This week’s decision by European Union (EU) member states to lift all sanctions on Burma [Myanmar] except the arms embargo has received widespread criticism. It was, however, just one of the Conclusions published by the EU Foreign Affairs Council on April 22.
These Council Conclusions are worth examining as they highlight just how far the EU has shifted its policy on Burma in the past two years.
EU Foreign Ministers have decided to trust Thein Sein, and throw everything they have behind him. There are no caveats or reservations—instead it’s a wholehearted endorsement of a man whom the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma twice named for personally ordering human rights abuses.
It is an extraordinarily risky and reckless diplomatic move, but having made this decision, they now seem willing to make shocking compromises on human rights abuses and twist reality to try to make it fit their new view of Burma.
First to be abandoned are the EU’s own benchmarks for human rights improvements. These were laid out clearly in last year’s Council Conclusions: all political prisoners should be released unconditionally (they haven’t been); there should be an end to conflict (fighting has actually increased in Kachin State); there should be substantially improved humanitarian access (there hasn’t been and lives have been lost as a result); and there should be improvements in the welfare and status of the Rohingya (the situation has deteriorated so badly that the Rohingya have been subjected to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, with government forces allegedly complicit).
No mention of these benchmarks not being met was made by EU Foreign Ministers. Nor has the EU or any member state issued a statement pledging action or even expressing concern about evidence released by Human Rights Watch on the same day they lifted sanctions, of government involvement in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya.
There is no reference in their Council Conclusions of the multiple human rights violations which may violate international law, which were highlighted in the recent UN Human Rights Council resolution on Burma. All talk of justice and accountability has been forgotten.
Any idea of striking a balance between welcoming and supporting reforms so far, while acknowledging their limitations and maintaining pressure for deeper change, has been abandoned.
Instead Burma is a country with a “remarkable process of reform”. The EU “congratulates the government of Myanmar/Burma on what has been achieved”. EU Foreign Ministers state that they are willing to “open a new chapter” and look forward to “working in partnership” with the government.
Instead of demanding the immediate release of political prisoners, the EU is now making excuses for Thein Sein keeping political prisoners in jail. Rather than the detention of political prisoners being described as a gross violation of human rights, the release of political prisoners is now described as one of the “complex challenges” Burma faces. EU Ministers noted with “satisfaction” the creation of the political prisoner review mechanism, despite knowing full well that this mechanism is deeply flawed and will not lead to the release of all political prisoners. It does not seem to occur to them to wonder how genuine the reform process is if two years since it started, hundreds of political prisoners are still in jail.
In Rakhine State, government restrictions which violate international humanitarian law and which have led to unnecessary deaths, are described as “humanitarian risks” which are another “complex challenge” the government of Burma needs help with.
Conflict in Kachin State, during which the Burmese army has committed multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape and gang rape, torture, arbitrary execution, deliberate shelling of civilians, use of forced labour, use of child soldiers and arbitrary detention, is now described using the much softer word, “hostilities”.
Completely ignoring the fact that President Thein Sein asked for international assistance in expelling all Rohingya from Burma, a proposal for what amounts to ethnic cleansing, and ignoring evidence recently published by the Chin Human Rights Organisation of ongoing discrimination against Christians, the EU instead praises Thein Sein for his “commitment to a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith society.”
Another example of just how far the EU is going in avoiding highlighting ongoing human rights abuses and other problems is the fact that they have lifted all sanctions except the arms embargo, but not stated why they are keeping the arms embargo in place.
EU Ministers state that the bloc will “use all means and mechanisms at its disposal to support Myanmar/Burma’s political, economic and social transition.” Missing from the sentence are the words, “to democracy”, although EU Foreign Ministers seem to be taking Thein Sein at his word that such a transition is under way.
It is this assumption, that Thein Sein is genuine about democratic change, rather than just taking Burma on a path to a ‘normal’ authoritarian regime, that underpins the willingness of the EU to look the other way, even when ethnic cleansing is taking place. It’s a massive gamble, and an immoral one.
Mark Farmaner is director of Burma Campaign UK, a London-based NGO that advocates for democracy and human rights in Burma/ Myanmar.
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