The EU in Myanmar: ‘Sanction’ing Self-Interests, Yet a Positive Move?

30 Apr, 2013    ·   3913

Nayantara Shaunik on what the withdrawal of economic sanctions could imply for both stakeholders

Nayantara Shaunik
Nayantara Shaunik
Research Officer

The European Union (EU) unanimously lifted trade, economic, and individual sanctions imposed on Myanmar at a meeting in Luxembourg on 22 April 2013. The arms embargo, however, will remain in place to be reviewed next year.

Following the announcement of temporarily suspended sanctions in 2012 (subject to probation of the progress made), the EU’s decision to make the move permanent stemmed from its recognition of Myanmar’s commitment to sustaining the process of democratic political reforms. Who drove the process, and what does this withdrawal imply for both the EU and Myanmar?

A Snapshot of the Stakeholders
The Myanmar government, and major economic players within the country, have been pushing for the lifting of reforms for several years. On the other hand, the country’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has so far been advocating the continuity of the measures as a leverage to consistently impel reforms. However, over the past year, she has conceded that Myanmar cannot base its national reconciliation processes by relying on external factors forever.

On its part, the West has been observing the course of progressive reforms since 2011 when the Thein Sein administration first established a civil government based on democratic ideals. Although Myanmar has yet to meet all the required benchmarks for the lifting of sanctions, the overall political atmosphere has witnessed an overhaul that is difficult to overlook. As UK Foreign Secretary William Hague put it, Myanmar’s political progress has been “substantial enough and serious enough” for the sanctions to be removed, “Doing otherwise would send the wrong signal”. This nuanced shift in the EU’s policy no doubt gives ample space for other interests, which have emerged against the backdrop of the European economic crisis, to take shape.

Shifts in Policy: A Pragmatic EU
The removal clearly indicates the growing international support for the once isolated Myanmar. However, in the wake of allegations from human rights organisations of the continuing violations prevailing against minorities, this move largely underscores an intriguing paradox. What was once considered the very basis of the sanctions is no longer the only concern of the EU in Myanmar. Access to the myriad opportunities presented by the domestic market in Myanmar, and the possible enhancement of the EU’s soft power by providing aid assistance seem like the current top priorities.

Myanmar’s economy has opened to a flurried rush of keen international investors over the last two years. Given its stance with regard to its thus far imposed sanctions, the EU heavily lost out on developing substantial economic relations with Myanmar. Observing countries like China and Singapore gain much from their liberal ties; as well as nations such as the US diversifying its strategy towards Myanmar, the EU’s decision comes not a minute too soon.

An enhanced commercial relationship with Myanmar could help assuage the EU’s economic disposition with higher stakes in Myanmar’s infrastructural growth and development. A much broader aspiration of the EU in lifting the sanctions, however, is to throw in its chips in the geopolitical roulette that is playing out in the Asia-Pacific. Besides the consequent visibility this move could warrant, it would also reinforce the EU’s position of being the world’s largest humanitarian and development aid benefactor, something that the EU aspires to maintain.

Contextualising Consequences: The View from Myanmar
Possibly the most obvious and far-reaching implication of the EU’s changed approach is the fact that the move has only further strengthened the position of the present government. The initial US and EU policies, normatively entrenched as they were, looked to ensure that the position of opposition democratic forces within Myanmar was never undermined. In the light of that objective, the move appears a complete reversal in stance.

By being recognised at a global platform, the government at Naypidaw may not have the impetus to immediately or radically reform its domestic policies. Whilst this is not to take away from the credit due to the government for the progress made thus far, the process has much left to still attain. More crucially, it does nothing to constrict the unequivocal power held for decades by certain influential players (linked to the junta regime), who are also presently within the Thein Sein government. 

Nonetheless, the move has also relayed a strong message to the country’s opposition and ethnic minorities. The need for self-determination must be spurred from within, as only self-resilience and not external reliance will sustain the ongoing reforms process. With economic liberalisation and comprehensive linkages with the rest of the world, domestic expectations could possibly increase the current political space available for the entry of more democratic elements into the system.

Since sanctions have failed to ensure the very outcomes that they were imposed for, perhaps the internal environment of the country could be influenced by global interdependencies stemming from enhanced interactions. This could result in the costs of human rights abuses and un-democratic measures becoming too much for even the government and its stakeholders to sustain. Finally then, as the EU re-evaluates its interests in Myanmar, it is crucial for the forces within to reflect and make the most of these changing stances vis-à-vis attaining their own democratically driven interests.