Asia-Pacific, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

BURMA: EU Urged to Awake from Passivity

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Sep 28 2007 (IPS) - With images of monks converging courageously on Rangoon broadcast around the world, the European Union threatened this week that it would respond to any use of violence against peaceful protesters by strengthening the sanctions it had previously imposed on Burma&#39s military junta.

It is unlikely that the Burmese generals were overly concerned by this threat, however, as the EU has been unable to devise an effective set of punitive measures until now.

Among the range of measures that the Union has taken against Burma are a travel ban on senior officials from the State Peace and Development Council (as the Rangoon government is known), an investment ban, an arms embargo and a freezing of assets held by members of the regime.

All of these have either been sidestepped or had little impact.

Less than 7,000 euros (10,000 dollars) in assets has been frozen. Firms from Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Britain and Sweden have developed weapons or military components destined for Burma. And the EU allowed Burma&#39s foreign minister to attend a meeting on Europe&#39s relations with Asia in Hamburg, Germany, in May.

The investment ban has effectively only covered direct investment in state-owned companies. "They have banned something that couldn&#39t happen," said Mark Farmaner from the Burma Campaign UK.

There is a slight chance that the Union may decide to rectify that situation when its foreign ministers meet in October.

France has so far refused to agree on a robust investment ban, in order to protect lucrative contracts signed by Total. The French energy giant signed an agreement in 1992 with the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise to exploit the Yadana gas field.

But Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, announced Sep. 26 that Total should have no further investments in Burma.

Although this may not see the company ending its relationship with the Rangoon authorities, it has been applauded by the Burma solidarity movement.

"This is a welcome move," Frédéric Debomy from the French campaign group Info Birmanie told IPS. "The EU must now adopt similar measures. It must strengthen its economic sanctions against Burma, so that they cover key sectors like gas, wood and minerals."

"This is really good news," said Burma Campaign&#39s Farmaner. "It is a complete U-turn by the French government. It&#39s just a shame that it took people being shot in Rangoon for the government to do this. If they had done it before, the regime would not be as strong today as it is."

Sarkozy&#39s announcement appears all the more significant given that it was made after he met Sein Win, &#39prime minister&#39 of Burma&#39s government-in-exile and a cousin of the imprisoned democracy leader Aung Saan Suu Kyi. This was the first such meeting between a French president and the Burmese opposition.

Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, has also been supportive of Total in the past. In 2003, he declared that the company was innocent of using forced labour in its Burmese operations. His statement was made after undertaking a &#39fact-finding&#39 mission, reportedly paid for by Total itself.

The EU has been split into two camps on Burma.

Britain, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Denmark and Ireland have been generally in favour of stepping up the pressure. But Germany, Austria, Spain, Poland and France have shown themselves reluctant to do so.

The public displays of concern by some governments have concealed weak policies that the Burmese government has been able to turn to its advantage.

In 1997, Tony Blair&#39s Labour party promised it would introduce a ban on British investment in Burma if it won that year&#39s general election. Once it power, however, it declined to take such a comprehensive step.

Claims by Burma that the UK is the second largest investor in the country were this week questioned by David Milliband, the British foreign secretary. He said that the last two major British investors in Burma – Premier Oil and British American Tobacco – had pulled out two years ago.

Yet firms with a base in Britain&#39s overseas territories are still being used as a springboard for investing in Burma. Earlier this year, two Singaporean companies are reported to have invested in Burma via business connections in the British Virgin Islands.

Harn Yanghwe from the Euro-Burma Office says the EU has been "quite passive" on Burma. The Union, he believes, can only make amends for its inaction by helping to build an international consensus about how the Burmese issue can be resolved.

China and Russia have – unlike the EU and U.S. – refused to support calls for United Nations sanctions against Burma.

"Burma continues to play a game of one country against the other," added Yanghwe. "The problem is that we have had sanctions for more than ten years and nothing has actually happened. Burma is quite low on the priority list of everyone.

"What I would hate to see is a situation where all the EU comes up with is a statement expressing concern. The time for symbolic measures has passed. There&#39s a need for something more substantial."

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