Europe Drags Its Feet In Myanmar – Analysis


The European Union (EU) is called to draft the annual UN General Assembly Resolution on Myanmar. A dozen of EU countries, along with the United States, Canada and Australia, are pushing for the inclusion in the Resolution of a commission probing into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by the regime of Naypydaw. The U.S. State Department declared on August 11 that Washington is committed to establish an international commission on crimes against humanity in Myanmar, as recommended by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in onetime Burma.

EU state members are quite divided about the establishment of such a commission. According to Burmese and western pro-democracy groups, Germany and other European countries are wary of protecting their own economic investments and export in Southeast Asia, with Berlin aiming to engage the Burmese government led by newly elected president, retired general Thein Sein, rather than maintaining a confrontational stance. The problem is that, up to now, Brussels special representatives for Myanmar have yielded no tangible results from dialogue with the Burmese military junta or its “quasi-civilian” spin-off now formally in charge.

Divisions within Europe on Myanmar are certainly under scrutiny in China after the EU has broken into what Beijing regards as its own strategic backyard. As reported by The Irrawaddy website, last July 9 EU representatives met with leaders of an umbrella group of Burmese ethnic parties in Bangkok: the United Nationalities Federation Council (UNFC). The UNFC delegation urged the EU to broker a political solution to the long-standing conflict between Myanmar’s central government and Burmese armed ethnic groups.

Myanmar is a key political ally of China in Indochina. It is an outlet for Chinese investments and an alternative hub for oil and gas that Beijing imports from the Persian Gulf and Africa. At the same time, as it is the south-eastern flank of the Mediterranean basin for Europe, Myanmar could prove to be China’s geopolitical soft underbelly. If an all-out Burmese civil war were to broke out, Beijing could find itself unprepared to handle a humanitarian crisis resulting from its south-western edge.

To date, it is estimated the ongoing armed clashes in north-eastern Myanmar between the Burmese army (Tatmadaw) and ethnic militias has brought about 15,000 to 20,000 war refugees in Kachin state and as many as 31,000 in Shan state. As happened in August 2009, when about 30,000 Kokang (a group of ethnic Chinese settled in Myanmar) escaped attacks by the Tatmadaw in Shan state, many ethnic Kachin and Shan on the run have poured into the neighbouring Chinese Yunnan province.

This scenario could worsen if China decided to launch a “surgical” cross-border military incursion in the north-eastern regions of Myanmar to protect its industrial facilities based there and contain the mass of refugees within the Burmese boundaries. This would be an adaptation of the contingency plan that is supposed to be the Chinese insurance against the possible collapse of North Korea’s regime.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that on December 2010 – as reported early this year by the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo – Beijing deployed its own troops in the special economic zone of Rajin-Sonbong, in the North Korean province of North Hamgyong. In case of sudden crisis in North Korea, these soldiers should protect both Chinese port facilities and residents there as well as providing the first bulwark against the wave of displaced North Korean fleeing the restive country.

China should take into account the large presence of ethnic Kachin living in Yunnan province in devising a military blitz deep inside the north-eastern Myanmar. Indeed, Kachin within Chinese borders could rise up against Beijing if this were to back Naypydaw’s military operation against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N).
Europe has room for diplomatic maneuver in Myanmar, while ceasefire talks between the Burmese government and the ethnic groups are failing on. In addition, there is uncertainty around the role the Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, can play in brokering a political deal between ethnic armed militias and the Tatmadaw. On the other hand, from interethnic civil war in Myanmar to Thai-Cambodian border rows and the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is turning out to be unable to settle conflicts regarding its state members.

Despite its demonstration of military and political disunity about the Libyan civil war and the internal disputes among its member states to draw up a common policy about migrants running away from Libya and Tunisia following the so-called Jasmine Revolutions, or its inconsistent strategy relative to ongoing revolts in Syria, the EU is still regarded as a reliable power broker in the world stage.

Moreover, doubts are being raised about China’s ability to exert a stabilizing influence in case of geopolitical crises in its “near abroad”, which is ultimately the test-bed for a country striving for global leadership. Last year, for instance, during the riots in Kyrgyzstan between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, Beijing stepped aside paving the way for the mediation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

However, ghosts of recession are haunting the Old Continent, and as long as the EU is compelled to focus on its own debt crisis, it is doubtful it can employ political energies in drafting the annual UN Resolution on Myanmar. At least in the mid-short run, the global economical and financial emergency underway will bury peripheral geopolitical rifts as much as the ideological confrontation between the West and the Communist bloc did during the Cold War.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and geopolitical analyst based in Rome (Italy). He is also serving as communication manager for the Italian Civil Service. His articles have appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Limes ( Italian magazine of geopolitics), Pagine di Difesa (an Italian online magazine on defence), L'Occidentale (an Italian online newspaper), Mondoperaio (an historical Italian monthly on politics) and other newspapers. He has a special focus on EU’s foreign policy and Asia-Europe’s political and economical relations. He may be reached at: [email protected]

One thought on “Europe Drags Its Feet In Myanmar – Analysis

  • September 1, 2011 at 10:26 am

    The situation is rather more complex than might seem at first sight. My own enquiries lead me to believe that all 27 EU member countries would welcome a Commission of Inquiry in principle, but at the same time all of them, including the twelve which have expressed public support for such an Inquiry, do not want to upset the delicate dynamics of the changes which are happening in Myanmar. These changes are already substantive on the economic front, but far from substantive on the political front where only promises have been made. The first serious reform actions such as the release of prisoners of conscience have yet to be taken and there are continuing skirmishes in the ethnic States.

    The complexity arises also because the UN General Assembly has never itself set up a Commission of Inquiry on a human rights issue. It was the General Assembly which set up the Human Rights Council and its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, for that very purpose, so I would be surprised if the General Assembly were now to seek to take back from the Council its responsibilities on a particular human rights concern. There is of course always a first time, and if the General Assembly were to insist, then so be it. But they might be opening a Pandora’s Box which could lead to demands for Inquiries on US “crimes” at Guantanamo, NATO “crimes” in Libya and Chinese “crimes” against human rights activists. Where would it all stop?

    The 12 EU Members which have expressed public support for a UN-led Inquiry are unlikely to be pushing their case too hard with their European partners, since they all understand the problems, as does the US itself. The General Assembly would be more likely (if they say anything at all) to seek to request the UN Secretary-General to set up a Panel of Experts or Advisory Commission, but even that might be a step too far. Ban Ki-moon himself has reportedly said that he would only consider this if the General Assembly were so to request him. Will they do so, I wonder? I would not like to bet on it.


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