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The EU’s decision last month to renew its punitive measures against the Burmese regime was at first encouraging, but in hindsight it appears the bloc has waved too many carrots and not enough stick. Visa bans and asset freezes have been suspended on five top ministers belonging to the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), including Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, whom the EU now sees as an “essential interlocutor”.
Except for the foreign minister, none of the other USDP members who are now free to come and go around Europe have served in the army – the EU’s decision on who should be rewarded can therefore be seen as a strategic compromise between incentives and penalties. Nonetheless, the historical social status of corrupt and ruthless Burmese regimes, including the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) and the post-1988 ruling clique, have proved that they are all alike in terms of loyalty, mentality and ideology, regardless of whether they are civilians for their entire life or have merely stripped off their army fatigues to take a seat in Naypyidaw. There were many civilian BSPP loyalists and hardliners who worshipped Chairman Ne Win for eternity, and likewise there are many ‘civilian’ apologists who have served the current regime for decades who certainly do not deserve the benefits of civilian life. Being a civilian member of the regime does not mean that he or she is truly civilised or better than those in uniform.
The EU needs to take a cautious approach when dealing with the USDP regime, and the individuals who are given a chance of travelling in and around Europe must agree to certain conditions as a prerequisite for entering Europe. Any visit must be strictly for diplomatic and political reasons, not for personal matters. But the EU’s sanctions package is getting easier to bust – even the people who are still subject to sanctions, such as the family members of regime crony Tay Za, visited Italy as soon as the EU launched its carroty approach. Their visit reveals that the new policy of the European bloc is much more diluted than thought.
Tay Za’s family was granted visas on humanitarian grounds, according to media reports. But travelling to Milan for the treatment of his daughter’s poliomyelitis has turned out to be a shopping trip for the Burmese multimillionaire who bragged about the snakeskin sofa bought from Italy in his interview with Italian newspaper, la Repubblica. Perhaps the ageing dictator Than Shwe would be interested in getting a visa on humanitarian grounds for his next medical check up in London or elsewhere if the EU kindly bends its Common Decision.
The reality is that EU sanctions on Burma have been weak since the first day of its inception. Its initial response to the bloodshed in 1988 and the early days of the military junta constitute the current arms embargo and suspension of defence cooperation with the junta; however, allowing the export of dual-use items to Burma, such as the German and Swiss machines used in the alleged nuclear weapons project, has not only weakened the measure but caused great concern.
One must also look at how effective the punitive measures have been: financial sanctions against regime officials are countered by the fact that the majority of them tend to either horde money or reinvest it in infrastructural projects or extractive enterprises across the country. And although the senior members of the regime are blocked from entering Europe, the families of lower-level officials enjoy living, studying and working in the West.
While the third-party suppliers to the regime – ASEAN countries, China and Japan – are exploiting the lucrative commercial opportunities in Burma, EU states are also guilty of huge investments in the country. Despite being under military rule since 1962, it is only comparatively recently that EU punitive measure have been enacted (the limited investment ban following the 2003 Depayin massacre, and the ban on timber, gems and metals following the 2007 monk-led uprising). For the decade prior to 2003, European countries were the largest investors in Burma: between 1995 and 2005, the UK had investments worth $US1.1 billion, while France had nearly $US700 million. It is disturbing that French oil giant Total continues to generate essential funding for the regime’s long-term survival, despite vocal criticism of the regime from the EU.
In short, EU sanctions on Burma have existed largely in name, but not effect: what punitive measures were in place are getting weaker and weaker as the EU sees hope in the flimsy changes portrayed by the Burmese regime as ‘progress’. Its latest move to suspend travel and financial restrictions on certain regime members conveys the message that its sanctions on Burma are falling apart.
It is simply a pipe dream to expect a former military official – an outstanding cadet at the military academy whose father was also a well-known military official, and who later served the regime as a diplomat – to become “an essential interlocutor”. It is this same man who continues to deny the existence of political prisoners and human rights violations in Burma. The EU’s recently-opened door shows that policy is shifting, but certainly not in a positive direction.
Zaw Nay Aung is director of the London-based Burma Independence Advocates.