On April 1st by-elections were held in Burma that brought victory to the main regime opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won 42 out of the 45 contested seats in an electoral event that was seen as an ‘opening up’ gesture by the sealed-off authoritarian junta.
Recent developments should not be ignored. It is important for EU politicians and citizens to act to support the wave of democratisation in Burma.
Burma is a country that requires action with a high degree of sensitivity. The evolution towards a democratic regime should not be taken for granted since a backlash from the Army is likely. There are still many political prisoners. Almost one third of Burma’s population is constituted by minorities. Relationships between the regime and the ethnic minorities are still tense, although improving.
The geopolitical and economic importance of Burma should be taken into account by the EU. Burma has a considerable potential for growth. It occupies a considerable geographic space and possesses a population of 60 million. It has a rich culture and its biodiversity is of considerable importance. Furthermore, the political evolution of Burma is important for regional stability in Southeast Asia.
A positive EU agenda for Burma will have to include issues of tackling poverty and improving the welfare of the population. The wishful mantra of the EU neo-liberal agenda will not be able to address these issues any more than in other developing countries. It is now time for an honest re-thinking of the EU’s external policies.
Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for foreign policy, has already accomplished an assessment exercise on the strategic partnerships of the EU. Burma may offer a case-study opportunity for policies aiming at helping developing countries. Burma should constitute a case where the empowerment of EU actorness should be sought. The added value in such re-thinking is not only an ethical one: with a successful policy on Burma, the EU can diffuse its normative power regionally. This will empower the EU in a part of the world where it so far has a very limited presence.
Burma is changing, slowly perhaps, but it is changing. However, there should be no illusions that the ‘opening up’ gestures of the regime in the last year have brought a fully-fledged democratic transition. Over the years, Western countries imposed various sanctions on the regime. A gradual lifting of minor sanctions should gradually be implemented but in no case a total lifting of them.
Suu Kyi’s persistence in campaigning for the democratisation of her country is beginning to bear fruit. Nevertheless, Suu Kyi will have the difficult task of co-existing in a Parliament which is controlled by the old regime. She will also have to maintain the popular momentum of her movement until a fully democratic general election is held in the future.
In the gloomy world of today, the recent electoral contest in Burma brought a smile to our faces. The EU should not miss a historic opportunity to make a positive impact on Burma and the whole Southeast Asia region.