After three days of talks at the Third Myanmar-EU Human Rights Dialogue, in a statement released on November 25, the European Union finally voiced its concern about the recent bout of violence in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine State, which has reportedly seen Rohingya Muslim minority suffer abuses and prevarications.
The European bloc did not overdo things, while being aware that a delicate political transition was in full swing in the southeast Asian country. Brussels’ officials simply called on their counterparts to investigate into the facts and allow humanitarian assistance to reach the local population in need, be it Muslim or Buddhist. The Myanmese government replied that national security forces were conducting “with maximum restraint” operations near the frontier with Bangladesh, where armed groups had launched attacks on three border police posts in early October.
Human rights groups accuse the country’s civil government, and its de facto head, the democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi, of turning a blind eye to communal violence in Rakhine State and Myanmese troops’ excesses against Rohingya Muslims. Those accusations are putting the EU in an awkward position, owing to its vocal backing of Suu Kyi’s political battles in the darker moments of Myanmar’s military rule.
Under house arrest for many years in the 1990s and early 2000s, Suu Kyi is now the country’s civil leader, though she is barred from serving as president – she is currently state counsellor and minister of foreign affairs. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy won general elections one year ago and now have to run the government in “cohabitation” with the generals. The national army is still the true kingmaker in Myanmar’s politics; it dominated the country with an iron hand for five decades up until 2011, when a quasi-civilian cabinet took the lead.
Given her personal history and political background, Western nations would expect Suu Kyi to advance more proactive policies on minority rights, in particular on the discord between the Buddhist community and the Rohingya, which is deeply rooted in Rakhine State.
The Myanmese government has so far refused citizenship to the Rohingya. As a stateless minority, Rohingyas do not enjoy full freedom of movement and access to basic services in Myanmar. Thousands live confined in displacement camps and their poor living conditions have become a source of tensions in the region, as they attempt to move into Bangladesh by land or reach Thailand and Malaysia by sea to flee violence.
In its communications with the EU, Naypyidaw promised to probe into allegations of human rights violations by its security personnel in Rakhine State, even though the Myanmese government has denied any attack on civilians from the outset. In this sense, Suu Kyi dismissed recent media coverage of events in the area as partial and inaccurate.
In the current picture, Brussels is struggling to deal with the complexities of Naypyidaw’s domestic politics. Furthermore, EU institutions – leave alone single member states – do not share a common line on the former British colony of Burma. Last June, the European Council stated that the “European Union takes positive note of the efforts of the Government of Myanmar/Burma to begin work towards addressing the challenges of Rakhine State, including the situation of the Rohingya”. A couple of week later, instead, the EU Parliament took a harder stance, urging the Myanmese cabinet to protect the Rohingya.
Over the past five years, the EU has tried to stimulate the reformist path in Myanmar with a mix of political engagement and financial help. Not least, in October 2015, Brussels was the only Western witness to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement between the Myanmese government and eight ethnic armed militias, part of a broader initiative to put an end to decades of fighting between Myanmar’s armed forces and ethnic formations operating in the country’s border areas.
Political and economic reasons prompt the EU to handle Suu Kyi’s actions with care. First, Brussels makes every effort not to damage her position while she is grappling with a still powerful military establishment. Myanmese armed forces manage all security apparatuses and large part of the country’s economy; the reality is that they could reverse the transition process underway at any time, and the EU grouping does not want that happening.
Then, there is Europe’s interest in a dynamic developing market. Brussels repealed sanctions on Naypyidaw in 2011, except for an arms embargo; it granted preferential access to Myanmese goods and started negotiations for an investment protection agreement. The EU is Myanmar sixth-largest commercial partner; their trade turnover was worth US$1.3 billion in 2015, with a three-fold increase from 2012. Still, Europe was Naypyidaw’s fourth-largest investor last year, according to the EU Commission.
The EU cannot but match the influence of India and China on Myanmar’s developments, and that of the United States either. Yet, soft tones toward Suu Kyi’s ethnic policy could turn out to be unbearable in the near future. Apart from the ethical problem of doing everything in one’s power to avoid a humanitarian disaster in Rakhine State, continuing instability there, fueled by inter-communal tensions, will inevitably make Myanmar a less attractive business partner for Europe.
That’s not all. As the Old Continent is faced with mass migrations from Africa and Asia, Rohingya refugees that now cross the border into Bangladesh from Myanmar could one day knock on Europe’s door, just like other migrants from Southeast Asia have done in the past years, contributing to a historical trend that is proving a strategic liability for the European integration.