Disunity is bad but pluralism is good. The story of EU policy on Burma illustrates this point. Disunity is normal: sovereign states with varied histories and traditions might be expected to disagree. The remarkable thing is that in the end, on Burma as on much else, the EU manages to achieve a common policy. The policy may even be better for being the product of disagreement and debate. Unfortunately the EU tends to do its disagreeing in public but when it reaches a sensible consensus often conceals the fact.
On Burma the disagreements start with the name. EU documents refer to Burma/Myanmar. Can one really have a policy on a country when one cannot agree on the name?
This disagreement is in fact not so unreasonable. On one side is the argument that if the UN, its neighbours and some people in the country call it Myanmar, the EU should follow suit. But the argument on the other side is also strong: an early act of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), one of the nastier manifestations of the military in its 50-year term of office, was to change the official name in English to Myanmar. The SLORC claimed that this name had the advantage of including minorities not from the predominant Bamar (or Burman) ethnic group. But this argument is largely false since ‘Burma’ is in fact a colloquial form of ‘Myanmar’ and the one the British rulers opted for. Furthermore, Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters gave the name political significance by refusing to follow the SLORC’s decree. The lady now uses Myanmar when speaking the Burmese (or Myanmar) language, thereby offending some of her supporters, but insists on using Burma in English, thereby offending some generals. Too much energy has been wasted on this rather unimportant issue.
On the more critical issue of sanctions there are respectable cases to be made both for and against. Let us leave aside the EU’s visa bans and asset freezes on members of the regime, which have certainly discomforted those targeted. The arguments against broad sanctions are that they corrupt and distort an economy; they impoverish people; they often create illegal trade from which the primary beneficiaries are those in power; and they provide a convenient alibi for the government’s own economic mismanagement. If sanctions bite, the intention is that they will hurt people and thus encourage them to overthrow the government through elections or revolution. That makes them particularly ineffective when dealing with military regimes. Besides, it is contact, not isolation that brings about change. Trade leads to more extensive relations with other countries; it opens countries up, eventually creating the middle class that is essential for democracy.
But there are also valid arguments on the other side. The damage done to the Burmese economy by EU sanctions has always been small compared with the damage inflicted by the military government. Spending on health and education has been minimal, while the defence budget as a proportion of GDP – officially 4.9 per cent, though the true figure is certainly much higher – surpasses that of any other country in the Association of South-East Asia Nations (Indonesia and the Philippines both spend 1 per cent, Malaysia and Thailand 1.5 per cent, Vietnam 2.5 per cent and Singapore 3.6 per cent, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies).
The sanctions did have one powerful effect, namely, to signal to European companies that the Burmese regime was unacceptable, and that they should stay away. Almost universally, they took this advice. The sanctions also gave moral support to the opposition, thousands of whose members have been beaten and locked up.
The arguments of those who opposed sanctions nevertheless had an impact on what the EU did. Its sanctions were designed to limit direct damage to the livelihoods of ordinary Burmese. They were selective and targeted on the extractive industries – mainly timber and gem stones – where the military and their cronies are dominant (though the sanctions’ effectiveness was impaired by some of these goods being rebadged and exported via Thailand).
The EU matched sanctions with a commitment to provide humanitarian support, not just at the time of cyclone Nargis in 2008, but on a continuing basis, with an emphasis on health and rural poverty. The US chose a very different path, applying an enormous and complex web of sanctions to Burma, similar to those in force against Iran. The US blocked World Bank lending and cut off Burmese banks from the international financial system. Congressional restrictions obliged the Global Fund (which ran programmes to fight malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS) to pull out of Burma in 2005. The EU led a consortium to replace the work of the Global Fund. In sympathy with those who argued against having anything to do with the Burmese regime, the EU ran all its programmes through NGOs.
Western sanctions were probably not the main cause of the thaw in Burma. When authoritarian regimes decide upon profound reform, foreign pressure may be a factor but is often less important than the ambitions of key leaders. Mikhail Gorbachev pursued glasnost and perestroika because he was a communist patriot. In South Africa, F W de Klerk saw that his country had no future with apartheid. U Thein Sein, who became Burma’s president in March 2011, appears to be a man who wants the best for his country, and who knows that he cannot tackle poverty and under-development without first engaging in political reform and reconnecting Burma to the world.
Perhaps change would have happened without sanctions. But if so it would have happened differently. It is hard to imagine that representatives of the National League for Democracy (the NLD, the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi) would have spent hours in the Ministry of the Interior going through lists of political prisoners if their release had not been one of the conditions for suspending sanctions. And would the NLD have even been there at all? It was always an EU demand that all political forces should participate in the political process. That was code for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, as well as Burma’s too-often forgotten ethnic minorities.
Then there is the China factor. Burma’s leaders were becoming worried about not only their economic dependency on China – a major trading partner and source of investment – but also their reliance on its diplomatic protection in international organisations. They wanted to balance the ties to Beijing with closer ties to the West, and that required reforms that would persuade the EU and the US to remove sanctions.
As it turns out, Western sanctions provided not only the opposition with a card it could play, but also reformists within the government. A government trying to reform cannot easily show benefits to sceptical conservatives, at least in the early stages. But greater respect from foreign powers – Hillary Clinton, David Cameron and Catherine Ashton have been among the recent visitors – and the removal of sanctions are visible rewards that a government can point to when it is fighting difficult internal battles.
In the case of Burma the opposition has been a cause worth supporting. Not only Aung San Suu Kyi herself, but also her supporters are fully committed to democracy and the rule of law. She has shown that she is ready to compromise – contrary to the propaganda persistently put about by the regime. Her approach to the government, the constitution and the parliament has involved many compromises. And on the question of sanctions, she and her party have, understandably, been somewhat ambiguous. She believes that Burma has a long way to go before it is free and democratic, and she has not called for the US to end all sanctions. But she has gone along with the EU’s suspension of sanctions and favours responsible foreign investment to create jobs.
On certain points, such as corruption and the fair conduct of elections, Aung San Suu Kyi remains immovable. This should be welcome; too many countries in Asia have become accustomed to a kind of semi-democracy, in which elections are held but are not particularly fair, in which the rule of law functions but not in quite the same way if you have friends in high places, and in which corruption is a part of the system. It is good that for once that a senior political figure in Asia is supporting high standards. If the Burmese are lucky, eventually she will prevail – and hopefully set an example to other Asian countries.
The Burmese government’s announcement this month that it is scrapping press censorship suggests that it is still bent on reform. But in June, violence between the Muslim Rohingya minority and Buddhists in the western province of Rakhine left dozens dead and nearly a hundred thousand homeless. Burma’s leadership continues to ignore the basic rights of Rohingyas. The opposition says too little about their plight – and some of its leaders have even questioned whether the Rohingyas belong in Burma. Several other ethnic conflicts continue to fester in various corners of the country. Further EU development aid should be conditional not only on continuing progress on human rights, but also on the regime seeking to achieve reconciliation with the ethnic groups.
The EU can offer its own expertise – from countries such as Spain – in building political structures that accommodate minorities. The EU should also encourage the army to retreat from political life, while recognising that this process will inevitably be slow. In Turkey the army has spent more than 50 years – with many ups and downs – gradually relaxing its grip on the political system. One suspects that Egypt’s generals will continue to control large swathes of that country’s economy for several years to come.
This year the EU has, to its credit, stepped up aid and opened an office in Rangoon. Its policy on Burma has looked a bit messy: in the past, pursuing sanctions but not across the board, and giving aid but not working with the government; and now, suspending rather than lifting sanctions while not insisting that every single political prisoner should first be released – while continuing to press the case of those who remain. Messy is what you expect when 27 countries debate and compromise. But the common line forged by the EU has helped to change Burma for the better.
Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.
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