By Martin Petty
A top EU official held out the prospect of a further easing of sanctions on Myanmar after a meeting on Monday with the country’s president and announced increased aid to acknowledge reforms already begun by a new civilian administration.
European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs is the most senior European Union official to meet President Thein Sein since a civilian administration took office in the former Burma last March after almost 50 years of army rule.
“There is concern (on the government side) that they’ve made reforms, they released political prisoners, they opened up, but the sanctions are still in place,” Piebalgs told reporters.
“Now it’s very clear that the watershed is elections in April. If it goes as expected and is free and fair, then everyone would expect the easing of sanctions to continue.”
A new parliament is dominated by military personnel and an army-backed party that won a general election in November 2010 amid opposition complaints of rigging.
But by-elections on April 1 should see more opposition members voted in, including Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate and long-time campaigner for democracy.
“The president mentioned a lot about Aung San Suu Kyi and it was all positive. That was unexpected,” Piebalgs said.
“He said she was extremely important in the country and her participation in the political process was crucial. That’s a very positive sign.”
The government, which is anxious to see the end of sanctions, pulled out all the stops to allow Suu Kyi to run. It hopes her presence will add legitimacy to a parliament that is becoming more vocal but still has only limited powers.
Piebalgs will meet Suu Kyi at her home in the former capital, Yangon, on Tuesday.
“The restrictive measures are definitely affecting their growth … The restrictive measures are painful for them because they see their potential for foreign investment,” Piebalgs said of the sanctions.
“I had to explain that this takes time. Suspending some measures, it needs consensus from 27 countries and that’s not such an easy thing to achieve in the EU,” he added.
SUU KYI WELCOME
Earlier, in a meeting that a handful of journalists were, unusually, allowed to attend, Piebalgs told house speaker Thura Shwe Mann it was important that parliament became an active player in the reform process.
Shwe Mann, number three in the former junta and a pivotal figure in the new administration, said he would be happy to see Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in parliament. The party swept a 1990 election for a constituent assembly but the military ignored the result. It boycotted the 2010 election.
“We have established a parliament, taking the necessary actions for democracy to thrive in Myanmar. The NLD and other parties, if they win in the by-elections, they can be in parliament. We will welcome them,” he told Piebalgs.
The European Union and the United States have also said the freeing of political prisoners was crucial to the resumption of full diplomatic and economic links.
Last month, the EU eased sanctions slightly by temporarily lifting travel bans on Thein Sein and some other top officials in response to ceasefire deals with ethnic minority rebels and a fourth prisoner amnesty on January 13, when about 300 political detainees were freed.
Estimates vary on how many remain behind bars, but Shwe Mann suggested there could be further amnesties after an official review.
“The remaining political prisoners are those who have committed criminal activities in this country. Those who are on that list, if they have been involved in terrorist activities or harmed the public, they will not be included,” he said.
Piebalgs announced a 150 million euro ($198 million), two-year aid package to help Myanmar reverse decades of stagnation because of international isolation and inept military rule.
The European Union is leading the way in supporting a country badly in need of infrastructure and health and education facilities. Its new aid package is worth almost as much as the 173 million euros it has given Myanmar since 1996.
That aid concentrated on health and education, but the new package will also help people displaced by conflict and provide funding for agriculture, on which many of the country’s estimated 60 million people depend.
The European Union’s annual sanctions review takes place in April, after the April 1 by-elections for 48 legislative assembly seats.
“The release of prisoners and, if it ends up being the case, free elections in April, will be used as motivation for the EU to prove that engagement ‘works’,” said Joakim Kreutz, an expert on Myanmar sanctions at Sweden’s Uppsala University.
“I still expect the arms embargo and some personal sanctions on junta veterans to remain, but I would not be surprised if some measures are lifted.”
Western businesses are increasingly interested in Myanmar’s natural resources — oil, gas, timber and gemstones — and are also looking to invest in tourism, financial services, hotels, telecommunications networks and infrastructure, but big companies are holding back until sanctions are lifted.
Photo Credit: Reuters