EU relations with Myanmar: just not enough

By Nikki Ikani | 6 February 2012

To quote this document: Nikki Ikani, “EU relations with Myanmar: just not enough”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 6 February 2012,, displayed on 03 February 2023

Myanmar finds itself at a critical juncture. In November 2010, Myanmar saw the first poll in 20 years. Even though the main military-backed party claimed victory, for the first time since it came to power the military regime yielded to the opposition forces. A civilian power took over from the Junta, marking the first transition to democracy. This sudden political transition sparked the most significant political and economic reforms that the country has witnessed for the past half decade.

Surprising reforms

The pace and breadth of the reform has been a surprise. At the time of the elections, the international community was harsh in its wording. The  United Nations human rights envoy for Myanmar, Mr. Ojea Quintana, called the elections ‘deeply flawed’, while Lady Ashton issued a statement saying the EU regretted that the authorities did not take the necessary steps to ensure a free, fair and inclusive electoral process.

A week after the elections, however, Aung San Suu Kyi was surprisingly released from house arrest. Suu Kyi, long time opposition leader as general secretary of the National League for Democracy, was prevented from taking part in the elections. Her release was nevertheless a surprise, spurring the hope for change. Current president Thein Sein has replaced Junta leader Than Swe as the new face of Myanmar leadership. Sein has actively tried to reach out to the opposition, which is being brought into the national democratic process. Under Thein Sein, the censorship of the media has been significantly loosened. Moreover, thousands of prisoners have been freed, and political exiles have been invited to come back to their home country. A national human rights commission is in place to monitor the government.

A very symbolic act has been the halt of the construction of a €2.7 bn project, the Myitsone Dam. This Chinese-backed plan was met with fierce resistance, because of the impact on the environment and the livelihoods of the people surrounding the dam. Moreover, the fact that the bulk of the generated energy would go to China igniting opposition from environmentalists, human rights activists and the opposition. The fact that the government stopped this project last September has been a huge gesture, a move which has been publicly appreciated by Suu Kyi.

The global response

The international community reacted to this gradual opening of the country in different ways. The United States, which had withdrawn its ambassador from the country in 1990, reestablished full diplomatic ties mid-January. The Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, visited Myanmar early December. She met with President Thein Sein, but also made a public appearance with Aung San Suu Kyi. The decision to upgrade diplomatic relations was in line with this improved engagement.

The European Union has been less quick to respond.  It was only on January the 23rd that the EU foreign ministers hailed the "remarkable program of political reform" in Myanmar. In response to the reforms taking place in the country, the EU removed visa bans on the president, vice-presidents, cabinet members and parliamentary speakers.  The EU response is motivated by the upcoming elections in Myanmar in April. What is striking, however, is that although Lady Ashton issued a statement on the reform in Myanmar, the main gestures of rapprochement have come from individual state leaders.  French Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppé visited the country on January 16th, and under impetus of Juppé and William Hague, his British counterpart, the EU foreign ministers made the first European appreciations concerning the reform in the country. Lady Ashton is to visit the country only in April.

EU’s flawed engagement with Myanmar

Some argue that the EU lacks a clear political strategy towards Myanmar. A striking example is the fact that its special envoy Pierre Fassino, appointed in 2007, was never recognized by Myanmar. This became even more painful when Fassino was not even allowed to visit the country, as a reaction to the visa restrictions the EU had then imposed on Myanmar. The lack of political involvement in the country can be explained by two main reasons.

A first explanation could be the rather insignificant trade relations of the EU and Myanmar. If we look at the EU’s trade balance with Myanmar of 2010, we see that the country shows up on place 144. One could thus argue that with its low economic relevance, Myanmar, whose main trading partners are Thailand, China and Singapore, similarly only receives low political attention. Meanwhile, even though Myanmar is similarly unimportant in economic terms for the US, it does have significant strategic and geopolitical value. Not only is engaging with Myanmar important to balance Beijing’s increasing stance on the world stage, but the country also possesses many natural resources, amongst others oil and gas. Moreover, its 61 million inhabitants could represent a future export market. It is the largest independent state of mainland South East Asia, sharing a 1463 kilometer long border with India, and a 2185 kilometer long border with China. As Andrew Selth (2001) argues, Myanmar “was, and still is, the place where South, Southeast, and East Asia meet, and where the dominant cultures of these three subregions compete for influence”.

Joshua Kurlantzick (2012) moreover, argues that evidence has emerged that shows the Myanmar government may be importing nuclear and missile technology from North Korea. Because of these reasons, the US has gradually tweaked its politics towards the country. It promised an enhanced involvement in exchange for further reforms. The EU, in contrast, has no delegation in Myanmar but only in neighboring Thailand, and its engagements with the country are meager.

Lack of a comprehensive European strategy towards Asia

A second and bigger problem is the broader lack of a comprehensive European political strategy towards Asia in general. The EU dialogue with the Myanmar government takes place bilaterally, but also in the ASEM (Asia Europe Meeting) process framework and in EU-ASEAN meetings. ASEM finds its origins in a Franco-Singaporean initiative of 1996, when the first EU-Asia summit was held, as the EU felt it needed to strengthen its relations with the region. ASEM has been met with criticism during its fifteen years of existence, amongst other things because it supposedly did not pay attention to the role of civil society actors in the process.

Moreover, as Gaens (2009) posits, ASEM is predominantly an intergovernmental construction. It is not inter-regional cooperation, but rather a cooperation between the memberstates combined with the European Commission. The European Parliament thus has no say or influence over the process. Within ASEM, the EU speaks with a ‘coordinated’ voice, but not with a single one. All memberstates have their own say.

More generally speaking, the EU policy towards Asia lacks coherence as a whole. Kishore Mahbubani, author of ‘The New Asian Hemisphere: the Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East’ wrote back in 2008 that Europe needed to understand and accept the reality of Asia’s rise, and act accordingly. But in the last three months of 2011, the EU cancelled three EU summits with three key countries – China, India and South Korea – due to its unsolved eurozone issues. This was especially noteworthy as in the run-up towards the G20 summit in November, these bilateral meetings could have been very useful in aligning priorities. While in the short term, focusing on the eurozone crisis might be effective, in the long run the lack of European focus on Asia could be detrimental. On the other side of the Atlantic, the growing geopolitical importance of Asia has entailed increased integration. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has developed a doctrine which is built on economic statecraft, with a shift to Asia in the US foreign policy priority, primarily because it is“where the long-term credibility of US commitments faces the biggest potential challenge from a competitor, China” (Eurasia Group, Top Risks 2012). The EU should worry not to fall behind, especially given Goldman Sachs’s forecast that by 2050 the four largest economies in the world will be China, India, the US and Japan.

Genuine reforms?

Returning to Myanmar, one should not overstate the reforms that have taken place. The Constitution, adopted after a deeply flawed referendum in 2008, guarantees the military 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament. Chapter 12 of the Constitution effectively provides the military with veto power over any changes.  The Constitution grants the military a national political leadership role of the State and, in case of an "emergency", the "Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services has the right to take over and exercise State sovereign power" after consulting the president. Legal action against the military during its use of these emergency powers is impossible (Lintner, 2012).

The current Constitution, moreover, prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, as article 59(f) posits that the president “shall he himself, one of the parents, the spouse, one of the legitimate children or their spouses not owe allegiance to a foreign power, not be subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country”.  Because Suu Kyi’s late husband Aris was a British, and their children are British, this would effectively exclude her. One thus could question whether the Myanmar efforts to build up a democracy are genuine, and whether they suffice at this point. Nelson Rand, Asia specialist, argues that much of these reforms may have been inspired by the country’s attempt to gain ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. The armed forces still have significant power. This does not mean, however, that the reforms thus far have been insignificant. Therefore one could say that despite the incomplete steps towards democratization, the EU should have gotten involved sooner and more coherently with Myanmar in this important process.

The EU should step up its game

The reforms in Myanmar are still in their early stages. Whether they are actual attempts at building a democracy, or mere gestures in order to gain international legitimacy is unclear. What seems clear is that the European Union fails to engage properly with the country. This failure is rooted in several issues. The European Union does not have a diplomatic presence in the country. Its delegation in Thailand is charged with Myanmar, while the recent efforts have encouraged many countries to open up their diplomatic relations with Myanmar.

Secondly, while the Americans have been gradually engaging with the geopolitical strategic country over the past years, the EU approach has been flawed. As mentioned, special envoy Pierre Fassino was not even allowed to enter the country. In the wake of recent reforms, the EU has been slow to respond. Catherine Ashton will only visit Myanmar in April, and the first noteworthy European reactions to the reforms were only heard on January 23rd. This while Ashton’s American counterpart Hilary Clinton visited Myanmar early December, and reestablished full diplomatic ties mid-January.

Thirdly, the EU relations with Myanmar, embedded in the ASEM and ASEAN frameworks, remain highly intergovernmental. The European Parliament has almost no means to participate in this relationship.

What the EU needs to do is to develop a comprehensive political strategy, not only towards Myanmar, but also towards the Asian region as a whole. It also should start behaving as a political block, rather than as individual nation states pursuing their own agendas. It is only when the EU shows coherence and determination in its strategy towards Myanmar that it can truly support the country in its difficult transition towards democracy.

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe

To read

  • Eurasia Group. (2012, January 3). Top Risks 2012. Retrieved Februaru 4, 2012, from Eurasia Group:
  • Gaens, B. (2009). “The Development of the EU's Asia Strategy with Special Reference to China and India: Driving Forces and New Directions”. In B. Gaens, J. Jokela, & E. Limnell, The Role of the European Union in Asia (pp. 55-76). Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company.
  • Kurlantzick, J. (2012, February 1). How Myanmar Changed and What It Means. Retrieved February 4, 2012, from Council on Foreign Relations: Lintner, B. (2012, January 18). “The limits of reform in Myanmar”. Asia Times Online , p.
  • Mahbubani, K. (2008). The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East . New York: Public Affairs.
  • Selth, A. (2001). “Burma: A Strategic Perspective”. The Asia Foundation Working Paper Series , 1-44.

To see

Source: Burma06 par Bild von Stefan Grünig, CH-3752 Wimmis sur wikimedia