Burma’s President, Thein Sein, meets with with EU High Representative, Cathrine Ashton, in March 2013. Photo: EEAS on flickr.
Almost one year has passed since the EU decided to ease its sanctions on Burma for an initial period of twelve months. On April 22, a decision will be made concerning whether the sanctions, which had been in place for over twenty years, should be lifted permanently or whether they should remain suspended.
In a recent visit to Europe, the President of Burma, Thein Sein, requested that the sanctions be completely lifted, stating that the two decades of sanctions are to blame for the lack of capital and technology that the nation is experiencing. However, due to the frequent reports of continuing violations against human rights, the ongoing ethnic conflict in the Kachin state, numerous claims of land-grabbing, and the lack of necessary institutions for companies to conduct responsible business, several organisations are questioning whether Burma is ready to receive foreign investment. The organisations are concerned that lifting the sanctions permanently could potentially worsen the many unresolved issues present in the country.
In April 2012, the EU decided to suspend its sanctions on Burma on the basis of the historic democratic policy changes that the country had seen since 2011, when Thein Sein and his quasi-civilian government replaced the military junta that had been in power for the previous five decades. The suspension of sanctions was therefore introduced both as a reward for the Burmese regime and as a motivator for Sein’s fledgling government to maintain the process towards full democratisation. In the EU council’s conclusion on the suspension of the sanctions, a number of issues in which the EU hoped to see further improvements were listed, including both ending the ongoing conflict with the Karen ethnic group and respecting human rights—particularly in the case of the stateless Rohingya people, whom the Burmese regime has refused to address the status of.
A year later, the Burmese government has failed to fulfil the EUs hopes: the conflict with the Kachin ethnic group in the north of Burma has instead escalated during the past year, and no solution over the Rohingyas is in sight. At the end of March 2013, the European Burma Network, a network of human rights and advocacy organisations, made a statement against lifting the sanctions, stating that “to move from suspending to lifting EU sanctions would be premature, and also undermine the credibility of the European Union … . The European Union should continue the suspension of EU sanctions until its own benchmarks are met and there are legal and constitutional reforms which make Burma democratic.”
Refugees from the Kachin state who have been forced to flee their homes. Photo: United to end genocide, on flickr.
There are also other organisations concerned as to whether Burma’s democratisation- and development-process has come far enough to warrant the sanctions being lifted. In early March 2013, the International Federation of Human rights (FIDH) and ALTSEAN (an ASEAN human rights organisation) released a report detailing why Burma is not yet ready for “Rights-Compliant investments”, claiming that it is not possible, in the current environment, for investors or companies to “ensure that they do not contribute directly or indirectly to human right abuses and that any abuses that are linked to their operations are duly addressed and remedied.” One of the main concerns in the FIDH/ALTSEAN report is the high degree of corruption present in Burma, which is the fifth most corrupt country in the world. The report claims that the extreme level of corruption “prevents the effective implementation of the rights of individuals and communities affected by business operations in Burma”, and it draws examples from the numerous reported cases of land-grabbing, where families have had their land confiscated to be used for business projects.
Despite these righteous concerns over the impact of investments in Burma, there is no doubt regarding the desperate need for inflow of capital both to improve the socio-economic situation in the country and to increase large investments in much-needed infrastructure. Currently, 32 percent of the Burmese population (of just over 55 million) live in poverty, and only 25 percent have access to the national electricity supply.
Further suspensions of the sanctions will not only mean uncertainty for investors but it also may result in missed opportunities of much-needed credit for Burma. However, fully lifting the sanctions would result in the EU losing an important tool in ensuring Sein’s government continues implementing reforms, strengthening institutions, and, most importantly, respecting human rights.