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Myanmar- what's new and what should the EU do?

Myanmar - what's new and what should the EU do?

15 March 2012

Opening the discussion, Fraser Cameron, Director of the EU-Asia Centre, referred to his own visit to Myanmar two years ago when the feeling was one of stagnation. Now there was a palpable feeling of excitement with the move towards a democratic state and the hope for an end to ethnic conflicts. He quoted from a recent speech by Ambassador Thant Kyaw who said that Myanmar ‘is opening a new and challenging chapter in her history.’

Harn Yawnghwe, Executive Director, Euro-Burma office, said it had been strange returning to Burma after 48 years in exile. It was always unrealistic to expect the military to hand over power completely. Nevertheless the changes were real. The peace talks with the ethnic minorities were crucial for stability. There were major economic reforms underway. Aung San Suu Kyi was actively campaigning for a by-election seat. There were some who suggested that if her party did not win all 48 seats the elections would not be free and fair. But this would be a false analysis. Many people were unaware of the NLD which had different factions. The government party was quite popular in some areas.

Sai Sam Kham, Executive Director, Metta Development Foundation, said that there was now space for civil society to work, e.g. on land issues, humanitarian aid. The conditions at regional and local level still varied, often depending on the attitude of local army commanders. There was little capacity in the NGO sector and this needed to be addressed.

An EU official from the EEAS agreed that changes were real. He noted that the government was even talking to the EU about sensitive issues of political prisoners, migrant workers and border disputes. The reintegration of exiles was another positive step. Sanctions had run their course and the EU needed to move towards a policy of engagement with Myanmar. Trade and investment would be crucial.

In the discussion there was much debate about the effectiveness of EU and other sanctions. Harn said that sanctions had not worked. Indeed it had driven Myanmar into the arms of China. Some NGO representatives took a different view and suggested the EU should main a policy of strict conditionality.

One diplomat considered that Myanmar could learn much from the transformation that had taken place in Poland. Another pointed to the potential for Myanmar to gain international influence and respectability by taking over as chair of ASEAN in 2014. Myanmar could even become a model for other Asian countries. 

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