Events & News


The EU’s support in Myanmar’s transition

Dr Cesare Onestini, EU Visiting Fellow, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

26 November 2013 (Tuesday)

Seminar Room 3-5, Manassah Meyer, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
469C Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 259772




In his lecture, Dr Cesare Onestini underscored that the EU’s main objectives in engaging Myanmar has been to promote democratic transition, to meet humanitarian needs, and to encourage development. He charted out the EU’s relations with Myanmar over the past two decades. He pointed out that the European Parliament’s engagement with Myanmar could be traced back to 1990 when it awarded opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, predating her award of the Nobel Peace Prize – she had only been allowed recently to travel out of her country to collect both prizes.

The issue of sanction has, of course, dominated the relationship since the 1990s, in which its scope had expanded in reaction to developments in Myanmar then such as the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. Besides sanctions, the EU also used other instruments such as the withdrawal of trade preferences in 1997 under its Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) which allows exporters from developing countries lower duties on their exports to the EU. All these measures, Dr Onestini said, were enacted to induce discussions with the then military junta of Myanmar.

The EU’s interest in Myanmar issues had been demonstrable in its appointment in 2007 of a special envoy to the country, Mr  Piero Fassino. He travelled around capitals in both Europe and Asia to maintain a close consultation between the EU and ASEAN on Myanmar, and crucially helped explore ways the EU could continue to engage Myanmar within framework of sanctions regime that had been placed on it also by the United States and through UN resolutions.

With Ms Suu Kyi’s election to Myanmar’s new parliament in 2011, the EU likewise reacted to the onset of democratic reforms by lifting sanctions on the country in phases, culminating in the permanent removal of all sanctions earlier this year, except for some such as those relating to the arms embargo and on industries linked to the Myanmar military.

As a humanitarian actor in the region, Dr Onestini said, the EU is an important donor for the Burmese refugees’ camps along the Myanmar-Thai border.  An EU logistical office also opened recently in Yangon to handle these and other aid projects. Dr Onestini was careful to note that these humanitarian aid projects were strictly kept on separate track from the EU’s political engagement with Myanmar, thus insulating humanitarian needs from the political context.

A key development recently in relations between the two sides was the launch of the EU-Myanmar Task Force. The Task Force met in Yangon, Myanmar on 13-15 November 2013, bringing together 600 participants from different sectors. A variety of issues from land grabbing to cooperation between the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the new Central Bank of Myanmar were discussed, and commitments were made by both sides.

In all, the EU is interested in helping to entrench democracy in Myanmar. In particular, the EU is also looking at peace and ethnic reconciliation, and inter-communal violence in Myanmar, as these could derail the whole transition process. In this regard, the EU has contributed seed money towards the Myanmar Peace Centre and is sharing its expertise in policing and crowd control techniques.

In the question and answer segment, Dr Onestini took the opportunity to clarify several misconceptions surrounding the EU’s policy on Myanmar. While the EU makes no secret of its values and objectives to spread human rights and democratic values, it is also careful to only launch its election monitoring and other such projects at the request of the Myanmar government. On sanctions, Dr Onestini emphasised that the EU has tried to be targeted all this while, as part of the ‘conversation’ with Myanmar. In response to criticisms that the EU had lost all leverage on Myanmar to make further reforms by lifting almost all sanctions, the argument was that engagement with Myanmar is an ongoing process; depending on the results of the engagement, the EU could then react accordingly.