European Union’s Policy on Burma

Published on May 5, 2010

European Union’s Policy on Burma

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Korea Times – May 5, 2010

In an annual routine policy review, the European Union extended economic sanctions against the military-ruled Burma for another year on April 26, 2010. With the continued political imbroglio in this Southeast Asian nation, the decision was not something unexpected.
 Nehginpao Kipgen
The sanctions, which include a travel ban and a freeze of assets of enterprises owned by members of the ruling junta and people associated with them, is aimed at bringing the military leadership to the path of dialogue that would eventually lead Burma to democracy.
The European Union wants to see the establishment of a democratically elected civilian government which engages in socio-economic development, and respects human rights while rebuilding relations with the international community.
The European Union renewed its call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition and general secretary of the National League for Democracy, and also offered to hold dialogue with the junta if it makes a tangible democratic progress.
Given its history of recalcitrance, the military junta is unlikely to give into the calls of the European Union. Nevertheless, the junta in its own way is seeking recognition, if not endorsement, from the international community.
With years of criticisms and pressures from the international community, the military leaders plan to legitimize their rule by holding a general election. The goal is to transform the dictatorial-type of regime to a civilian form of government, where the ultimate power rests in the hands of military.
There are two important reasons, among others, that concern the military leadership of losing its power to a civilian government – safety and control.
After decades of brutality on its own people, the military leadership is concerned about their own safety under a democratically elected government. The trial and execution of former military leaders in Iraq is something that probably worries the Burmese military leaders.
With the different ethnic nationalities demanding political autonomy, the junta is wary of any decentralization of the Burmese society. Under the present system, the military controls all branches of the government – legislative, executive and judiciary.
It is symbolically significant, at this juncture, to the Burmese opposition that the European Union has extended sanctions for another year. The move can be construed as support for the democratic movement. However, this initiative will remain to be unyielding as long as there is economic engagement by countries such as China, India, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
It is not the European Union that is solely responsible for Burma’s policy failure. It is the conflicting approaches of engagement and sanctions which make the international community’s strategy ineffective.
Beyond economic sanctions, what the European Union can possibly do is to lobby and convince its international partners, at least the Western countries, not to recognize the result of the election if held under the existing restrictive laws.
It could also strive to formulate a coordinated international strategy to effectively deal with the military junta.

If the European Union, together with its international partners, decides not to recognize the election result, the Burmese military junta will lack the global legitimacy it pursues.
Regardless of the outcome of general election, Burma’s decades-old conflicts will continue as long as suppression of ethnic minorities is unabated, and their fundamental rights are denied.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum ( He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published in five continents (Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America).

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