The scramble for Burma

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Agnes Callamard

03 May 2012

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The European Union (EU) has suspended its sanctions against Burma for a year following a wave of widely praised political reforms in the country.

The official statement of the Council of the European Union reads that:

"As a means to welcome and encourage the reform process, the Council will suspend restrictive measures imposed on the Government, with the exception of the arms embargo, which it will retain. The Council will monitor closely the situation on the ground, keep its measures under constant review and respond positively to progress on ongoing reforms ."

Other countries, including Australia, Canada, Switzerland, and Norway, have done the same. The US is the only country still with some sanctions remaining.

The changes introduced over the last 12 months have resulted in real progress but these are still far below any minimal benchmarks on human rights or democracy.

The demonstration of international support for the democratic reform, and the reformists in Burma is a good thing.

It is undeniable that the environment for free expression has drastically improved in Burma over the past twelve months:

  • People in Yangon now appear free to openly express their political affiliations
  • Pre-censorship rules have been relaxed for magazines that do not report on current affairs
  • All imprisoned journalists have been released and the majority of political prisoners
  • Civil society organisations are working more openly
  • Exiled media have begun to officially return to the country
  • Many websites that were previously blocked, such as the BBC and Burma Campaign, are now un-blocked
  • By-elections have brought the National League for Democracy, and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to Parliament.

Despite the exhilarating changes, Burma retains one of the most restrictive environments on freedom of expression in the world when compared to international human rights standards:. The changes introduced over the last 12 months have resulted in real progress but these are still far below any minimal benchmarks on human rights or democracy.

For instance:

  • Most regulations and mechanisms for censorship remain, including the Press Scrutiny Board, Broadcasting Censorship Board, Motion Picture Enterprise, and Martial Law Order 3/89, among others. As a result, a heavy regime of prior censorship remains the norm, particularly targeting issues of public interest, such as ethnic conflicts and human rights issues, and which probably still counts amongst the most extensive in the world
  • The legal framework pertaining to freedom of expression (and other human rights) has not been reformed and thus remains geared towards restricting freedom of expression and imposing harsh penalties. These include the Penal Code, State Protection Act, Printers and Publishers Publication Act, and the Official Secrets Act, among others
  • The government has announced its intention to review the Press law and there is clear indication that it is working on a new law. But the process has been marked by complete secrecy and lack of participation or dialogue with the media, civil society and other actors
  • The recent free and fair by-elections concern only about 10% of the seats in the Parliament – a far cry from the basic and most essential standard regarding fair political representation
  • The ethnic conflicts are covered in secrecy

The discussion over the suspension of the sanctions should have been an opportunity for European governments and others to re-engage collectively over their responsibilities towards, and support to, human rights and democratic reforms in Burma.

Instead, what we are witnessing is a scramble over Burmese riches: European countries and others, and businesses competing with each other for the sake of new markets for (ailing) European industries and companies, and for the sake of Burma's largely untapped mineral wealth.

In such a context, linking human rights with business practices is essential. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and John Ruggie, former UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, have recently urged the European Union to use its powers, and those of its Member States, to adopt an explicit requirement for companies investing in Myanmar to adhere to international standards and operate in ways that support, rather than undermine respect for human rights. They stress that:

"The growing momentum to promote investment in Myanmar must be matched by commitments from states to fulfil their international legal obligations and from corporations to meet their responsibility to respect human rights."

This is a fundamental step. Others matter too.

For instance, the European Union and others should be calling for, and providing all necessary support towards, enshrining the democratic progresses on stronger grounds, including by drawing a road map with clear benchmarks, milestones and timeframes for legal and constitutional reforms, the repeal of repressive laws, and the adoption of new laws that meet international standards. Only by taking these measures can the democratic reform be made stronger and less vulnerable to political whims.

The European Union should not be seen to be endorsing or condoning a political system which ring-fences 95% of parliamentarian representation. The recent by-election, which brought victory for the National League for Democracy was clearly just one first step. More must follow according to an agreed time line. Instead, the official statement of the European Union states that:

"[T]he EU will work with the authorities in reviewing the electoral system, with a view to the general election in 2015."

Could the EU be less committed to basic democratic principles? Doubtful.

The statement identifies three main "expectations" only: the unconditional release of remaining political; the end of conflicts; and improved access for humanitarian assistance. The rest of the statement lists areas of dialogue, support and mostly... growing investment.

There is little doubt that right now the "gold rush" is taking precedence over many other priorities. Not all. But quite a few. And that is worrying. The European Union has laid very little demands or indeed recommendations, and missed a fundamental opportunity to strengthen the democratic reforms at a time when they remain fundamentally weak. 

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