Elections in Burma - important but not a radical change
by Barbara Lochbihler
The European Union has to demand much more than a small number of democratic by-elections before it lifts sanctions, brutal military rule must also be addressed – says MEP
For the people in Burma, it was the beginning of a new era. After the victory of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the parliamentary by-elections on April 1, thousands of supporters took to the streets to celebrate their white hope. Even before the results were officially announced, there was no room for doubt: Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, had won an overwhelming majority of the 45 parliamentary seats that were up for grabs. This is an important step; it confirms the people's willingness to follow President Thein Sein and other reformers on their path towards democracy. Nevertheless, even if the country has changed, the hardliners of the military regime have not ceded much of their power yet. No one can tell whether the reformers will be able, and willing, to defend their ideas against the ancient régime. The European Union and the international community at large should keep that in mind.
Obviously, it would be wrong to deny the numerous recent developments that have – quite unexpectedly – occurred in Burma. The regime released hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed censorship and after decades of violent conflicts signed ceasefire agreements with several ethnic groups. The permission for the NLD to register as a political party further proves that Thein Sein is ready to tolerate and include opposition forces in a more open and democratic Burmese political system.
But then, only four years have passed since the army ruthlessly secured their power in a new constitution that will be difficult to amend. Thanks to the 2008 pro-military constitution, the generals have the right to oust the civil government as soon as they consider that not doing so would "endanger national security". Also, the army has their own seats in parliament and can prevent whatever reform by a blocking minority of only 25 per cent. Given that in the by-elections of April 1, only 45 members of parliament were replaced. Most parliamentarians continue to belong to the old order. The influence of Suu Kyi and her party will be marginal, compared to the absolute power of those in uniform. Finally, the army budget has risen continuously - even in recent times - which is another sign that the army is not particularly keen on stepping back and handing the reins over to the reformers.
Why, then, would the generals accept albeit reluctantly Thein Sein's opening? The answer is simple. To secure its economic independence, Burma needs more and more diversified foreign investments. Only recently, the regime stopped a controversial Chinese dam project – a clear sign that Rangoon is not willing anymore to exclusively rely on China and other authoritarian regimes in Asia. In order to attract western investors, however, sanctions will have to be lifted. And sanctions will only be lifted if there are improvements in terms of human rights and democracy, including more room for opposition figures such as Suu Kyi.
Thein Sein's plan seems to work: voices in favour of immediately lifting all EU sanctions are getting louder. But this would be too early. Indeed, it is all but a foregone conclusion that the reformers will, in the longer run, hold up against a military regime that is as strong as ever. What about the many ethnic conflicts? What about the generals' tradition of breaking ceasefire agreements whenever it suits them? What about the many political prisoners who remain behind bars? What about the need of investigations against regime members, after so many years of human rights violations and state terrorism?
Of course, the EU should support the country's opening up process, including the moves at an economic level. But Brussels should proceed step by step and only if Burma proves that its determination and willingness are genuine and sustainable. Should we lift trade sanctions after one single by-election, even though the same constitution entitles the same forces to regain the same absolute power whenever they feel like it? This would definitely create the wrong incentives. The EU would abandon the last pressurising medium at hand. And as Aung Sang Suu Kyi repeatedly stressed when I met her in Rangoon some weeks ago, the EU would significantly weaken the opposition in Burma -when they need us most.
Barbara Lochbihler MEP is chairwoman of the Human Rights Committee in the European Parliament and a member of the GREENS/European Free Alliance group