When David Cameron backed the suspension of EU sanctions on Burma in April 2012, he emphasised in no uncertain terms that they would return if President Thein Sein’s administration reneged on democratic reforms. Spelling out the difference between suspending the sanctions and lifting them completely he said that the EU’s stance would “make it quite clear to those who are against reform that should they try to obstruct the way of the reformers, then sanctions could come back."
One year on however, the Prime Minister has joined other EU leaders in a shock move to throw away their economic bargaining chip by scrapping sanctions permanently, leaving European businesses free to fill government coffers regardless of political conditions or human rights violations.
The decision has been met with anger from human rights groups who point out that the Burmese government not only continues to detain hundreds of political prisoners, but has recently carried out violent crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations and airstrikes on civilian villages in Kachin State, where over 100,000 people have now been displaced by conflict.
All the while, deadly communal violence against Burma’s Muslim population continues to spiral out of control. Mob killings began in Arakan State last June and were recently replicated in the Northern town of Meiktila where Mosques were burnt, scores of people were killed and hundreds were driven from their homes. A recent Human Rights Watch report noted that “frequently the police did nothing to stop the violence against Muslims and in many cases joined with Buddhist mobs to attack predominantly Muslim villages.”
However, rather than use the threat of reintroduced sanctions to pressure the Burmese government over prisoner amnesties, free speech, peace talks with Kachin rebels and protections for religious minorities, EU leaders are sending an absurd multi-million dollar message of support for the status quo. Particularly stomach churning is the betrayal of Aung San Suu Kyi by Cameron and his peers, who were quick pose with the inspirational opposition leader for photo opportunities but flagrantly ignored her pleas not to permanently lift sanctions.
Germany it would appear, played the largest part in securing this sorry state of affairs. For though almost all member states now support the end of economic sanctions, the stage was set by Angela Merkel’s morally bankrupt administration seeking to trash the EU arms embargo on Burma, in-spite of continuing military atrocities including extrajudicial executions and gang rapes by government troops. Consequently, states that oppose selling weapons to fuel the abuses were forced into a compromise over economic sanctions, in order to save the arms embargo.
Things do not come much more ironic than the EU hanging Burmese democrats out to dry just six months after the bloc received a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet for the political prisoners, the Kachin children in IDP camps and the Muslim civilians fearing for their lives, the irony will be trumped by the tragedy.