EU sanctions move triggers heated debate

The conclusions adopted by the EU Council on Burma are overly optimistic and ignore the challenges ahead, a leading campaign group warned days after the bloc opted to ease sanctions in response to reforms.

In a briefing note released yesterday, Burma Campaign UK cautioned against further lifting of sanctions, including the arms embargo, before all EU benchmarks are met. Although it said the lifting of a visa ban on Burma’s president and other senior officials was “proportional”, the government still needed to release all political prisoners, end conflicts in the border regions and ensure April’s by-elections are free and fair.

The international community has been quick to embrace a series of democratic reforms instigated by President Thein Sein’s pseudo-civilian government since March last year. But critics worry that reforms are only a ploy to have sanctions removed, rather than a sign of genuine political change.

The opposition National League for Democracy, which will compete in the by-elections, is more optimistic however. Spokesperson Nyan Win told DVB that the party was confident that additional sanctions would only be in eased when the government provides concrete evidence of further progress. Moreover, he said, they could spur more gallant reform.

“We feel the relaxing of sanctions can help to encourage the current government’s reform efforts. We believe that as more [reforms] take place, sanctions will be lifted step by step and sector by sector.”

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton earlier this week described recent events as “quite extraordinary” and said the bloc’s decision had been guided by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who will run for parliament in April.

Her maiden entrance to official politics is being hailed as a key signifier of the government’s evolving democratic credentials, but not all are confident that the April vote will usher in a new era in Burma. In the current climate, only the NLD, with its strong support based and public profile, is likely to win votes, as opposed to smaller, more marginalised parties.

“Free and fair elections under Burma’s laws are not possible,” BCUK said. “In any case, the military-backed government wants the NLD in Parliament, to give it more credibility.”

Moreover, even if the NLD wins all 48 seats up for grabs in the by-election, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party will still maintain its majority in parliament, begging the question of how much impact the revered pro-democracy icon can have.

The EU first began its punitive policy to Burma in 1996 when it slapped a visa ban on senior members of the then-ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council. Over the years these were extended to include a freeze on assets owned by regime-aligned figures, and investment in enterprises associated with the military.

The issue of sanctions on Burma, also maintained by the US, remains a contentious one: critics argue that such a poorly targeted policy is ineffective, even that it hurts Burmese people and hinders much-needed international aid from reaching the country. But with the government dominated by former or serving military men and attacks on ethnic minorities ongoing, proponents of sanctions say they should remain, but be finely-tuned to better target hawkish government officials and business cronies.

Additional reporting by Ahunt Phone Myat

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