The relationship between Burma/Myanmar and the European Union seems to be entering a new and more fruitful phase. Not so long ago the military run regime was the subject of EU sanctions but a new reformist president U Thein Sein has opened Burma/Myanmar to the world.
On Tuesday president U Thein Sein was at EEAS Headquarters in Brussels where Catherine Ashton praised his leadership under which the country "has made remarkable progress towards peace, democracy and respect for human rights. I know that he is committed to continuing on this course."
She also went on to say that the European Union would provide political and economic support to the country. During talks on Tuesday 5 March, Ashton and U Thein Sein agreed to hold a joint Task Force later in the yea which would explore ways in which Europe could help Burma/Myanmar. An agreement on crisis response was also signed.
Background – democratic transition
Since a new government came to power in early 2011, the country has embarked on a remarkable path of political and economic reform, departing from five decades of authoritarian rule. The government has committed itself to introducing genuine democracy and some significant steps have been undertaken towards establishing a more open and equitable society. President U Thein Sein's ambitious three-pronged reform on, economic and social reform, and better governance. The government stated that the reform process will be inclusive and participatory, bringing all interested parties together, including civil society and the private sector.
The EU has welcomed the release of a substantial number of political prisoners, the major progress made on improved freedom of expression, assembly and association and the unprecedented peace initiative towards ethnic armed groups in a bid to advance national reconciliation in the country's multi-ethnic society. Opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest and her National League for Democracy's return to the formal political process were further milestones in the peaceful transition to democracy and have injected a positive dynamism into political life.
While these changes are positive, the country faces numerous complex challenges in terms of democratisation, economic development, the situation of human rights, and peace and national reconciliation. Decades of economic mismanagement and isolation have led to deep-rooted structural poverty. Economic growth is narrowly based on extractive industries. Unemployment is very high and GDP per capita is the lowest among South East Asian countries.
More than 50 years of dictatorship have eroded state institutions and undermined citizens' confidence in the state's capacity to deliver. Only recently the climate of fear that pervaded the country has begun to be lifted, and citizens have found a new confidence to organize, express their views and complain about injustices. At the same time, the judiciary and public administration are still too weak to allow the rule of law to take hold. There is limited institutional and technical capacity to carry out detailed policy planning and implementation. Poor data quality represents a major impediment in efficient planning and policy making. The last population census took place 20 years ago.
While progress on human rights is visible, serious challenges remain, particularly in regard to minorities. The EU still expects the unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners and the removal of restrictions placed on those already released. While ceasefire agreements negotiated with ten of the eleven major armed ethnic groups are a major achievement, peace remains elusive in resource-rich Kachin State, illustrating the complexity of forging a sustainable political settlement with the country's ethnic minorities. Last year's intercommunal violence in Rakhine State has raised grave concerns, leading the EU to reiterate its calls on the government for addressing the status and improving the welfare and human rights of the Muslim Rohingya population.
What are the EU's objectives and policy?
The overarching goal of the EU is to help a legitimate, civilian government to advance the social and economic development of the country, respecting human rights and rebuilding international relations.
In recognition of the government’s major positive steps of the kind long called for by the EU and other members of the international community, the EU has begun a calibrated readjustment of its policy vis-à-vis the country with the objective of strengthening the reform process and contributing to economic, political and social development. The EU now looks forward to a future in which it collaborates constructively with the government and the other stakeholders.
In April 2012, the EU's restrictive measures imposed on the government have been suspended (with the exception of the arms embargo) as a means to welcome and encourage the reform process.
The official visit of Catherine Ashton in April 2012 marked a new beginning in bilateral relations. The High Representative opened an EU Office in Yangon, thus making possible more regular contacts and the establishment of fruitful, constructive bilateral dialogue with key stakeholders.
The EU supports the process of bringing peace and stability to ethnic regions and of opening a long-term perspective to their development, as highlighted by the EU’s substantial support to the Myanmar Peace Centre which was announced by the President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso during his visit in November, 2012.
The EU uses its dialogue with the government – bilaterally, as well as in multilateral frameworks and EU-ASEAN meetings – to raise concerns and to encourage the government to continue the process of positive change. During the recent visit of President U Thein Sein to Brussels on 5 March, ways to further strengthen political and economic cooperation were discussed, including through the organization of a Myanmar-EU Task Force later this year.