Guest Column

The Lifting of EU Sanctions and Burma's Struggle for Democracy

By Igor Blazevic 24 April 2013

The European Union’s sanctions on Burma are gone. No surprise there.

Burma’s government and the country’s main economic players have pushed for years to have the sanctions lifted. But they were not alone—most European diplomats stationed in Burma and Thailand also regarded the sanctions as a nuisance imposed on them by human rights campaigners. Many European policymakers also wanted to remove the sanctions, which they saw as an obstacle to other interests that have gained in importance against the backdrop of the European economic crisis.

But this is not the only reason that the sanctions have been dropped. There has been no strong domestic voice, in either the democratic opposition or civil society, clearly calling for the continuation of the “suspension” status until important human rights and democratic reform benchmarks are met.

Political representatives of the ethnic minorities have also failed to take a clear and unified position on this issue, because they are still trying to figure out what to make of the current “peace process.” Is it war by other means, or a once-in-a-lifetime chance to achieve peace for their long-suffering people?

Under these circumstances, the end of the sanctions was inevitable. But now that they’re gone, they can’t be put back in place again. It took a unanimous vote to remove them, and would take the same to put them back in place. So what does this mean for Burma?

It means that the ethnic cleansing of Burmese Muslims can continue without European censure, and that the Burmese army’s offensives in Kachin and Shan states—following the established pattern of “fire, fire, ceasefire, fire, fire”—will go on uninterrupted until the last insurgent groups are forced to accept political negotiations under terms set up by regime strategists.

It also means that security forces can fire on peaceful protesters without fear of derailing the government’s improved relations with the EU, and that repressive laws can remain on the books for use whenever there’s a need to suppress dissent. Incumbent power-holders can stage seriously unfair elections, allowing them to consolidate their grip over society and the economy, and get away with no more than a few words of “regret” from the EU or its member states.

The human rights groups are right: Burma has not met the benchmarks laid down for the lifting of sanctions. But because the overall political climate has changed profoundly, the sanctions had to go. As UK Foreign Secretary William Hague put it, Burma’s political progress has been “substantial enough” and “serious enough” for the sanctions to be removed. Doing otherwise would “send the wrong signal.”

This is not about supporting the advancement of democratic reforms or protecting human rights. Nor is it about strengthening the position of regime reformers against the hardliners. It is about admitting that the EU has already altered its stance on Burma. This was already evident when the sanctions were suspended last year. But now it’s official.

What are the important elements of this policy shift? For one thing, human rights and the advancement of democratic reforms are no longer the EU’s sole concern in Burma. Other interests—namely European access to one of the world’s “last frontier markets” and the enhancement of the EU’s “soft power” through development aid—are now the top priorities.

To succeed in Burma, European businesses will need “friends in high places.” Investors are rushing in from around the world, competing for lucrative contracts and concessions. Who will get the rights to explore 30 new offshore blocks in the Bay of Bengal? Who will rebuild Rangoon’s international airport? Who will provide millions of Burmese with mobile phone access? Who will build deep-sea ports and other infrastructure projects? European companies stand to make a great deal of money in Burma, but only if their governments are as friendly toward Naypyidaw as those, say, of China, Singapore, the US or Qatar.

But there’s more at stake here than European commercial interests. The EU is proud of being the world’s largest provider of humanitarian and development aid, and it doesn’t want to be left behind as other countries help Burma to rebuild its shattered economy. Partly this is about the EU’s genuine desire to generously redistribute some of its abundance. But it is also about playing one of the few cards at its disposal as it seeks to compensate for a lack of geopolitical weight on the world stage.

The EU and its member states will, therefore, continue to provide financial, technical and other assistance to various humanitarian and development projects under conditions dictated by the current pseudo-civilian government. They will also invest in the peace process and engage in capacity-building activities with civil society groups. And they will even occasionally utter a few words of deep concern when egregious human rights abuses occur. But none of this will have much actual influence over how the government treats its citizens.

The real impact of this new “working relationship” with the government in Naypyidaw will be to strengthen the position of those who currently hold power, at the expense of their democratic challengers. For even though the administration of President Thein Sein has taken some important and long-overdue steps toward reform, these still fall far short of what the country needs, and more importantly, have done nothing to diminish the accumulated power of those who have held Burma in a stranglehold for decades.

This is, in other words, a reversal of the former policy of the EU and US to do nothing to undermine the position of the National League for Democracy—whose landslide electoral victory in 1990 was ignored by the then ruling junta—and other democratic forces. But it is not as sudden as it seems. For those who are familiar with EU politics, this is a shift that began at least two years ago.

Now that it is close to reaching its long-cherished goal of winning full acceptance by the international community, don’t expect the Burmese government to make a similarly abrupt shift in its domestic policies. Don’t be surprised, for instance, to see a resumption of all-out war in Kachin and Shan states, where the army has used the recent cessation of hostilities to reinforce its front-line positions.

If anything positive has come out of this, it is that Burma’s democratic opposition and ethnic minorities now know that they can no longer rely on the help of outside forces. The West will continue to provide modest levels of support to help advance the legitimate political aspirations of Burma’s citizens, but increasingly, its “partnership” with the government in Naypyidaw will favor the powers that be.

As opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said, success in the struggle for rights and genuine democratic reforms will ultimately depend on the efforts of Burma’s people, not on the goodwill of foreigners. Now that the EU has clearly put its own interests first, it is time for the Burmese people to do the same, and stop wasting time on wishful thinking.

Igor Blazevic is a Czech-based human rights campaigner of Bosnian origin and the director of Educational Initiatives, a training program for Burmese activists based in Thailand.