By Kanbawza Win
As a person who had worked at the European Union in Brussels, it came as a shock to hear that the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU had adopted conclusions in favour of the current situation in Burma and is suspending the visa ban to prepare the ground for a further significant relaxation of sanctions when they are due for renewal in April.
Even though there are unprecedented causes for optimism, and changes for the better should be positively encouraged, one must harbour the benefit of doubt given the track record of the Junta in lying to the international community. There have been many false dawns in the past and we are afraid that the West — especially the EU — might tend to follow the Constructive Engagement used by the Asian countries to prolong the Junta backed administration.
One should note that the current government ministers are the same persons as in the previous Junta administration and lying and procrastination are their standard norms e.g. President Thein Sein made a speech in March 2011 which promises changes in economic and social development, but takes a year to release some political prisoners and still did not meet the EU criteria of releasing them unconditionally. What more the catch is releasing more criminals like ex-military and ex-government prisoners e.g. the Spy Chief and his MIS team so that it can use them again in their administration as even now Khin Nyunt get $5000 per month for being a patron to a suspicious philanthropic Mya Yeik Nyo Foundation owned by business tycoon and MP Khin Shwe with a salary of $US5, 000 a month. Every Burmese see the writings on the wall of this staggering salary, in a country where a third of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
Seeking ceasefire with some of the armed ethnic nationalities can be welcomed but one can recollect that the increased conflict in the past year is a direct result of the military-backed government breaking three ceasefire agreements since elections held in November 2010. 1
Why did the EU make no comment when the ceasefires were broken, and human rights abuses by the Burmese Army have actually increased? Even now at the time of this writing there is an all out war against the Kachin with 48,000 soldiers, (120 battalions) 2 while the peace proposal with the Mon has broken down.
It is a good aspect that the EU is finally paying more attention to ethnic issues, but talking about financial assistance for returnees is highly premature. Even the ceasefires that have been agreed are tentative, and ceasefires have frequently been broken by the Tatmadaw in the past. With the military-backed government still not engaging in an inclusive political dialogue to address the root causes of the conflict, it is likely to be some time before most refugees feels safe to return.3 The quasi civilian regime is still using its old trick of Divide and Rule only because of increased international pressure, but has so far refused to engage in dialogue about the political root causes of the conflict, instead deferring discussions to a later date.
The EU welcomes the relaxation of censorship, yet in a recent interview with the Washington Post, President Thein Sein refused to give guarantees on media freedom, and when asked if he would repeal censorship laws he said, ‘The media needs to take responsibility and proper actions. Media freedom will be based on the accountability they have.” 4 Burma’s media is still highly restricted and not been repealed. The regime warns that “Action will be taken” against any one that publishes the true story of unfairly evicting of the abbot of the Sadhu Pariyatti Monastery in Rangoon for his outspoken views or the ethnic conflicts where the government is dishonesty dealing with them. Moreover local journals have already been prevented about irregularities—including in Kawhmu Township where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will contest. USDP has been telling people that they will only get access to electricity and micro-credit schemes only if they vote for them.5 There are several limits on what media can report. Is EU is aware that free and fair conduct by elections is not possible under current laws in Burma?
Everybody welcomes freedom of assembly in Burma but there are numerous conditions in place such as the location of demonstration, numbers of people, and permissions needing to be sought by various authorities as such that no legal protest will go ahead without government approval.
For Example if the Monks protested again as in 2007 they could be treated much more worst. Promulgating human rights law seems hallow in view of the many caveats and security laws as they are extremely restrictive.
It is a good thing that the EU welcomes legislation on trade union activity, but the first trade union was turned down because the President has not promulgated the law and flatly denied the request to creating a new student union or flies the peacock flag which symbolize Burma’s pro-democracy movement.
We are dumfounded when the EU says that it welcomes the humanitarian access and is serious about the welfare of those in the conflict zone when it still refuses to fund cross-border aid to reach those unfortunate citizens where the military-backed government does not allow access. Hypocrisy is a strong word which we dare not use but the price of EU inaction in this areas are costing thousands of lives. 6
One could not comprehend of why the Thein Sein government is establishing Human Rights Commission, when Than Shwe the previous dictator has already established a Human Rights Commission to cover up their abuses. A classic example being on the bias report of the conditions in Insein jail and we simply could not understand why did EU fails to call for independent international monitors like the Red Cross to be allowed into Burma’s jails?
Human Rights Watch had proved that the Burmese military continues to violate international humanitarian law through the use of extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, beatings, abusive forced labour, antipersonnel landmines, and pillaging of property, particularly in Kachin, Shan, and Karen States. Yesterday it was revealed that the Tatmadaw deliberately killed a pregnant woman. Burmese army units in Karen State forced convicts to work as porters in ongoing operations in combat zones, mistreating them through beatings, torture, and use as “human shields” to deter attacks or clear antipersonnel landmines. The army continues to actively recruit and use child soldiers, even as the government cooperates with the International Labour Organization on demobilizing child soldiers. Tatmadaw is recruiting child soldiers and using antipersonnel landmines around civilian areas. 7
With such glaring atrocities EU has the heart to reward the Junta backed Government as perhaps because of the numerous German firms and the French Total oil companies are calling the shots at the European Union?
EU members have spoken about three key benchmarks, the release of all political prisoners, the end of conflict, and free and fair elections. None of these benchmarks have been met.
(1) Political prisoners have been released, but not all and most of them are still in jail. This benchmark has not been met. Independent international monitors must be allowed into Burma’s jails to make a proper assessment.
(2) Steps are now being taken to agree ceasefire agreements, but conflict remains. This benchmark has not been met either.
(3) Free and fair elections under Burma’s laws are not possible. NLD with its high profile and strong support can be overcome this hurdle as long as ballot counting is not rigged. However, other smaller political parties remain disadvantaged.
When Senator John McCain met President Thein Sein, he asked to allow international observers to monitor the by-election but it seems that the president refused. It should be remembered that in 2010, the regime did not allow any observers, but rather sealed the country off from most international press, rigged the election and appointed ex-military leaders to the new quasi-civilian government. 8 It seems that the reforms are only a ploy to have sanctions removed, rather than a sign of genuine political change.9
The EU does not have the broad scale and depth of sanctions which America has. To give away too many sanctions too soon removes what little leverage the EU has. This will more likely discourage further change, rather than encourage it, and the EU will be sidelined in its influence. The EU has flexibility to change its sanctions regime at any time, not just in April when the annual renewal takes places. There is no need for a premature rush to remove all or most sanctions in April.
It is understandable that the European Union has focused on positives and opportunities as a way of encouraging further change, which is understandable, but glossing over and ignoring serious problems that remain tantamount to be preparing the ground for more significant sanctions to be lifted, and inconvenient truths are ignored. It is still early to see the real motivations for what is taking place as the dialogue process that will lead to real reform and reconciliation is still needed.
The EU must show that it is willing to respond positively to changes when they do take place, but at the same time must start to be more realistic about the real scale and nature of what is taking place. None of the changes they refer to involve the military and military backed government relinquishing any power or control. Implicit in the argument that sanctions must be relaxed to encourage further change is an acceptance that an important motivation for changes taking place is to get sanctions lifted, rather than the military-backed government having a genuine desire to see a democratic transition. We feel that it is too early to give them the attention they deserve.
The 11-member National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) comprised of the inner circle of Burma’s government and military leaders, which are the real power behind Thein Sein Administration reportedly, discussed sanctions and come to the conclusion that lifting the visa ban is not their top priority. The greater concern are those that restricting the transfer of their ill gotten treasures to the Western financial institutions for the old generals’ near and dear ones because they did not trust the Chinese banks and have taken lessons on the episode of Slobodan Milošević’s wealth .
What moral leadership would the EU give to the Third World countries which are bent on rewarding the Junta’s proxy at the cost of 30 million ethnic nationalities of Burma? Perhaps the economic lens of the EU on the natural and human resources of Burma is too great to count the life and limb of the poor and persecuted ethnic nationalities.
1. Analysis of EU Conclusion of Burma by Burma US Campaign No 17 Jan 2012
2. Interview with Gen. Sumlut Gun Maw, the vice chief of staff of the KIA
3. Analysis of EU Conclusion of Burma by Burma US Campaign No 17 Jan 2012
4. Answer to Lally Weymouth, senior associate editor for The Washington Post,
5. Irrawaddy 23-2-2012 Burma’s Censors Tighten Grip Ahead of By-election
6. Analysis of EU Conclusion of Burma by Burma US Campaign No 17 Jan 2012
7. Human Rights Watch 23-1-2012 Burma: Promises of change, but abuses continue
8. Irrawaddy 23-1-2011 Sanctions Debate Heated Up in Naypyidaw
9. Hindstrom;Hana EU sanctions move triggers heated debate 25-1-2012