Will EU regret dropping Myanmar sanctions?
April 23rd, 2013
10:14 AM ET

Will EU regret dropping Myanmar sanctions?

By Gareth Price, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Gareth Price is senior research fellow on the Asia Program at Chatham House. The views expressed are his own.

The EU’s announcement Monday that it is lifting sanctions against Myanmar, following their suspension last year, poses some important questions about the country’s future political and economic development – and the role of the international community.

Discussing the suspension of sanctions, which had been in place since 1990, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said last April that "great progress has been made” in Myanmar, but added that he was "very concerned about conflict and human rights abuses." These concerns justified suspending rather than lifting sanctions. A year on, it is unclear that those concerns have been eased.

In the intervening twelve months, what amounts to a pogrom has been launched against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. The Rohingya are Muslim, are denied citizenship and so are effectively stateless. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, more than 125,000 have been displaced.

“The criminal acts committed against the Rohingya and Kaman Muslim communities in Arakan State beginning in June 2012 amount to crimes against humanity carried out as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing,” Human Rights Watch adds.

Other organizations have adopted a different line. On the day sanctions were lifted, the International Crisis Group, which has been vociferous in its demands for war crimes investigations against Sri Lanka, honored Burma’s president, Thein Sein, at its annual “In Pursuit of Peace” award dinner. The extent of this divergence raises a number of questions which are, for now, unanswerable, but the key question is whether sanctions worked.

More from GPS: Why it's too soon to ease pressure

Received wisdom in 2009 would have been that the sanctions regime was not working. More recently, there have been claims that political liberalization came in response to the sanctions regime. At the same time, countries in the association of Southeast Asian Nations claimed that it was their policy of “constructive engagement” that had encouraged reform.

Of course, Myanmar’s government wanted the sanctions regime lifted, both to boost the economy and to lessen the country’s reliance on China. What is less clear is whether it has any intention of giving up power; constitutional change requires a 75 percent majority vote in parliament, but 25 percent of seats are held by the military. The question for the West is which policy – engagement or exclusion – would best encourage further reform, presuming that the military’s commitment to giving up power is not as high as its statements suggest.

Problematically, there are two narratives regarding the treatment of the Rohingya. The first is that increased freedom of expression has revealed suppressed enmities within Myanmar. The military and police have been powerless in the face of such pent-up rage. The second is that the government has encouraged a lax approach by law enforcement authorities. Continued violence will be used, in the future, to justify continued strong government.

More from CNN: Bourdain goes to Myanmar

And in terms of human rights, while the average citizen in Myanmar may be feeling freer than a couple of years ago, the treatment of the Rohingya is a pretty significant caveat. Essentially, for all of the statements requesting better treatment of Muslims, the approach taken would appear to be rather utilitarian, encouraging the “greatest happiness of the greatest number,” at the expense of the Rohingya.

If the new approach is to work, it will be imperative for the EU and its member states to continue to push a broad – and not just commercial – engagement. Offering to assist in police reform (to deal with communal tension) will test the commitment of Myanmar’s government to engagement. The question will be how the EU responds if the government pushes back against specific types of engagement, now that it can no longer threaten the re-introduction of sanctions

Ultimately, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. If EU engagement helps drive progress towards a free and fair general election in 2015, and if its wider engagement leads to better treatment of minorities, including the Rohingya, it will be vindicated. If reforms stall or retreat, however, giving up on sanctions may come to be seen as a mistake.

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Topics: Asia • Europe • Myanmar

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. sand

    no usa and britain have a long tradition of supporting dictators.

    April 23, 2013 at 11:20 am | Reply
  2. CowBB

    Given the current political ambient, it is so inappropriate to report any negative news about Myanmar.

    April 24, 2013 at 12:21 am | Reply
  3. Frontmart

    The US already lifted many sanctions against Myanmar every time hailed by CNN as showing great US leadership and great US vision. When the EU lifts sanctions it`s not good no it`s horrible. How can they. No leadership but stupidity.

    CNN will you ever stop your propaganda stories. Will you ever stop using these tools who have something bad to say about either China or Europe or Canada or Brazil or others. Nothing but pro US this anti-China anti-Europe, etc. You are not a news channel by even the lowest standard.

    April 24, 2013 at 1:31 am | Reply
  4. themalaysianman

    Sanctions should hit and hurt the ruling parties and their supporters and not the people in general. One way is for all the UN nations not to receive the party members and family members as visitors, diplomatic missions or as tourists. Stop any procurement for their constructions , entertainments or consumption.
    Just anything to prevent the wicked regime form enjoying the fruits of their wickedness . Any nations supporting these tyrants or regimes should also face the discipline. Right now its more a show to the world's poor that they are doing something about it. Please stop fooling ourselves and deceiving the world.

    April 24, 2013 at 1:48 am | Reply
  5. Mohd masood / India

    one life to live not one world to finish preach peace not to instigate by removing sanctions or by imposing them and by putting pressure to stop torture in one go can be done by westen countries and every body will support rather encouraging voilence time after time and in a new form time will never be the same REMEMBER all and one .

    April 24, 2013 at 5:35 am | Reply
  6. Khon Chit Naung

    Western countries are constantly talking about Human Right for Rohingya, demanding Myanmar to accept those Bangladesh intruder. While all of the Myanmar people, who are actually living in the nation are saying very clearly No to that. What about our, Myanmar, Human Right? Has it ever occur to you that you guys are actually abusing the Rights of 60 millions people, the native?

    April 24, 2013 at 8:41 am | Reply
    • Aron

      Shame on you!!As Buddhists you are killing so many innocent Rohingya people(including children)!!this is not teaching of great Buddha!!!Thousands of years they are living in Arakan,Burma and now they are denied citizenship?what kind of racism you are living with? It does not matter from where they came from ,as human being they have right to stay in Burma because they are living since hundreds of years!! We all European want to see more sanctions against Burmese ruler,they must be hanged for war crime!!!

      April 24, 2013 at 9:35 am | Reply
      • Tatahgata

        Why don't Western countries call these Muslims and settle them. Experience their hostility once you feed and give them decent democratic rights. Muslims don't care about democracy and others human rights. Once they form a sizable population they just go to throats of a savior to capture power. Rejecting others livelihood on the basis of religion is what Islam now, In past and will stay in future.. BEWARE!

        April 24, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • george thorn

      Finally, someone speaks the truth. You are absolutely right and thank you for sharing your truth.

      April 24, 2013 at 9:44 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    What is disturbing is that police forces often just stand by and watch, when brutal clashes unfold between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state. The Rohingya are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Aung San Suu Kyi has been particularly silent about these clashes. It looks as if she doesn't want to upset the majority of her Burmese voters.

    April 24, 2013 at 9:12 am | Reply
    • george thorn

      Strange for a practicing Buddhist to be violent. There is a reason for a border separating Bangladesh.

      April 24, 2013 at 9:48 am | Reply
  8. D. S. Bennie

    The point of sanctions is to bring about change, hence when a government under sanctions starts making changes for the better, sanctions should be lifted in stages to encourage further positive action

    April 24, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply
  9. Adlass

    I wish the world would stop judging something they know nothing about or haven't experienced personally. I've been to Myanmar and the people there are full of optimism about the future. One of the complaints is that Aung San Suu Kyi has not been doing anything since her election and has been busy travelling the world basking in the limelight. It is the everyday people and the current government that are getting Myanmar back on track.

    April 24, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Reply
  10. rightospeak

    The British Empire is DEAD. China now has a lot more to say there. Sanctions are misery tools and Globalists are not going to win there.

    April 24, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Reply

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