Missing the Boat on Myanmar
Missing the Boat on Myanmar
War in Western Myanmar: Avoiding a Rakhine-Rohingya Conflict
War in Western Myanmar: Avoiding a Rakhine-Rohingya Conflict
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Missing the Boat on Myanmar

The EU should abandon a policy maintained by those with an eye on noble points rather than on new opportunities to promote change.

At next week's meeting of EU foreign minsters in Luxembourg, the EU will extend, for another year, policies on Myanmar that are widely recognised as ineffective.

There is no doubt that General Than Shwe and his repressive regime are the main culprits for the misery of the population. But in dealing with the country, the international community has to do more than simply rubber-stamp restrictive aid policies that are not showing results, neither promoting political change nor alleviating the impoverishment of the people.

The aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar last May, demonstrated that another option is available. The government - though initially an obstacle to relief efforts - eventually showed itself willing to address specific obstacles to aid delivery. Structures were put in place (mainly with ASEAN nations) to facilitate effective and transparent assistance.

This has not translated into improved behaviour by the regime in general, of course, but in the limited sphere of humanitarian operations, it shows that it is possible to effectively work alongside the government. The EU must recognise this precedent as an opportunity.

Driving with the rear-view mirror

While Europe has shown some flexibility in its approach - by allowing the possibility of humanitarian assistance since 2004, while making good use of targeted sanctions for naming and shaming the junta - its policy remains in the hands of those who would rather make a noble point than help improve socio-economic conditions on the ground.

EU policy is currently driven through rear-view mirrors, looking back to 1990. Yes, there have been good initiatives by the European Commission on the security of livelihoods and food supplies, education and health (such as the Three Diseases Fund to counter TB, Malaria and HIV/AIDS). But these remain negligible in scale. The indicative budget for Commission assistance to Myanmar for the period 2007-2013 was only €65 million. There is additional assistance in others projects and member-state initiatives, but assistance is barely making a dent on the extreme poverty.

An already disastrous economic situation will be aggravated as the effects of the global economic crisis filter downwards. Poverty levels are extreme and the response inadequate: 90% of the population lives on less than €0.65 cents a day. In neighbouring Laos the amount of external assistance per capita is around €30 a year; in Cambodia it is €50. The equivalent for Myanmar is €2.70  a year - a figure roughly comparable to what each European cow is worth per day in subsidies.

This is not just about getting assistance to those that need it. The EU has yet to take full advantage of the potential for de-politicising humanitarian and development assistance to the country. This presents the best opportunity to promote change in Myanmar.

The "Common Position" of the EU allows room for manoeuvre on assistance, but without a clear definition of how far that assistance can go, the Commission will be hobbled by a lurking political cloud over anything that could be deemed as "engagement".

Driving with a view of the long road ahead

Political restrictions on humanitarian and development aid should stop. The international financial institutions should be allowed to re-engage, focusing on policy dialogue, technical assistance and capacity building, since direct budgetary assistance and major project financing is not yet appropriate. Aid should be used in new ways: aiming at substantially raising income and educational levels, fostering civil society, improving economic policy and governance, promoting equality of ethnic minorities, and improving disaster preparation. The result will eventually be a loosening of the military's stranglehold on the economy, and could even result in improved governance and empowerment of non-state actors - exactly what the sanctions regime has been failing to achieve.

This may sound too good to be true, but once aid programmes gather momentum through interaction with local and international organisations on the ground, they also open the door for further efforts in wider humanitarian and development assistance. It is not a process that happens overnight, but it is the only option that will provide incremental improvements - significantly more than 20 years of failed isolation.

The aftermath of Cyclone Nargis revealed an opportunity to the international donor community. It would be a shame to squander it.

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