Germany-and-Burma Business-before-human-rights

Financial Times (UK): It is time to fine-tune sanctions on Burma – Markus Loening 

It was strange to be the first high-ranking European to visit Burma since the country’s supposed democratic breakthrough. Since November’s flawed elections we have been trying to steer the country towards democracy, yet no one I met seemed to know who was in charge. Was the “old man” – the supposedly retired military dictator Than Shwe – still pulling the strings? Big pictures of the Junta’s former strongman hog public spaces apparently because the Burmese are afraid to take them down. Eight months after large crowds cheered the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the dissident Nobel laureate, there is still confusion in this small but politically sensitive Asian nation.Human rights continue to be violated, ordinary citizens are scared of voicing their views, ethnic conflicts have not been resolved and there is a huge problem brewing with refugees and internally displaced people. As we are discovering in the Arab world, there is no straightforward way of moving from dictatorship to democracy.

I was struck though in every meeting – with civil society activists, opposition party leaders, with Ms Suu Kyi herself – by the strength of optimism in Burma. There was real hope for political change that seemed impossible even three months ago. Again and again, patience was urged on me.

Should we give Burma more time? How can the European Union build on the optimism of the Burmese, their natural dynamism, while still keeping pressure on the regime? It is a complex balancing act.

But we have to act soon, and together, if we are to influence policy there. The EU has just extended its economic and political sanctions against Burma to April 2012. That is a right step. But the sanctions should be fine-tuned, linked to performance and lifted, stage by stage, to reward progress. They should not be allowed to become a blunt instrument. If the government is serious about change it will set about releasing political prisoners – some of whom have suffered far worse than Ms Suu Kyi’s 15 years of house arrest – and it will open a genuine national dialogue including the ethnic and political opposition groups. The aim has to be free and fair by-elections in November. Each liberalising move should be acknowledged by the west.

By the end of this year, the EU has to decide whether Burma can be included again, at least partly, in our general system of trade preferences. That is a big carrot to dangle before the government. Despite considerable natural resources, the country and the people are poor. Opening up the markets to Burma, allowing it to attract foreign investors, would ease modernisation and relieve poverty.

Britain argues that any form of relaxation in western sanctions would send a signal of weakness. Yet European influence is melting away as our already small share of Burma’s trade shrivels. Have 15 years of blanket sanctions and isolation actually improved the living conditions of anyone in the country? One of my Rangoon contacts answered cynically: “Yes, sanctions made the military rich – at the cost of impoverishing the middle class.”

One terrifying by-product of sanctions is the number of young Burmese women – forced out of a now-crippled textile industry – who have ended up as sex workers in what is euphemistically described as Thailand’s “entertainment” industry. Hundreds of private companies – which should be Burma’s engine of recovery – have gone bust.

Meanwhile Chinese companies are moving in, steadily but surely turning Burma into a de facto province of China. Beijing is exploiting the gap we have left with our across-the-board hardline sanctions policy. The Burmese do not want this. They want to trade with us, open up to Europe. And we are denying them the option.

Can EU sanctions really be meant to enrich profiteers and featherbed generals, to propel women into brothels, to boost China’s already considerable strategic reach in the region? I don’t think so.

We have a few months to get the EU line on Burma right: that is, oriented towards opening up the political system, accelerating the process of modernisation, providing greater economic and political choices for the Burmese. Sanctions should be a sensitive, political instrument not a caveman’s club.

We have reached one of those rare moments when European foreign policy can make a difference. This is the time for intelligent dialogue with all groups in Burmese society.

The writer is Germany’s federal commissioner for human rights policy

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