Lifting EU sanctions on Burma sends wrong signal

17 May 2013

Lifting EU sanctions on Burma sends wrong signal

Sanctions against Burma have given effective support to the country’s democratisation process. Now, however, the big stick has gone.

Harry van Bommel is a Member of Parliament for the SP

Harry van BommelAfter decades of harsh oppression by the military junta in Burma, recent years have seen promising developments in the country. In March 2011 a civilian government replaced the military regime. Hundreds of political prisoners were released, demonstrations were authorised for the first time and around the turn of the year cease-fires were agreed with a number of ethnic minorities with which the army had for years been engaged in a bloody armed struggle. Eventually, in April 2012, the undisputed leader of Burma’s opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, won a conclusive victory in the parliamentary elections.

As a result of these positive developments the European Union last year decided to suspend for a year the many political and economic sanctions which had been imposed on Burma. The arms embargo remains intact. Since the sanctions went, positive reports have come out of Burma. More political prisoners have been released, while four independent newspapers, banned for almost half a century, have brought out their first new editions.

As reward for this progress the EU decided at the end of April to lift all sanctions except the arms embargo. Despite what are certainly extremely welcome developments, this is far from being a wise decision. To support it is to close one’s eyes to the many major problems which continue to plague the country. A tragic example is the serious increase in violence in this overwhelmingly Buddhist country against the Muslim community. The Rohingya people are harshly oppressed in Burma and to this day are not even recognised as lawful inhabitants of the country. Last month a row between a Buddhist couple and Muslim gold traders led to violent clashes in which dozens died, eight hundred houses were burned down and twelve thousand people were forced to flee.

A worrying development with regard to this religious violence is the fact that the Burmese authorities have not intervened, or have done so far too tardily. In addition, it’s disturbing that even opposition leader Suu Kyi has not spoken out in defence of the oppressed Muslims. Even she has remained silent for a strikingly and unacceptably long time.

A further problem is the major role which these soldiers continue to play in Burmese politics. Whilst it’s true that since 2011 the government has been civilian in nature, it says a great deal that the President, Thein Sein, is a former general. He is not the only one from the former military government who has swapped his uniform for a made-to-measure suit. The government is in fact civilian in name more than anything. Recently the head of the Burmese armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, said unhesitatingly that the military would continue to play a leading role in politics.

Given their involvement in so many human rights abuses in the country, for example in the northern state of Kachin, such a role is hardly desirable. There has been an armed uprising in this part of Burma for some years, and many tens of thousands have fled before the violence, living now in refugee camps. As late as January of this year General Min Aung Hlaing unleashed a military offensive which included heavy aerial bombardment. This clearly demonstrates the importance of the decision to leave the arms embargo intact.

The government has already freed hundreds of political prisoners but that doesn’t detract from the fact that many remain behind bars. As long as they remain under lock and key, a complete abolition of sanctions sends the wrong signal. The international sanctions against Burma have given effective support to the process of democratisation. Near complete abolition of sanctions means that this big stick is gone.

This opinion piece first appeared, in the original Dutch, in the Dutch national newspaper Trouw.

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