By Sripathi Narayanan
On 12 April, the European Union announced that the trade and financial sanctions imposed on Myanmar would be continued for another year. However, travel restrictions on a few civilian members of Myanmar’s government were relaxed. The extension of these sanctions includes a travel ban on high-level officials of the 27 member group of the EU, but excludes junior-level officials. Although there is no perceptible deviance from the official position maintained by the EU on Myanmar, these developments warrant a re-examination of the relations between Myanmar and the EU.
The EU will continue with its sanctions despite pleas made by the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi, who called upon the international community to relax their restrictions on the newly elected government of Myanmar. The Foreign Ministers of ASEAN have also been requesting the EU and the US to loosen sanctions against Myanmar. In response to these requests, the decision of the EU to lift travel restrictions on a select few individuals falls short of the pleas that have been made. Even though the EU has not changed its stated position, it has come under fire for allegedly turning soft against the ills of the military junta that continues to control Myanmar.
The most apparent reading of the EU’s decision on Myanmar is that they still condemn the autocratic regime for its total lack of respect for human rights. The only notable change in its position is the easing up on travel restrictions on the Foreign Minister and some civilian government officials for one year. This will facilitate in the setting up of diplomatic channels of communication between the two, which has absent for all these years. Such posturing by the EU could be in the hope that it will prompt Myanmar to consider embracing democracy and also uphold human rights, or because the EU considers it as an attempt to understand the psyche of Myanmar. The rationale for the relaxation of travel restrictions can be seen against the backdrop of the general election in November last year. Even though this is the first election in Myanmar in two decades, the international community has criticized it on the basis of it being a state-managed affair with the total absence of any credible opposition to the military junta.
The November 2010 elections were held under the shadow of draconian laws that set forth steep qualification requirements for an individual’s candidature. Moreover, the polls were boycotted by NLD, the main opposition party. The government formed post this election is one that is dominated by individuals whose loyalties still rests with the army. Of the thirty-member council of ministers, only four individuals do not have a military background. Thus the present government in Myanmar is criticised as a stooge of the army. Nevertheless, Myanmar has made attempts to democratize, even though it might be limited in both in form and spirit. This election in totality is part of the ‘seven step roadmap to democracy’ announced by the regime in 2003. This roadmap to democracy is a reflection of the junta’s support for a guided democracy that does not challenge the authority or the position of the military.
Another rationale for the loosening of travel restrictions is that Myanmar has been shunned by the international community for a long time with the imposition of highly restrictive sanctions. This has not had any noticeable change in the way the regime has been conducting its business. Therefore, instead of coercing the regime to mend its ways, the international community has only alienated Myanmar and driven it to a more pronounced autocratic stand. The sanctions, as in most cases, have added to the hardship of the people and not the junta, whose primary interest has always been itself and not the welfare of the people.
These sanctions are not complete as Myanmar’s relationships with its neighbours at large have helped it to sustain itself. For the neighbouring countries of Myanmar, their relationship with the junta has been dictated by ground realities and realpolitik rather than by principles. Either by default or by design, the neighbours of Myanmar face constraints that have forced them to engage with the regime and make substantial investments in Myanmar. Added to this is the geo-strategic position of Myanmar with its untapped natural resources, which has proved to be too great a temptation for its neighbours to ignore.
The future course of action for the EU would be to engage with Myanmar. This being done in an incremental fashion could also encourage the military to sponsor devolution of power in the form of democratization. Along with this are the obvious economic benefits that the EU would reap.
Research Intern, IPCS
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