Analysis: The Limits of European Power in Burma

By Brandon Tensley 14 October 2015

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The European Union’s involvement in Burma will face two key tests in the next month: the conclusion of the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement on Thursday, and, provided it is not postponed, what is being touted as the first “free and fair” general election in 25 years.

Since the EU began reengaging with Burma in 2011, most of its work in the fledgling democracy has been through the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC). The MPC, launched as a part of an agreement with the Norway-led Peace Support Donor Group in 2012, aims to provide strategic guidance in peace negotiations and to serve as a hub for governments and non-governmental organizations that want to support Burma’s glacial peace process. According to a monitoring report by Burma News International, the EU contributed nearly US$1 million in startup funds to the MPC in 2012, followed by a generous funding package later that same year. The EU provided some $38 million to the peace process in 2013.

Yet financial support is not a panacea. With 135 officially recognized ethnic groups sprawled across the country, Burma’s situation is exceptional. Beneath this mosaic is a simmering history of conflict not only between the Burman majority and ethnic minorities, but also among minority groups. Since Aung San was assassinated in 1947, ethnic conflicts, punctuated only by fragile periods of peace, have flared across the country with an almost seasonal regularity.

Ceasefire agreements are not a new phenomenon in Burma, but one way that the current peace process—in motion since President Thein Sein came to power in 2011—differs from earlier ones is in its emphasis on political dialogue with ethnic armed groups.

However, the role of the EU and other foreign actors in this process has been extensively criticized. Burma expert Bertil Lintner told The Irrawaddy that foreign actors have placed a ‘shameful’ amount of pressure on various ethnic armed groups to sign the ceasefire agreement, despite the fact that doing so would be premature and even against their better judgment. For instance, the Karen National Union (KNU), Burma’s oldest ethnic armed organization, has agreed to sign the ceasefire agreement. As the group’s senior leadership remains bitterly split over signing, this decision, overwhelmingly supported by senior KNU leader Htoo Htoo Lay, who is close to the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office, is seen by many as having been rushed through and overly influenced by Western interlocutors.

The mixed record of European peacekeeping endeavors in the region is a warning against moving prematurely. In the case of the failed peace process in Sri Lanka, a 2002 ceasefire between the government and Tamil insurgents was brokered largely with Norway’s help, but the agreement had little power on the ground, and the hurried process led to a failure to placate important political elites and to address underlying conflicts within the country’s ethnic communities. Violence—including the assassination of Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in 2005—ricocheted across the country. When the Sri Lankan government declared the conflict over in 2009, rights abuses against the Tamil community continued for years.

The demands of Burma’s ethnic leaders hinge on a government commitment to reframe the country’s Constitution along federal lines. This is where negotiators will face their most daunting challenge as a peace settlement is hashed out in the years to come.

Ethnic leaders have not outlined what their vision of federalism would look like, allowing the notion to become a catch-all rallying cry to address a laundry list of grievances in lieu of a specific program capable of accommodating competing and varied interests. Here, with the diverse political systems of its member countries, the EU could provide valuable advice in both shaping aspirations and managing expectations among ethnic armed groups regarding the practical limitations of a federal government.

Critically, experts say a blind focus on elite engagement ought to be avoided.

“One lesson from previous cases is that it isn’t enough simply to support elites, who might only share out power among themselves,” said Richard Youngs, a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law program at Carnegie Europe. “There needs to be bottom-up engagement with civil society groups, too. The EU does some of this, of course, but it tends to hook itself to government-led mediation too much. This is one reason why the MPC has increasingly lost legitimacy and traction with many groups.”

Looking ahead, one area in which the EU could put its good intentions to good use is by monitoring Burma’s general election next month. The EU’s Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) in Burma, which represents all 28 EU member states along with Norway and Switzerland, will be made up of nine analysts, 30 long-term observers, 62 short-term observers, a delegation of the European Parliament, and EU diplomats in Burma. Officially, the EU EOM is supposed to be involved with the entire process, from an assessment of the election’s legal framework, voter registration efforts, and the nomination of candidates to the conduct of the ballot and the announcement of the election’s results.

While these aims are laudable, Youngs said that outside observers have, in the past, done more harm than good by giving a clean bill of health to manipulated elections or by sending mixed signals about democratic progress, as was demonstrably the case with Azerbaijan’s election in 2013 and Algeria’s election in 2014.

“There are typically many voices working within the EU machinery, some of which will want to keep the EU’s development and humanitarian engagement with Burma intact, whatever happens in the election,” Youngs told The Irrawaddy.

If the EU wants to prevent efforts to keep engagement on track without improving governance, it will need some sort of clear follow-through after the ballots have been counted. Burma’s test will be in fashioning a broad set of checks and balances and getting popular support behind such reforms.

Whatever the outcome of next month’s historic election, debates within the EU over competing engagement and human rights imperatives will in all likelihood color the bloc’s engagement with Burma for the next few years. For those involved in the efforts to conclude more than a half-century of ethnic conflict and to support a democratic transition, expectations will continue to be tempered by the slow pace of change.

“The problem with the West is that it wants instant democracy,” said David Steinberg, a Burma specialist at Georgetown University. “Foreign actors have to understand that this process will take time.”