The European Union could be breaching its embargo against Burma by providing riot gear to the Burmese police force as part of a new training programme, campaigners have warned.
Activists have called on the EU to come clean about the nature of the training, especially relating to the provision of equipment, which they say could be used to target peaceful protestors and ethnic minorities.
“Protective equipment including anti-riot helmets and anti-riot shields are listed in the EU arms embargo, which bans any equipment that might be used for internal repression,” Anna Roberts, Executive Director of Burma Campaign UK (BCUK) told DVB.
“The EU needs to provide more information to explain why the export of this equipment does not break the embargo.”
It follows a report in Burmese state media, which claimed that a new EU-funded training programme, costing €10 million (US$13.5 million), will be used to provide strategic advice and riot gear for Burma’s notoriously brutal police force.
The training is being carried out at the request of President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who led an investigation into a bloody crackdown on peaceful protestors at the Latpadaung copper mine last year.
But the news immediately rang alarm bells among civil society groups who say that police accountability must take priority.
“Given the historic role the police force has had of repressing and cracking down on the people of Burma, the EU is playing with fire,” Khin Ohmar, Coordinator of Burma Partnership, told DVB.
“There has never been an independent investigation into abuses by the police force, whether relating to the crackdown on the Latpadaung protestors in November 2012 or any other case.”
Suu Kyi’s investigation into the Latpadaung crackdown drew widespread condemnation for allegedly “white-washing” the crimes of police officers, who hurled phosphorous bombs at unarmed protestors, leaving dozens with third-degree burns.
The head of the EU’s delegation to Burma, Roland Kobia, reportedly said the training would educate police officers on transparency, public communication, international human rights and good practice standards.
But when contacted by DVB on Thursday, the EU’s office in Rangoon refused to comment, saying only that the training material was still “being developed”. They would not confirm whether riot gear would be provided or address allegations that it could violate the EU’s arms embargo, which has been in place since 1996.
The EU and western countries are increasingly re-engaging with Burma, which is emerging from decades of military dictatorship and economic isolation. The UK, the US and Australia have all offered training to the Burmese army, despite accusations that it could fuel conflicts in the country’s ethnic minority territories.
The European bloc has also come under fire for a perceived failure to include civil society voices in its re-engagement with the military regime.
“The EU needs to re-balance its work in Burma,” said Roberts. “At present it is prioritising a partnership with the military-backed government in Burma but failing to deliver on its commitment to support and include civil society.”
“By providing riot control equipment and training, the EU risks developing a security force that is more efficient at repression.”
The Burmese police force has been implicated in several atrocities over the past few months, including violent crackdowns on peaceful protestors. In April, video footage emerged which showed police officers standing idly by as a Muslim man was burned to death during religious riots in Meikhtila.
The police have also been implicated in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in western Burma.
Khin Ohmar insisted that a “deep-rooted” culture of impunity lies at the heart of the problem.
“There are no reliable legal remedies or compensation [mechanisms] for the people who have been the target of police brutality. The EU is neglecting this core need for justice and rule of law.”