Getting Tough On Thugs?
It seems to me that the international political debate over Burma is reaching some kind of critical juncture. And the terms of that debate are throwing up some unexpected dynamics in relations between Europe and Southeast Asia. This is true even as the military junta intensifies its crackdown on the democratic opposition while falling out like thieves among themselves.
The old debate about Burma – and how various international actors should respond to the crimes of the regime – was always presented in a crude, stereotyped way, a microcosm of the ill-considered posturing of the so-called "Asian values" arguments. It went something along these lines. The "West" was implacably hostile toward the military regime and had consistently sought to isolate it through tough sanctions and a consistent stance of moral condemnation. By contrast, so the argument went, "Asians" were more concerned with order and stability and believed in the efficacy of "constructive engagement" with the regime as a means for inducing gradual change but actually for maintaining the status quo. Asian leaders resented what they considered to be outside interference in domestic politics.
This dichotomy never really reflected the reality on the ground. To be sure, the European Union has long possessed a so-called "Common Position" on Burma. This has produced a whole string of sanctions including an arms embargo, suspension of defence cooperation, suspension of all bilateral aid other than strictly humanitarian assistance, visa bans of members of the military regime, and so on. And as the junta has consistently reneged on promises to release Aung San Suu Kyi and open up dialogue with the National League for Democracy so these sanctions have been ratcheted up over the last couple of years. On the surface, then, this looks like an exemplary sanctions regime. But scratch the surface of unanimity then cracks begin to appear. Indidvidual governments - like France - have always sought exemptions for their big corporations. In fact, in relation to business interests the EU's position has always been weak in terms of fully prohibiting multinational enterprises from having direct links to the junta. In addition, there has always been a small, but vocal, group of anti-sanctions lobbyists who call on the EU to abandon Europe's support for the democracy movement and give financial support to the regime. Now there is news that the anti-sanctions lobbyists may be making serious headway with the European Commission.
As this report from the Burma Campaign UK makes clear, on Tuesday there is due to be an EU "Burma Day" which is
meant to be discussing prospects for democratic change in military run Burma. Instead the Commission has packed the conference with anti-sanctions lobbyists, and banned Burmese activists and democracy organisations from taking part?What on earth is going on? There are dark mutterings among MEPs and campaigners that the Commission is promoting a hidden agenda. Just recently the Commission sponsored a report by two well-known anti-sanctions academics, Robert Taylor and Morten Pederson, who recommend a complete overhaul of the sanctions policy and much else besides. The full report is here and there is a summary here. In language typical of a neoliberal approach to political-economic change the authors speak of platitudinous "good governance" and "boosting the economy". Specific proposals include recognising Myanmar instead of Burma as the official name of the country; resuming regular high-level visits; revising the use of sanctions; and restoring some aid programmes. The military thugs must be rubbing their hands in glee.
So what then of those Southeast Asian governments who have long been champions of a softly-softly approach? Here's a nice irony. At the very moment that the European Commission seems to be seriously contemplating a change of policy some governments in the region are actually getting fed up with the foot-dragging in Rangoon and are prepared to say so. Burma is due to take up the chair of ASEAN next year - and some countries are talking about depriving the regime of this privilege because of the slow pace of democratic reform. Politics is a funny game: the two countries turning up the heat are Malaysia and Singapore who were staunch supporters of Burma's admission to ASEAN in the first place and not well-known for their own liberalism.
So let's get this clear. The European Commission - bastion of good governance, democracy and the rule of law - is playing footsie with powerful lobbyists who want to kow-tow to the military thugs. And two of Southeast Asia's illiberal governments, Malaysia and Singapore, have finally lost patience with their recalcitrant neighbour and are talking of stepping up sanctions. So who's getting tough with whom? John Jackson, Director of the Burma Campaign UK, sums it all up quite neatly:
The irony is that just when South East Asia is starting to realise that ‘constructive engagement’ has been tried, tested, and failed on every occasion for a decade, this small group of pro-engagement lobbyists, blind to the facts, are given a platform by the Commission. The EU's 'Burma Day' seems more like a meeting of the flat earth society.