Critics Urge EU to Put Human Rights Ahead of Business in Burma

By William Boot 23 October 2013

A series of meetings between leaders of the European Union and Burma’s government on a comprehensive program to help promote economic development begins next month.

Preparations for the meetings, to be held in Rangoon and Naypyidaw, were being made this week during a visit to Brussels and Strasbourg by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

But critics have called on the European Union to put human rights issues such as land theft ahead of business promotion.

The so-called Task Force meetings, from Nov. 13-15, are part of comprehensive aid program planned by the European Union up to the next parliamentary and presidential elections in 2015.

“This is a formative moment in [Burma’s] transition, allowing more possibilities for achieving results,” an EU statement said. “Political partnership requires regular exchanges. In November 2013, an EU-Myanmar Task Force will give a visible signal to that effect, as well as offer a high-level platform to pull together EU resources for helping the transition move ahead.”

In addition to offering help in economic development, the EU promises guidance and training to promote political and social development to “foster respect for human rights and assist the government in rebuilding its place in the international community.”

However, the intensifying links between Brussels and Naypyidaw are being criticized in some quarters for focusing too much on economic issues rather than human rights.

“The EU is effectively entering into partnership with the military-backed ruling party in Burma, rather than with the people of Burma,” the human rights group Burma Campaign UK said.

“[The EU] seems so averse to hearing critical voices that don’t fit with its own views that it ignores its own commitments on involving civil society in its engagement,” Campaign director Mark Farmaner told The Irrawaddy.

“The EU’s economic engagement with Burma must start to include government spending priorities. The full benefits of economic growth won’t reach the people as long as the [Burma] government continues to prioritize military spending over health, education and other services,” said Farmaner.

Preparations for the EU-Burma Task Force meetings come as a group of 15 NGOs representing ethnic communities in Burma appealed to the governments of the United States, Britain and Australia to reconsider plans to help train the Burmese military.

Economic reforms over the last two years have benefitted the military leadership and the companies they control through land holdings and natural resources, the NGOs said in a statement to the three Western governments.

“The main reforms in which the military is interested are economic reforms, not democratic reforms. This prioritization greatly benefits the Burmese military leadership, whose large economic interests and holdings ensure they profit enormously from seizing our land and resources,” said the statement.

One of the biggest complaints being made across Burma still is the theft of land and property without compensation wherever there are business developments.

“The most useful contribution the EU could make relates to land issues. Quite a number of currently prosperous but newly entered EU members had to deal with socialist land ownership issues not so long ago,” economist and Burma watcher Sean Turnell told The Irrawaddy this week.

“Given the importance of this question in Burma, it might be something the EU could usefully contribute to,” said Turnell, co-editor of the Burma Economic Watch.

The European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, said in Brussels on Saturday that the EU’s projects in Burma will include human rights education and “awareness on rule of law principles and practices” in a planned training program for the police.

“The European Union is very well aware that the way to democratization is still incomplete and that more needs to be done,” Barroso said in a Brussels speech. “But the will is there and [Burma] deserves the support of the international community to continue with its political and economic reform process.”

Issues the EU says its Task Force visit in November will focus on include reform of state administrative institutions, ensuringtransparency and accountability in extractive industries, andassistance to promote trade and private sector development, among others.

Barroso said the European Union has been listening to appeals from Suu Kyi for more pressure on President Thein Sein and his government to enforce the rule of law as a prerequisite for aid, but Reuters quoted her in Europe this week saying many foreign businesspeople remained hesitant about investing in Burma.

“They have no confidence in the situation in the country. They are not happy about the political situation and they are not happy about the rule of law situation,” Suu Kyi was quoted by Reuters. “They are not happy with the lack of infrastructure, no roads, no electricity [and] in some places no water.”

The EU in April lifted all economic restrictions against Burma except military aid. A ban on any equipment from EU countries that might be used for internal repression remains in force.