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EU Moves on Myanmar Questioned

BRUSSELS, Feb 19 2012 (IPS) - Extraordinary political changes in the year since former army general Thein Sein came to power in Myanmar have prompted European powers to ease restrictions on the isolated nation, raising questions whether such rewards are too little or too much.

Citing “the remarkable programme of political reform,” the European Union announced on Feb. 17 it was lifting its travel ban on President Thein Sein and 86 other senior leaders from Myanmar (also known as Burma). The European Council, representing heads of the EU’s 27 countries, also said it would review other sanctions by the end of April.

While acknowledging the steady progress since Thein Sein became the civilian president in March 2011, some European officials remain cautious about ending some remaining restrictions – including those on commerce and certain types of aid.

“I would question how quickly these things are being done in Burma,” Sir Graham Watson, a member of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said shortly after the EU announced it would end visa restrictions on top officials.

Watson has been highly critical of past EU handling of authoritarian regimes in Myanmar as well as the ousted leaders of Libya and Tunisia. A report he prepared, adopted by the Parliament earlier this month, cites Europe’s failure to prevent dictators and their families from socking away fortunes in EU countries with impunity.

“There will no doubt be some voices that say, and I think I will be among them, let’s make sure that the Burmese government is truly committed to what it is doing, and that this isn’t kind of a short-term fix,” Watson told IPS in an interview.

In contrast to the street revolts of the Arab Spring, Myanmar’s changes stem from the military elite that ruled from 1962 to 2011. The new government has freed hundreds of political prisoners and moved to end censorship of news media. Authorities have also eased their notorious travel restrictions and are encouraging foreign investment in a country that the UN’s Human Development Index ranks among the poorest in the world.

Freed from house arrest, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy are campaigning in by-elections scheduled for Apr. 1, nearly 22 years after her victory in national elections was nullified by the military junta. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was released from home detention in November 2010.

The changes have drawn swift recognition, with the United States moving to ease sanctions and restore full diplomatic relations. In December, Hillary Clinton became the first secretary of state to visit Myanmar in 50 years. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, is due to visit in April, and EU aid commissioner Adris Piebalgs was there last week to pledge development assistance.

One organisation that has long monitored Myanmar, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, has urged Western powers to move more swiftly to reward the reforms.

“We see a very different system of government, and it’s a very different game being played right now,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, ICG’s project director for Southeast Asia.

“When the government is moving in the direction the population wants, when the government is moving in the direction that the international community has long called for, it’s no longer a situation of pushing or pressuring, but there needs to be a new approach of encourage and assisting, and in this context continued sanctions don’t play a very useful role,” he said in a telephone interview from Jakarta.

Della-Giacoma says Myanmar’s reforms partly stem from the need for economic opportunities that have been passing by during decades of isolation and Western embargoes. Western countries could help by removing sanctions apart from those on weapons, he said.

“Now is the time for the EU to craft new policies that reflect the current situation,” he said, “rather than dreaming up new benchmarks that justify the persistence of policies that should have been lifted long ago.”

Still, there are concerns about how far the civilian government will go. Thein Sein, a former prime minister under the former military junta, had a long career as an army commander. He was chosen as president by Parliament, not by popular vote.

Earlier this month, human rights advocates reported that dissident Ashin Gambira was detained by the police just weeks after being freed in the January amnesty. The Buddhist monk had been sentenced to prison for involvement in anti-government demonstrations in 2007.

The International Press Institute has expressed concern that some imprisoned journalists were freed conditionally, which the Vienna-based press freedom group says exposes them to government pressure and self-censorship.

Meanwhile, the Myanmar authorities continue to pursue their 60-year war with the Karen minority and other ethnic groups over their quest for autonomy.

Amnesty International urged Clinton before her December visit to put pressure on the government, noting in a statement that the army “continues to commit human rights violations against civilians on a widespread and systematic basis.”

Watson, the British MEP, says concerns about Myanmar’s commitment to reforms mean that the EU should not be too quick to reward the government.

“I think there is universal support in the legislature for the principle of more for more,” Watson said. “The more the Burmese government does to open up their society, to introduce democratic reforms, then the more we should be prepared to do to take away the sanctions we have applied. But I think it’s too early to end all sanctions.”

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