Photo: The headquarters of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany (Dasroofless\flickr)
Business interests rejoice as EU drops Myanmar sanctions
William Hague paid a visit to Myanmar in January last year, the first such visit to the country by a British foreign secretary in 55 years. After a private meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, he expressed cautious optimism about Myanmar’s process of political reform, but claimed that “What we’ve seen so far is not sufficient [for sanctions to be dropped], there are still political prisoners,” and added that “much more needs to be done, and it is vital that… remaining political prisoners be released. It’s not possible to say a country is fair and democratic while people are still in prison on the grounds of their political beliefs.”
Fast forward to April 22, 2013, fifteen months later. The European Union announced that all remaining sanctions on Myanmar – most of which were suspended in April 2012 – have been formally dropped, except for a longstanding arms embargo, granting European business interests a measure of confidence that their investments in Myanmar will be secure. Despite token acknowledgement of ongoing human rights issues, the EU Foreign Affairs Council’s statement released on Monday was effusive in its praise of Myanmar’s reform process. Characterising the events of the past year as being in keeping with a “remarkable process of reform in Myanmar/Burma,” the EU stated that the end of sanctions was a “response to the changes that have taken place and in the expectation that they will continue.”
Just how much change has really occurred is debatable. While Myanmar’s citizens have been granted more political and civil rights, there has been considerable backsliding over the past year. In a suspiciously timed move the day after the removal of sanctions, the government released 56 prisoners of conscience as part of a general amnesty. In doing so, the nature of Thein Sein’s civilianised government has been laid bare for what it is: a regime that uses political prisoners as bargaining chips to extract the concessions it wants from the West.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, a group which supports and advocates for prisoners of conscience in Myanmar’s prisons, more than 150 remain behind bars after Tuesday’s release, despite Hague’s pronouncement last year that “if you want sanctions lifted… then it is very important to show that you are completing this process of reform… by releasing the remaining political prisoners.”
Last year, the EU noted many lingering concerns aside from political prisoners that would have to be addressed before sanctions could be dropped, including the ongoing suppression of minorities – particularly the Rohingya. The EU statement on Monday parroted the concerns it expressed a year earlier, which can be interpreted as a de-facto acknowledgement that none of the benchmarks Myanmar was supposed to meet for sanctions to be dropped have been met. Indeed, the subsequent intensification of the war in Kachin State and anti-Muslim pogroms across the country should have sent a strong signal over the past year that dropping sanctions – the EU’s only leverage over human rights issues in Myanmar – is inappropriate right now.
The same day the EU lifted the sanctions, Human Rights Watch issued a damning report detailing abuses perpetrated by the security services in Rakhine State between June and October of last year, part of a coordinated campaign that resulted in the displacement of more than 125,000 Rohingya. The government has subsequently made no effort to address their plight; most continue to reside in spartan displaced persons camps where basic necessities are in short supply. By all counts, the human rights situation in the country is still grim, and there is evidence conclusively proving that elements within the government are still complicit in perpetrating these abuses.
The removal of sanctions during a period of ongoing state-sponsored violence speaks to the primacy of European business interests in the decision-making process. A statement issued Monday by Burma Campaign UK, a prominent activist organization promoting human rights issues in Myanmar, chastised the EU for “downgrad[ing] human rights as a priority,” claiming that “sanctions should have been lifted gradually in response to positive steps, based on benchmarks laid out by the EU. There is no proportionality in the EU’s current approach.”
The end of the sanctions era will no doubt be welcomed by European businesses, who want in on the bounties to be had in Myanmar’s “virgin marketplace.” The lifting of sanctions increases their confidence that their investments will be safe, as they no longer need worry about the lingering threat of suspended sanctions being reimposed. On March 22, the British Embassy in Yangon launched a webpage announcing “increasing Business with Burma” as a “worldwide priority,” and a number of high-profile European companies have recently announced plans to invest in Myanmar, including Denmark’s Carlsberg Group, Germany’s Siemens, and France’s Accor. Accor’s partner for three Novotel-branded hotels around the country is Max Myanmar group, a sprawling conglomerate with close ties to the military and whose CEO, Zaw Zaw, is still listed under US targeted sanctions. Max Myanmar has profited nicely from its military links, acquiring thousands of acres of land around the country on the cheap that had been confiscated by the military from small-hold farmers without compensation.
US policy on Myanmar does not appear to be moving in the direction of the EU for the time being. When asked about the EU’s recent move, Patrick Ventrell, a US State Department spokesperson, restated Washington’s commitment to pursuing a “calibrated policy that includes sanctions authority and leaves them in place as a means to encourage continued progress on reforms.”
But this is likely to be of little comfort to European-based human rights activists, who fear the stamp of legitimacy given to Thein Sein’s government will cause the human rights situation on the ground to degrade further, or at the very least, not give the government an incentive to change its repressive ways. “European leaders should have the courage to go and explain this decision to political prisoners still in jail, to ethnic Kachin women who have been raped by Burmese Army soldiers,” said Zoya Phan, campaigns manager at Burma Campaign UK, in a statement. “Ask them how ‘remarkable’ the changes are. Thein Sein now knows that he can safely ignore the EU when they talk about human rights. The human rights abuses which led the EU to impose these sanctions have not stopped.”