Following the May 5 business summit in Jakarta between the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)—combined with reports from recently leaked US diplomatic cables shedding light on several European countries’ policies on Burma—suggestions are that the EU’s post-election shift on Burma should not come as a major surprise.
The EU modified its sanctions against the Burmese authorities, relaxing visa restrictions against a number of officials, including the new foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lin, who is now deemed “an essential interlocutor” by the Council of the EU. The Council statement said that the amendments were intended “to encourage and respond to improvements in governance and progress, in the hope that a greater civilian character of the government will help in developing much needed new policies.”
Prior to the statement, there was speculation among Burma activists and analysts that the EU was engaged in a collective softening of its “common position” on Burma, after the November 2010 elections and the formation of a new government in Burma earlier in 2011.
However, recently leaked US diplomatic cables from various European embassies reminded observers that overlooking the EU travel ban for Burmese ministers is nothing new.
Prior to the September 2006 Asia-Europe (ASEM) meeting, the then-Finnish Presidency of the EU invited Nyan Win, who at the time was Burmese foreign minister, to attend the summit. This drew US attention, and the matter was raised in meetings between US diplomatic officials and counterparts in various European Union member-states in the weeks leading up to the ASEM gathering.
On Aug. 1, 2006, US officials in Dublin discussed the issue with Ireland’s department of foreign affairs Asia section first secretary James McIntyre, who said that the Irish government “would not ask the EU Presidency to withdraw or downgrade their invitation for Burma” to attend the following month’s meeting “because the decision is in line with the EU Common Position,” which allows Burmese officials to be exempted from the visa ban for multilateral meetings if the situation in Burma is addressed at the meeting.
On the same day, US officials in Vienna met with deputy director for Asia and Oceania in the Austrian ministry of foreign affairs Peter Storer who responded to US concerns about the invitation by saying that the ban imposed on the Burmese at the previous year’s ASEM meeting by the Dutch EU Presidency resulted in Asean member-states boycotting the meeting.
Meanwhile, in Prague, the US embassy to the Czech Republic met with Czech foreign ministry official Ivan Grollova who said, according to the leaked cable, that the Czechs “supported the decision on the condition that the EU use the Burmese foreign minister’s attendance at ASEM as an opportunity to have substantive discussions on human rights violations in Burma.”
On Aug. 1, US officials in The Netherlands spoke with the Dutch ministry for foreign affairs Southeast Asia officer Christian Pourchez, who said that his country would not challenge the Finnish invitation to Burma, despite refusing to issue a similar invite the previous year.
Pourchez said that the meeting would be an opportunity for the EU to press Burma on human rights issues and that—irrespective of the stance taken by other EU member-states—the Dutch government would take an aggressive approach with the Burmese foreign minister. The US responded that “according to Pourchez’s own office, the Burmese foreign minister has relatively little influence within the regime and his presence at an EU forum can do little to further human rights in Burma.”
At that September 2006 ASEM summit, the Burmese foreign minister “assured us they were seriously striving for democratic reforms,” said a Finnish official who attended the meeting, which came a year before the Burmese crackdown on monks and protestors during the “Saffron Revolution.”
One of the listed speakers at the May 5 business meeting in Jakarta was Aung Khin Myint, the chairman of Myanmar International Freight Forwarders Association (AFFA).
After the summit, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met with Burmese counterpart Thein Sein, who arrived in Jakarta for his first state visit since becoming president, before the Asean summit which takes place over the weekend.
Burma’s president is expected to push for his country’s candidacy as Asean Chair in 2014, and despite the EU’s recent renewal of most of the current sanctions, there is no indication that the Europeans will oppose Burma’s accession, irrespective of whether further reforms—such as release of political prisoners—takes place.
The EU describes itself as Asean’s second largest trading partner and the biggest foreign investor in Asean, though these are cumulative figures based on investment by companies from EU member states and on trade between the 37 countries making up the two regional blocs.
The EU is seeking free trade agreements with Asean member states, such as Singapore and Malaysia, though Indonesia, the current chair, is pushing for a bloc-to-bloc deal, rather than individual countries cutting bilateral deals.