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After Renewing Sanctions, E.U. Seeks Face-Time with Burma Junta

Simon Roughneen, May 3, 2010

Myanmar General Thura Shwe Mann and Prime Minister Thein Sein (R) along with senior leaders attend a military parade marking the country's 65th Armed Forces Day in the new capital Naypyidaw on March 27. (Photo: Christophe Archambault/ AFP-Getty Images)

European Union foreign ministers have renewed the bloc's "Common Position" on Burma, extending existing sanctions until April 2011.

In a statement released April 26, the European Council expressed "serious concerns" that the recently published election laws "do not provide for free and fair elections" and restated its call "for the release of the political prisoners and detainees, including Aung San Suu Kyi."

However, the European Union said that it "stands ready to respond positively to genuine progress in Burma/Myanmar." In keeping with the Western trend toward dialogue with the Burmese military junta, the E.U. says it hopes to maintain its dialogue with Naypidaw.

The European Union had previously pledged to tighten or expand sanctions if the junta did not respond to requests for reform. However, despite what the European Burma Network listed as a number of factors in what it deemed to be "a continued decline in the human rights and political situation in Burma" since the common position was last discussed in April 2009, the bloc has not amended its existing sanctions.

This comes after months of the United States discussing a pledge to relax its sanctions on the junta if Napyidaw responded positively to its overtures. Asean member-states, which do significant business in Burma, spun the U.S. "policy review" as an admission by Washington that sanctions had not worked.

Existing E.U. sanctions do not target business cronies of the junta the way U.S. sanctions do. Campaign groups believe that European sanctions are applied reactively, whenever there is a sufficiently glaring atrocity in Burma, rather than as part of a clear strategy.

Moreover, the existing sanctions are not adhered to, or at least can be gotten around. A year-old report by Friends of the Earth (Netherlands) demonstrated that loopholes exist, with Burmese gems for import into the European Union sold openly on the eBay website. Burma is renowned for the quality of its rubies in particular.

The E.U. will try to take its discussions with the junta to the next level, by sending a diplomatic mission to Burma later this year. But it was unclear if Naypyidaw would be willing to receive E.U. diplomats.

"We are only prepared to go there if we are received at the highest level. We are not prepared to be humiliated," an unnamed diplomat told Agence-France Press on Monday.

Within the European Union, there has been much debate over ultimate responsibility for foreign policy, especially in the context of the recently agreed-to Lisbon Treaty. While the political and legal ramifications of the vast and complex treaty await some untangling, a new E.U. "foreign minister" is in place, and additional powers have been shifted away from national governments to Brussels and European Commission officials. Some national politicians openly advocate for a more centralized "European" foreign policy.

European-based Burma lobby groups sent a letter to the foreign ministers prior to the April 26 meeting. The groups said that they "are deeply concerned that European Commission staff openly and publicly advocate against the agreed Common Position of E.U. member states and against the positions taken by the European Parliament in its resolutions. We believe that it is unacceptable that Commission officials who have no democratic mandate undermine the official position of democratically accountable member states and the European Parliament."

E.U. member states are in theory meant to adhere to the common position. However, the reality is somewhat more complex. The statement outlined that the European Union "welcomes the adoption of Resolution 13/25 of the U.N. Human Rights Council, and endorses the Progress Report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur, Mr. Quintana."

However, the E.U. did not explicitly endorse Quintana's recommendation that the U.N. Security Council look into setting up a Commission of Inquiry into possible war crimes in Burma. The United Kingdom and the Czech Republic, both E.U. member states, had previously backed Quintana's recommendation. Ireland did not back the recommendation directly, instead opting to await the revision of the E.U. common position.

On the other hand, campaign groups believe that other E.U. member states would prefer to soften the common position. France refused to back calls for Total to end its operations in Burma, and both Paris and Berlin have in the past sought to block E.U. sanctions on Burma.

However, there are what some observers believe to be important changes in the E.U. stance, such as its emphasis on calling for the junta to talk to the opposition and ethnic groups. The NLD has refused to take part in what it deems sham elections, and many ethnic militias are refusing to agree to the junta's push for them to join the state security forces.

In a press release, Burma U.K. Campaign Director Mark Farmaner said, "We strongly welcome the call for the regime to enter into dialogue with the opposition and ethnic groups." Farmaner added, "We call on the E.U. to make this the main focus of diplomatic efforts, rather than trying to tinker with laws relating to fake elections later this year."

This article was originally published by The Irrawaddy: www.irrawaddy.org/.

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