Soldiers beating, arresting and, killing saffron-clad monks; Aung San Suu Kyi whisked away by the Myanmar junta; untold numbers of discontented and disenfranchised citizens taking grave risks by demonstrating publicly: it’s 1988 all over again in Burma where 3,000 civilians were killed the last time the Burmese people marched for freedom.
Doing nothing in the face of violence is not an option: the EU needs to signal its support for democracy in a region in the throes of political transition. But the EU should focus its actions on making a difference, rather than making itself feel good. It is right to push for tougher economic sanctions as signal that violence toward civilians is unacceptable. But it is highly unlikely that calls for truly inclusive sanctions, such as an economic boycott of Burma and its abundant natural resources, would be heeded by most of the countries and firms maintaining close links with Burma. Neither India, which competes with China, nor Thailand, which is inextricably tied to the situation, nor Russia will respect a boycott.
The EU should also recognise that Tatmadaw, the Burmese army (if not perhaps its ailing leaders) is here to stay, for a while at least. It has an unbreakable hold over economic resources, and benefits from the disunity of the Burmese opposition. Instead of dreaming of the Junta living out its days in luxurious exile, the EU should use all its limited leverage to incentivise the junta to enter into a political process with the opposition.
Attempts to unite the opposition have been hampered by ethnic divisions and separatism and the fact that the monks, themselves divided, are not a directly political force. Were it not for Aung San Suu Kyi’s indomitable will and her extreme caution in challenging the junta, the legitimate winners of the 1990 election would have lost even more ground. While we must oppose the junta through international action, it is also vital to avoid a conclusion to the current crisis similar to that of Tiananmen Square (where the protests were followed by a tightening of political control rather than reform). We thus need to work towards re-opening dialogue between the army and the opposition. Tatmadaw will not get rid of the people, but for the being time at least, the people, unfortunately, won’t get rid of Tatmadaw either.
Critics are right to focus attention on China’s role; It has shielded the junta at the UN for many years, while arming, financing and providing Burma with access to raw materials. But some of the proposals for action since the street protests began have been misguided. Calling for a sporting boycott of the 2008 Olympics if China does not restrain the Burmese generals is a threat that is too often used, notably over Sudan (where many more people are in immediate danger of death) and Zimbabwe. It is unrealistic, in any case, to place the entire burden of the crisis on the Chinese regime. The Burmese junta is highly skilled at playing its different international partners off against each other – so the EU should put pressure on Burma’s other partners such as India, Thailand and Singapore as well.
This crisis is not going to end quickly. The EU should work to support and strengthen the UN’s special envoy’s approach to Burma. Despite being involved since 1992, the UN and its Secretary General have had minimal impact. Rather than placing too much hope in the prospect of an economic blockade, we should react with a mixture of condemnation, targeted sanctions but also incentives and proposals. These include:
- Encouraging the opposition to create a united platform calling for a moderate but inclusive set of demands. In the short-term, the opposition will either have to accept a power-sharing arrangement that preserves the self-proclaimed legitimacy of the present leaders or wait for their deaths and hope for change.
- Targeted financial sanctions. They have worked to some extent against the North Korean regime. In the context of Burma, these would require the help of south-east Asian capital centres – such as Singapore – as much as China.
- European leaders, together with Asean and the UN’s representative, should meet with opposition leaders – which would provide them with some protection.
- European leaders should encourage China, India and ASEAN to pressurise the junta to meet with the opposition.
To obtain results, Europe must make it known that it will devise a targeted and gradual response to the junta’s actions. The pressure on the junta – and on the Chinese government – would be more effective if it were made clear that the regime’s conduct would determine the severity of sanctions on a sliding scale, which would be determined in co-ordination with Asean and India. Finding the right mix of carrots and sticks, yielding neither to the temptations of moral indignation nor to the demands of the energy lobby, and making a long-term diplomatic commitment are the main challenges facing European policy towards Burma.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.