A democratic Myanmar, wishful thinking from the EU?

Myanmar’s transition from a dictatorship to a democracy might not prove as uncomplicated as the EU had hoped. Stalled reforms, even backtracking, some commentators will call the development. But the EU must keep its engagement in the country, several experts argue.

It all seemed like a fairy tale in 2011. Western leaders sighed. Finally, the new President in Myanmar – the former Burma – was talking about reforms and democracy, an announcement new to the outside world, but first and foremost for the country’s citizens.

Although, a few years down the road, it might not seem so uncomplicated as the EU had hoped.

”Myanmar has not made any real reforms in the last two years,” Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said during a press conference in Yangon just a couple of months ago. Her message has been repeateH8oOObVPBR-3d again and again in international media.

The criticism isn’t new. The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, warned against of “possible signs of backtracking on the country’s reform process which must be addressed to avoid undermining gains made to date” during her first address to the UN General Assembly.

“Several conflicts continue to cause significant suffering to local communities, with currently an estimated 613,000 internally displaced persons in the country,” she noted. “Serious human rights violations are being committed on both sides, and I am particularly concerned by continued reports of arbitrary detention, torture and impunity on the side of the military,” she said in a press release from October 2014.

In late December, the president for Generation Wave, which is a pro-democracy Burmese youth movement, posted pictures on Facebook, which depicted a female farmer who was shot dead in a protest against land grabbing for a mining project in the upper Myanmar. As he wrote along with the pictures: “What does reform mean? Is there real change?”

From 7-16 January, the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar is undertaking her second official visit to gather information on the current human rights situation.

Why the full support?

For many years, both the EU and the US condemned the former regime, isolating them from trade through sanctions. However, both the US and the EU lifted them all in 2013, except arms embargo.

Last month, the EU announced that it will allocate €688m in grants to Myanmar from 2014 to 2020. The grants will support development of rural areas and agriculture, improve food security, support education, improve governance and the rule of law, and contribute to peace building.

But if Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement is true, if Myanmar hasn’t made any real reforms in the last two years, why is the EU continuing its support?

”It is a complex subject. The EU – like the US – wants a success story, so they really want this transition to work, which means that they tend to be rather, perhaps, a little bit more understanding of the difficulties in the country,” David Camroux says, a professor at the Centre for International Studies and Research and co-editor of the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs.

Better to be in the game, than out

However, a more rigorous approach is off the table, while the sanctions clearly didn’t work, according to Sanne Brasch Kristensen, PhD fellow at the Department of Society and Globalization at Roskilde University. Her research is focusing on Myanmar in the relationship between the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

”It is only after the EU has been engaging with Myanmar that the EU is no longer portrayed as an enemy of the state. As long as the EU was portrayed like this, then they had no chance of helping civil society,” she says.

For many years, the EU wasn’t allowed to cooperate in the country. Therefore, most of the humanitarian work was carried out along the borders. However, when the worst natural disaster in Myanmar’s history, cyclone Nargis, hit in 2008, the method proved to be too difficult. The cyclone affected 2.4 million people, but the military regime was reluctant to allow aid into the country.

”We can discuss whether or not it is particularly positive what is going on the country right now, we can discuss whether or not the EU’s help is right, if it is enough, nevertheless, it is an opening; an opening that makes us able to cooperate with partners in the country and helping civil society,” she says.

Challenging the right areas

Later this year, Myanmar is having an election. One of the things, the international society is constantly focused on is the country’s constitution which specifically bars candidates becoming president or vice-president, if they have close family member who owe allegiance to a foreign power. In other words, laws preventing Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president, while she has two sons with a British passport.

Aung San Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) have considered boycotting the election if the constitution isn’t changed, a reform that President Sein seems to be backing. However to change the constitution in the early stage of transition might not be the way forward.

In November 2013, the first EU-Myanmar Task Force took place in Myanmar to provide support to the transition in Myanmar. President Sein met with among others the former European Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs.
In November 2013, the first EU-Myanmar Task Force took place in Myanmar to provide support to the transition in Myanmar. President Sein met with among others the former European Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs. Photo: European Union

“If we look at political transition around the world. The one’s which have succeeded are slow and steady and have a continuation of people who are in power,” Robert Templer, who is director of the Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery at the Central European University, says, referring that the majority of politicians in the parliament in Myanmar are from the military, a quarter of those actually appointed directly by the generals.

Instead Mr Templer sees an incredible lack of ignorance, especially from journalists who write about the country. Either they have never been to the country or have only been there in the past two years and, therefore, have no idea of how different the country was years ago.

“Journalists are very fickle in their analysis. First of all everything is fantastic and the country is all changing and then because it doesn’t change over night, which no country ever does, suddenly they are backsliding on reforms and reforms have not gone far enough, but in fact the reforms have been extraordinary in terms of both scale and speed,” he says.

Therefore he finds that issues in Myanmar are often overstated with a tendency to believe very narrow, personalized views from people with agendas, which are never challenged.

“Aung San Suu Kyi wants the constitution to change because she wants to become president. Is change in the constitution a good idea in the first years of a transition? No, it creates political instability and a hyper-competitive political environment. Those things tend to result in failures in transitions, increased violence and increased social tensions,” he says.

Surprised by a divided opposition

The EU’s previous position during the military regime was to support Aung San Suu Kyi in her house arrest. However, Aung San Suu Kyi has transformed from a charismatic, iconic figure in – what seemed to be – a united opposition to the military into a politician in the government. As a politician she is trying to get the support from the largest ethnic group, the Burmans, which might explains her silence on different issues, notably the rising violence towards the Muslim Rohingya minority in the country.

“It is very difficult for the EU to disapprove of the developments in Myanmar, when Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t disapprove of those things, so in a sense the EU has become a little bit stuck by its previous position,” Mr Camroux says.

He doesn’t see the Europeans as being ignorant to current problems, but the EU has failed to see that the opposition is much more divided than as united with Aung San Suu Kyi as the leading figure. The government lists 135 different ethnic groups in the country, whereas the Burmans only account for two-thirds of the population.

In 2012, the now former High Representative High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, met with Aung San Suu Kyi to show the European Union's support for the democratic transition in the country. As well as opening an EU office in Myanmar. Photo: European Union
In 2012, the now former High Representative High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, met with Aung San Suu Kyi to show the European Union’s support for the democratic transition in the country, as well as opening an EU office in Myanmar. Photo: European Union

“There has been some naivety about Aung San Suu Kyi and the wonderful democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi’s main concern is that the rule of law needs to be established, however, the rule of law implies having a competent and honest capacity to actually enact those rules, which is non-existing at the moment,” he says.

Avoid imperialistic powers  

Even though, the EU’s possibilities might be limited, the engagement could be stepped up through cooperation with ASEAN, which is kind of the EU’s counterpart in Asia.

“If the EU really wants to make a difference, it can’t just come and say which values are the right ones. The EU can very quickly be seen as this imperialistic power once again,” Ms Kristensen says.

However to avoid this, the EU could strengthen its cooperation with ASEAN and then ensure that the collaboration helps Myanmar.

“In this way, the EU won’t be the supercilious actor who tells Myanmar that the country should have democracy in a very specific way, and also Myanmar can’t stick to the explanation that other countries in the region approve of the country’s steps in the transition,” she says.

However, it requires that the EU acts on terms set by the ASEAN. In that way, the region and EU could develop a common pressure on Myanmar to continue its reforms. This could be another kind of leverage for the EU, breaking its previous position.

Moment of truth: The upcoming election

There is no doubt that the transition will be long, messy and complicated, almost like every transition. “It won’t be an immediate payoff as the European actors would like in terms of democratic reforms,” Mr Camroux says.

First of all, the state needs rebuilding, while a democracy can be established as long as people are struggling to meet the most basic needs. According to Mr Templer the EU’s approach is right in that perspective, if anything just too slow. “The EU should have established the relationship 10 years ago, but they are coming up to speed now,” he says.

However, having made the decision to encourage the transition process, the EU can’t really make a U-turn. As it looks today, the idea of perfection can be the enemy of the good, Mr Camroux explains.

“The moment of truth is the election this year. Then we will see whether or not the military simply has done superficial reforms in order for the sanctions to be dropped. Although, what might happen after the election remains a bit unclear. It won’t be the beautiful democracy that the EU wants. It will be something in between,” he says.

Featured image: Maria Danmark 

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