28th May 2023


Reintegrating Myanmar

  • EU sanctions on Myanmar are up for review on 23 April (Photo: Burma Democratic Concern (BDC))

The recent parliamentary by-elections in Myanmar [formerly called Burma] were a litmus test for the country's transition to democracy and the regime's commitment to reform. The elections now invite the West and Europe to consider scaling back sanctions, which have caused acute poverty and underdevelopment.

A landslide victory secured 43 of 45 vacant seats for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) making them the leading opposition force in a 664-member parliament. But the NLD will fill only a small number of seats in Myanmar's 1160-seat three chamber legislature.

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Their task now will be to galvanise the government-orchestrated political opening to push for greater democratisation from within the parliament.

Deep change will take years to come about. The recent political reforms need to be embedded constitutionally to prevent a reversal. Important legal and economic reforms are required too.

The current government seems committed to pushing the extent of reform. But the NLD will need to find the necessary political space to introduce a step change in the so-far controlled political liberalisation process before presidential elections in 2015.

Myanmar's government has made several significant advances towards democracy over the past year, putting an end to nearly half a century of repressive military rule.

Changes include a new constitution voted by referendum; the first general elections in 20 years; Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest after two decades; the NLD being allowed to register as a new political party; over 200 political prisoners being freed; new labour laws which permit the formation of unions; permission for peaceful public demonstrations; and ceasefire agreements with rebel groups.

The country's most recent economic reform includes a free-floating currency regime, which sets the Myanmar kyat at 818 per dollar and ends years of multiple exchange rates.

International praise has poured in, as the elections have been deemed largely free and fair.

The government even invited around 160 international electoral observers, including an EU team led by the External Action Service's head of democracy and election observation, Malgorzata Wasilewska. She described the process as "convincing enough." Hundreds of international journalists were given access to polling stations, in contrast to the 2010 national elections.

International appeals to remove sanctions have also surged, especially from Asia.

The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) community, as well as China, have officially pressed the West and Europe to lift their sanctions on Myanmar. In the EU, France has assumed the lead role in urging Brussels to review its sanctions. So far, Western leaders have reacted to Myanmar’s "top-down political revolution" with cautious optimism.

Western engagement remains limited to high profile political visits to monitor the country's democratic progress.

EU engagement has been frugal. So far, the EU has allocated a 150 million euro two-year aid package. High Representative Catherine Ashton will visit the country in late April; US state secretary Hillary Clinton went to the country six months ago.

EU sanctions are up for review on 23 April and can be more easily lifted than the complex web of US sanctions. EU diplomats nonetheless confess that re-incorporating Myanmar into the EU's generalised system of preferences, which includes duty and tariff free exports to the common market, may take considerable time.

New engagement will be crucial to encourage incipient reform efforts. International development assistance to Myanmar is meagre: $6 per capita, in comparison to the $42 that go to Vietnam, $52 to Cambodia or $62 to Laos.

Myanmar itself is keen on reintegrating into the global community.

Bordering two rising giants and an increasingly prosperous Asia has pushed the country to open up. Its growing dependence on China has also urged it to seek a diversification of partners.

Following the elections, the government called for the EU to reconsider a region-to-region free trade agreement with ASEAN, which the EU dropped in 2009. For now, EU trade commissioner Karel de Gucht is awaiting a report from the International Labour Organisation on forced labour in Myanmar to decide the next steps on sanctions.

The EU needs to move in dynamically with hands-on engagement to escort the country towards a real transition and to make up for its delayed political engagement.

While the EU proceeds slowly, European companies keen to invest in the country’s energy, infrastructure, financial and tourism sectors will have to compete with Asian firms, which are already racing to pick up large business deals.

Any transition presents difficult sequencing challenges in the removal of sanctions and offers of new aid. It is well-known that several prominent human rights groups have cautioned against an over hasty removal of sanctions.

The EU should certainly keep up firm pressure on Myanmar to see through its reform commitments. But the lesson from other incipient transitions is that windows of opportunity can rapidly slam shut if agenda-moulding engagement is not forthcoming.

The regime in Myanmar has done enough to warrant more aid and trade benefits from the EU. The latter must begin to offer an attractive set of incentives, linked carefully and incrementally to further progress in reform.

Richard Youngs is director general and Gauri Khandekar is head of the Agora EU-Asia programme, both at the Madrid-based think tank, FRIDE.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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