It’s obviously extremely rare for TOL to write about Burma, a country clearly out of our normal orbit of coverage. But an interesting strategy is afoot to get Central European governments more involved in taking a tougher line on Burma within the EU, to counter attempts, according to some activists, by some of the EU’s older member states to water down sanctions.
The EU will be discussing its policy toward Burma in the coming weeks to come up with a draft Burma resolution for the UN General Assembly and decide on trade preferences. Earlier this month, the 23rd anniversary of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising in Burma also took place, when the military regime opened fire on peaceful student protesters, killing thousands (the anniversary is also known as 8/8/8 as the massacre took place on 8 August).
With those topics in mind, Burmese activists have encouraged prominent government officials, including from the “new EU” to phone Aung San Suu Kyi, the famed Burmese dissident who was released from house arrest last November. First, such calls would, the activists say, provide Suu Kyi with some added protection from renewed persecution and also reaffirm her legitimacy as the leader of the democracy movement. Among other world leaders such as Clinton and Merkel, the Czech, Polish, and Lithuanian foreign ministers have called, as did the Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who told Suu Kyi on 17 August: “This week we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the restoration of Estonia’s independence, and from our own experience we can confirm that totalitarian regimes never last forever.”
But the intention to mobilize leaders of the new member states goes much further.
Khin Ohmar, one of the student organizers of the events leading up to the 8/8/88 crackdown, is now the coordinator of the Burma Partnership, a network of organizations throughout the Asia-Pacific region, advocating for and mobilizing a movement for democracy and human rights in Burma. She explained to me that her group and others are now calling for a UN-led Commission of Inquiry for Burma to address the lack of accountability and support efforts to bring about peace and national reconciliation. “I would like to call on the Central European governments and people to support this Commission of Inquiry for Burma at the EU Foreign Ministerial Meetings and at the upcoming UN General Assembly when the GA will adopt a resolution on Burma,” she said.
Another activist working on Burma (who didn’t wish to be named) was more direct in how the appeal to the Central Europeans should work. He explained the current situation within the EU rather poignantly so I’ll just quote here extensively:
This absurd and tragic parallel of one generation sitting in jail or squeezed into semi-illegality here in Thailand since 88 and their counterparts in Europe getting freedom, becoming presidents and prime ministers, decision-makers, doing all that impressive transition and re-building the countries, steering NATO and the EU and now being responsible players of the international community who have a voice to shape EU policy toward Burma.
Some of the EU members states, primarily Germany, Italy, Austria and European Commission are strongly pushing behind the close doors of the internal EU debates to water down sanctions and to engage with the regime (motives: pressure of their own business lobby; geo-economic thinking: China, and some ASEANs are already plundering this natural-resource-rich country and sanctions are leaving us without our piece of the cake; maybe genuine belief that they can reform military dictators through engagement).
So the question is what will be the position of the Central Europeans and Balts in those intra-EU debates. Will they be influenced by this “inverse mirror” story of them and Burma?
Will Poland use its presidency to push only Ukraine and Belarus issues, or will they show some attention to Burma?
It was Havel who nominated Aung San Suu Kyi for a Nobel in a moment that was critical for her and raised her international profile. Will Central Europeans keep help her to stay internationally regarded as THE representative of the democratic aspiration of her nation, or will they let the Germans and EU commission reduce her to “one among other voices” in the Burma democracy camp.
That is exactly what the military needs – to atomize the democracy movement.
So will the Central Europeans be up to the task?
The photo is a panorama of Bagan, an ancient Burmese city, by Hintha and from Wikimedia Commons.