaxation of the Junta’s restrictions has had the undesirable effect of unleashing the sectarian hatreds that autocratic rule kept in check. The EU is aware of this, and the European Parliament has deplored “the failure of the government to protect the Rohingya from organised violence.” Meanwhile, another daunting challenge is the long-standing ethnic rebellions: although the current government has put ceasefires in place with most of the armed groups, a lasting political solution still needs to be agreed.

“The EU needs to rise above its traditional role as an aid donor and take on a more political role in order to avoid becoming a payer rather than a player”

The EU has never been better placed to help address Myanmar’s most immediate problems. It currently enjoys more flexibility in Myanmar than the U.S. because the EU sanctions have been modified by unanimous decision of the Council, whereas in the U.S. system some sanctions are passed by the Congress and others are decided by the President. The Obama administration dropped those sanctions that were in its power, but many restrictions remain in the less flexible hands of the Congress. The EU therefore faces fewer constraints than the U.S. in its policies towards Myanmar and in the area of peace support has promised to fund the Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC) created to work towards a lasting peace. Part of the EU aid programmed for 2013 is to be devoted to peace processes, and insurgent ethnic groups have already received assistance to help them take part in ceasefire talks and political settlement negotiations.

The EU has long been the largest aid donor to uprooted peoples like the Rohingya refugees and Myanmar refugees in Thailand and Bangladesh. And now that development interventions in Myanmar are no longer limited by CFSP sanctions, the EU is right to use aid to support the reform process. But it also needs to rise above its traditional role as an aid donor and take on a more political role in order to avoid becoming a payer rather than a player. EU governments are exploring ways of supporting police reform in Myanmar that would build on past experience in security sector reform in Africa and the Balkans. The improved training of Myanmar’s police forces could reduce clashes with civilians and so mitigate the potential for escalation. The EU could also follow up on peace-related initiatives, particularly by sending conflict transformation advisors to co-operate with local actors on mediation efforts. European peace centres like the Berghof Centre for Conflict Transformation and the Peace Studies Department at Bradford University in the UK could do much to help the MPC’s work, and once peace agreements are in place the EU could support their implementation and thus build on its successful mission in Banda Aceh. This would fully cohere with the Comprehensive Framework’s objective of building capacity for all stakeholders and supporting credible measures aimed at reconciliation.

“What the EU now needs to do to be seen as relevant by all the political and societal forces in Myanmar is to help them address their most pressing problems – and to be seen to be doing so”

With a view to the Myanmar task force scheduled for November, the EU should take measures to fight the rampant corruption that is a major hindrance to Myanmar’s economic and political development. That departs from the EU’s traditional focus on human rights and democracy. And the EU should provide training for local officials, MPs, journalists and other civil society actors on the EU’s own workings, because Myanmar’s long isolation means that disinformation on the outside world is massive. Local elites need greater knowledge of the EU if they are to work with it and build effective partnerships. The EU needs to clarify what its role was during the sanctions period. In Zimbabwe, the EU became painfully aware of the loss of influence that resulted from its sanctions, and now it must become a much more visible actor in Myanmar.


Photo credit: European Commission


The EU is important, but member states still have much to offer

The EU’s policy towards Myanmar’s government between September 1988 and the by-elections of April 2012, was ostensibly based on ‘targeted’ sanctions denying development aid and discouraging trade, investment and tourism. Europe sought in vain for assets to freeze, and not only targeted senior officials and their cronies with visa bans but even their children and grandchildren. Yet the international community allowed Myanmar’s military regime to enjoy buoyant revenues from selling its natural gas to Thailand, because not doing so would damage the Thai economy and spark a bitter row with practically every major bank in South East Asia and China.

So when the by-elections occasioned by the resignation of Myanmar’s government ministers posts after the November 2010 elections saw the National League for Democracy win 43 of 44 seats, the EU was delighted. Brussels suspended sanctions in April 2012 for 12 months, and lifted them altogether this year. Those sanctions, as Clara Portela rightly observes, reflected international outrage over human rights abuses in Myanmar, for EU investment interests had chiefly been limited to French energy giant Total’s stake in the Yadana natural gas project. Pressure by EU governments, notably that of the UK, had inhibited European corporate involvement in the Burmese market, and even induced companies like British American Tobacco and Premier Oil to withdraw.

Clara Portela notes that an EU-Myanmar task force is, in the words of the EU Council’s latest conclusions, “to offer a high-level platform to pull together EU resources for helping the transition move ahead.” There is now a comprehensive framework for EU support under the headings of peace, democracy, development and trade and engagement with the international community. In reality, no significant reorientation will be needed; corruption is less rampant than is often alleged, and mainly occurs in the internal bureaucracy. Foreign investors are now taking a very close look at the Burmese market, and the recent award of a mobile telecom project was hailed as a model of transparency.

Some EU member states may be better placed than the EU itself to offer programmes like police training and even a measure of military engagement when promoting human rights. The British government has suggested that the intelligent use of sanctions in the case of Myanmar has been one of the most effective levers in encouraging the regime to implement democratic change. It is not a view widely shared elsewhere in the EU, but now the focus is on constructive future policies regarding Myanmar.