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Discussion Paper for the Development of the European Commission´s Myanmar/Burma Country Strategy 2007-2013

November 14, 2008
By Heike Löschmann

A Feedback c/o Jean Francois Cautain, Head of Political Section, EU mission Bangkok, December 2005

By Heike Löschmann, Director South-East Asia Regional Office, Heinrich Böll Foundation, Thailand

(I was unable to attend the consultation meetings organised by the Bangkok based EU-Mission’s Burma Desk in December 2005 in Bangkok and Chiang Mai due to commitments at the WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong and have therefore submitted this paper. I am writing these comments in my capacity as regional director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation (hbf) South East Asia, based on my correspondence and face-to-face discussions and in-depth conversations held over the past five years during trips to Myanmar/Burma with writers, artists, intellectuals and professionals, foreign diplomats and international NGOs. The views expressed in this paper are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position of the hbf.)


For almost ten years the EU/EC has tried to integrate two irreconcilable components into its common strategy towards Myanmar/Burma. On the one hand, it maintains punitive measures, such as visa ban and asset freeze, which were put into place in 1996 with the aim to put pressure on the regime. On the other hand, the EU has increased humanitarian aid to alleviate people’s suffering caused by the continuing armed conflict and the resultant influx of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). It has also addressed public health issues such as vaccination against tropical diseases, malnutrition etc. both in government-controlled areas and in active conflict zones along the Thai-Burmese borders.

The latest EU discussion paper is less ambitious in its objectives and scope. The  EU/EC strategy for democratisation and economic liberalisation in Myanmar/Burma seems to put less emphasis on its primary policy objectives of institutionalising human rights, fostering national reconciliation, and insisting on political dialogue between the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta. The focus of the new strategy paper appears to be on the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance through NGOs and UN agencies to the most vulnerable segments of the populations, both in government-controlled areas of the country and in ethnic minority areas ridden by armed conflict such as Shan, Karen, and Karenni States, and on building on the expanded  EU/EC definition of ‘humanitarian assistance’ that covers such issues as health, education, and environment.

Considering that a political breakthrough in Myanmar/Burma is unlikely, this new emphasis is welcome. It gives  EU/EC players – both governments and EU-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – a greater opportunity to explore and carry out programmes that will bring actual benefits to the local populations in desperate need of engagement with and assistance from the international community.

However, a word of caution is in order. While there is a danger that the junta may feel legitimated or will benefit directly from such humanitarian engagement, the practical advantages of such engagement far outweigh its risks. To start with, the junta is a de facto government and represents Myanmar/Burma at the United Nations. Currently there is no viable alternative to it. What opposition there is is in disarray and is only upheld by the West – ideologically, politically, and as regards financial support. In the absence of any alternative, and given that there is no sign that the junta, or, more accurately, the armed forces, will split or disintegrate, the present government is here to stay. It is deeply entrenched – and, for the foreseeable future, its grip on society, economy, and polity will remain predominant.

It is most important to stress that, given the regime’s obsession with security, it is inconceivable that any delivery of aid, be it in areas of health, education, or environment, can be done without the junta’s consent and co-operation.

For any outside actor interested in giving humanitarian assistance to Myanmar/Burma to fully appreciate the nature of the problems, it is helpful to examine the background of prior Western approaches towards the country, as well as its history of outside interference and intervention.


In 1997, on grounds of alleged human rights violations in Myanmar/Burma and under pressure from the media and a well-organised Burma lobby in the West, the Clinton Administration imposed sanctions against the country (the First Burma Freedom and Democracy Act). These sanctions made new US investment in Myanmar/Burma illegal while permitting the existing American interests such as Unocal, Texaco, American Express, Pepsi etc. to continue.

EU sanctions against Myanmar/Burma, including visa bans and a freeze of assets, preceded US sanctions by almost a year.

However, the lack of evidence that the sanctions have improved anything concerning the human rights situation in Myanmar/Burma has created a policy dilemma for Western advocates of democratisation, and especially within the EU. Without any sign of reform as, for instance, the release of a significant number of political prisoners – most notably Aung San Suu Kyi – the West cannot lift its sanctions. Yet, there is a widespread, if publicly unacknowledged, acceptance that the sanctions are not working.

Of late, some member states within the EU such as Germany and France have shown an openness and strategic flexibility in dealing with what has proven to be a very difficult and complex situation, while Britain is actively seeking ways to engage with the junta on all levels.

The Burma problem involves not just the need to democratise the country and mediate the political impasse between the majority party, which won the 1990 elections, and the generals who have refused to recognize the result. Further aspects are:

  • the worsening economic situation
  • the legacy of self-imposed isolation
  • the impact of the country’s externally mandated isolation on its society and economy
  • ethnic animosities and distrust that exists between and within groups and organisations
  • the generals’ paranoia
  • the opposition’s lack of viable political strategies
  • the absence of unity among the Burmese opposition in exile
  • and the lack of an alternative to the current junta.

In 1997, the same year the United States put in place its sanctions against Myanmar/Burma, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) admitted the country as a new member. Around that time Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam also joined. In embracing Myanmar/Burma, ASEAN was driven by the group’s long-term strategic vision to integrate the whole of Southeast Asia into a single trading zone and a regional power bloc. This was undertaken against the backdrop of the rise of China as a global power. ASEAN recognizes Myanmar/Burma’s internal problems in the area of human rights, yet it has argued that engagement will be the more strategic approach to solving the problem. Key ASEAN members – Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines – have a record of human rights violations, and most of them have been under autocratic rule.

There are as many arguments for sanctions as there are for engagement. Due to the highly polarised nature of politics in and around Myanmar/Burma, it seems almost impossible to debate the issues at stake in a pragmatic fashion, i.e. without moralising.

Interestingly, the pro-sanctions Burmese opposition lobby and its supporters in the US and Europe remain as stubborn as the junta. Washington takes the moral high ground on Burma although it has little credibility as a ‘human rights defender’, while the junta sees in Washington a hypocritical global bully and, worse still, in any opposition little more than ‘lackeys and stooges’ of an Anglo-American neo-colonial alliance. The generals are paranoid about the potential impact of the West’s indirect support of popular revolt, and to a lesser extent, about a perceived military threat to the country. It is not far-fetched to claim that the junta’s recent relocation of the country’s capital from Yangon to a more centrally located area near Pyinmana is in part motivated by this fear.

Under pressure from the West, ASEAN has grown defensive about its policy of “constructive engagement” with the Burmese junta. ASEAN’s defensiveness and its growing frustration with Yangon’s intransigence have led some key ASEAN nations, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, to become more outspoken about the junta.

Meanwhile China and Russia have built strong relations with the junta, and so have other economic players such as India, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and South Korea. They thus provide the junta, wittingly or unwittingly, with a buffer against the efforts by Washington and, to a lesser extent, the EU to isolate the ruling military regime and put it under economic pressure.

The debate and the attendant sermonising continues. Yet, neither ASEAN’s “constructive engagement” nor Western sanctions have led to even an iota of liberalisation in Myanmar/Burma.

The Fundamental Problem

The absence of freedom and democracy plus the human rights abuses make the headlines and figure prominently in policy discussions. The more fundamental problems, however, are being overlooked and are never seriously discussed.

The roots of Myanmar/Burma’s problems are historical, institutional, inter-generational, and development-related. Some of the conflicts involving ethnic issues date back to earlier periods, both colonial and pre-colonial. Post-independence politics has produced a situation in which society finds itself incapable of controlling the country’s only working institution – the armed forces. On its part, the armed forces and the military leadership do not find it in their interest to permit any societal or state institution to grow. The military is afraid that such a development might threaten or weaken its monopoly on politics, economy, and society. The armed forces have arrogated the right to rule and those who oppose them have failed to build up a counterweight.

Since independence from Britain in 1948 the country, hardly without a break, has suffered from underdevelopment and conflict and there were many outside players who meddled, again and again, in the country’s internal conflicts. The United States, Japan, Britain, Germany (both former East and West), China, India, Thailand, and Russia (or the former USSR) have been involved in Myanmar/Burma’s internal ethnic and ideological conflicts. Alliances have shifted as in the case of China-Myanmar/Burma’s bi-lateral relations, but the pattern of significant outside meddling remains constant.

The United States tacitly supported General Ne Win’s rule that, in a coup, ended the country’s dysfunctional parliamentary democracy. In addition to supplying arms to the Burmese communist movement, Mao’s China provided sanctuary to Burmese communists who set up a radio station on Chinese soil. In Thailand, successive governments have used Burma’s minority resistance groups and have benefited from the internal conflict in Burma both politically and economically.
The most significant outcome of the interplay of internal resistance and outside meddling is a national security state with little interest in development. It is a paranoid state whose overriding concern is not economic development, social welfare, or democratisation but rather territorial integrity, sovereignty, and unity of the army as the only institution that is holding the country together (given the Balkanising tendencies of the country’s highly discontented ethnic minorities, all of which have clamoured for independence at one point or another, in their respective struggles against Yangon).

The Secondary Problem

The EC’s Myanmar/Burma Country Strategy Paper is, in both the political and the economic sense, phrased in terms of development. While this critique acknowledges that the most recent  EU/EC declaration affirms Myanmar/Burma’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national unity, the impact of such assurances on the junta’s attitude toward the  EU/EC appears to be negligible. For ten years the EU has closely co-operated with the US, has condemned, and has attempted to isolate the regime. This has hardened the junta’s attitude towards the West, specifically the way it looks at NGOs, including EU-supported local organisations and civic groups.

This poses a serious problem for an  EU/EC strategy. The opposition and its Western supporters are correct when they identify Myanmar/Burma’s problems as political. Yet, to minimise the engagement with the totalitarian state apparatus – however satisfying emotionally and morally this may be – is not an option if health and education projects are to be a success.

With the UK, the former colonial power, as the  EU/EC’s leading voice on Myanmar/Burma, it is hardly likely that the junta will welcome Europe’s new, somewhat half-hearted, balancing act, i.e. keeping punitive measures against the generals in place while trying to carry out humanitarian work among the population. Cuba is an example where four decades of sanctions and isolation, led by Washington and, until recently, the  EU/EC, have undermined liberalisation.

The problem of Myanmar/Burma is not the absence of civil society. Myanmar/Burma is an underdeveloped economy with a security-obsessed state.

Engaging with Sub-National State Actors and Partnering with Civil Society

There are two possible scenarios of how to deal with a national security state. One scenario is to overpower or destroy what is essentially a monopolistic state and its security apparatuses. This is being done in Iraq by the Anglo-American alliance – with disastrous consequences for the population at large.

The other scenario looks something like this: Both the Burmese opposition and its Western supporters move off the moral high ground, roll up their sleeve and try to work with the functioning parts of the state institutions, thus recognizing the need to work with those in power, however unpalatable it may be. The realities on the ground are not limited to worsening humanitarian conditions but also include the security-obsessed state.

The  EU/EC seems to have adopted a strategy that is half strategic. It attempts to engage with civil society in order to promote human rights, democracy, and community development. It gives the health and education sectors top priority, and rightly so. Yet it is based on the notion that the omnipresent State can be bypassed – which is not feasible in practice.

The root of the problem is that the  EU/EC’s strategy follows the conventional wisdom about civil society. In this notion any institution deemed to be part of the state is to be excluded. Such a neatly formulated Western conception of civil society, though, does not apply to Myanmar/Burma.

Most, if not all, civil servants in the 20plus government ministries are extremely unhappy with the top-down, authoritarian state. Many of them, at least the older generation, are better educated and more exposed to the outside world than the average citizen. In times of a social and political transition, these are people who will quickly shift their allegiance to a new and, hopefully, more progressive regime. Therefore, civil servants and the bureaucracies cannot – and should not – be excluded from civil society. Their sympathies and their political outlook is closer to that of the average freedom-loving citizens than to that of their bosses at the national level.

Given the fact that in Myanmar/Burma the state is the single largest employer, many talented and educated individuals work in government offices for health, education, planning, forestry, agriculture etc. An overwhelming number of hospitals and schools, at all levels, are part of a ministry and many local NGOs are run by ex-civil servants who have benefited from state-sponsored scholarships and study tours abroad. In today’s Myanmar/Burma there are very few international and local NGOs in the health and education sectors, and those reach only a small number of the population. It is therefore crucial that governmental institutions on the sub-national level and members of these institutions are considered as local partners.

Institutions of learning at all levels need serious professional input, technology transfer, and financial resources as the state spends less than 1% of the national budget on education. Likewise, similar needs can be identified in all government-run hospitals.

EU-based NGOs should consider partnering with these sub-state institutions. The merit of such an engagement is threefold.

First, it would force the national authorities to engage in a critical dialogue with  EU/EC NGOs, as well as with EU/EC representatives in health, education, and other vital areas that affect the well-being of people and country – although not necessarily in the areas of human rights, democracy, or national reconciliation.

Second, national leaders such as ministers and their bosses will most likely welcome the  EU/EC’s provision of capacity and institution building initiatives, as well as other forms of assistance such as equipment, resources etc.

Third, if civil servants and organisations on a sub-state level benefit from outside engagement and assistance, national state actors will be less restrictive and suspicious concerning the movement of EU-based NGOs in the country.

However, EU-based NGOs and their engagement should not be confined to partnering with only sub-state level organisations within the country. They should continue to actively seek opportunities to help locals set up small scale local NGOs and provide assistance, resources, training, and guidance in establishing, managing and improving local NGOs. Under current circumstances, with a state overly concerned about national security (and its own survival), the aforementioned two-pronged strategy is ideal. Engagement with certain institutions and sectors of society may lessen the state’s hostility towards outsiders, especially Western NGOs, and build up the capacity of sub-state organisations within the education and health ministries and of community-based traditional interest groups – all of which may lead to the development of local development-oriented NGOs.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation’s South-East Asia office endorses the concept of gradual change from within with the aim to break down the intellectual and educational isolation for Myanmar/Burma’s people. This implies an effort to help build an “alternative elite” that would then promote gradual change in areas of society other than just the political arena.

Against the background of the present lack of education opportunities for the younger generation and with the strategic objective of helping to build an “alternative elite” as an agent for change this paper calls for the integration of Myanmar/Burma into the EU-funded Asia Link Programme and for an expansion of scholarship programmes. There are ample opportunities to offer higher education to young talented students from all ethnic groups not only in the West but in neighbouring countries too. The Heinrich Böll Foundation successfully runs such programmes in the fields of International Development Studies (Chulalonkorn University) and Sustainable Natural Resource Management (Chiang Mai University). There is much potential to further extend such measures – if additional finance can be secured.

In the long run, such acts of strategic engagement will create pressure from below both within the state’s ministries and in civil society at large. This might transform the security state into one focusing on development. Then, and only then, will the process of democratisation and economic reform see the light of day. If properly conceived and formulated, the  EU/EC’s shift in strategic focus has the potential to sow the seeds of institutional and societal reform within the state’s sub-national level institutions.