Burma is changing, so where is Ashton?

Commentary

There are encouraging signs that the junta ruling Burma is starting to reform, and the country has been visited by Hillary Clinton and several top politicians from Europe. The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, also needs to pay Burma a visit, and soon.  

Positive news continues to trickle out of Burma. Political prisoners that had been held since 1988 were released into daylight and their waiting families. The opposition leader and global democracy beacon, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been permanently released from house arrest, and she meets regularly as a prime-minister-in-waiting with foreign dignitaries.

But despite these positive developments, the EU's first lady of foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, is nowhere to be seen, and Europe risks being the missing link in Burma.

Of course a military dictatorship shedding its skin involves many more steps than those that have been taken. The release of prisoners may be a mere cosmetic embellishment for a regime that fired on monks without any qualms in 2007. Apart from continued political reform, the military also needs to loosen its grip on the economy. The military currently runs everything from state owned enterprises to tourist hotels, and tackling such privileges could be a real stumbling block down the reform road. Yet the positive momentum is there.

Burma's regime is also hoping that these steps towards reform will lead to the removal of US and EU sanctions and the ending of the country’s status as an international pariah. The Western world certainly seems to be engaging, dropping by Burma's secretive capital of Nay Pi Daw to push the reform process forward.

The Americans went first with Hillary Clinton in December, who spoke of "flickers of progress." The visit was one of the first genuine manifestations of Obama's policy of "speaking with the enemy," which he outlined as presidential candidate. However, during his time in office, it has been harder to enact in practice with countries such as Iran and North Korea that have shown little inclination to embrace dialogue.

Behind the Americans are some Europeans. British foreign secretary William Hague dropped in on Burma at the beginning of January and gave assurances that the government would be judged "by its actions." He also signalled that "much more" reform is needed before the EU was ready to lift sanctions, but this was an important sign because of the weight the UK carries in defining the EU's policies.

The Danish development minister also popped by with extra development cash for the growing civil society. The minister, dutifully following the letter of the sanctions regime like a good boy scout, waited an extra day for the right flight connection out of the country to avoid flying with the regime’s still sanction-restricted airline.

The French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, also joined the shuttle diplomacy to Burma. He presented Aung San Suu Kyi with an honorary medal, reporting that his heart "beat faster than normal." The Germans are likely to follow soon.

EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton has so far only been present through words rather than actions. In a recent declaration she welcomed the "release of political prisoners," adding that more needed to follow and there was opportunity for a "new relationship" with the EU. However it is a shame and a missed opportunity that member states - or Ashton on her own initiative - did not push for the European maiden visit to be carried out by the EU's foreign policy lead runner.

EU foreign policy is a peculiar hybrid animal made up of 27 member states combined with the EU's policy arm. It can work fine with member states taking leads in different areas, thereby amplify EU's messages. Poland does it on Belarus. Germany on Serbia and Kosovo. That is positive bilateralism – 27 voices but at least one message. Anyway, Ashton cannot be everywhere, with all the internal EU meetings she also has to chair.

Unfortunately this is a missed opportunity in the case of Burma. Having Ashton on centre stage would have matched the visit of Clinton, showing that the EU also has a stake in Asia's future.

Seeing this as a sign of Europe's new relevance would have been appreciated by the Americans with their turn towards Asia.

Another reason is that the EU’s Burma policy is one of the few areas based upon an agreed "common position" (a genuine legal instrument for carrying out joint European policies), which sets it apart from many other issues hamstrung by internal EU disagreement. Compare this, for instance, to Libya, where Germany's opposition to action from others made it impossible for Ashton to take any lead.

Going on the ground in Burma for Ashton would also establish direct contact with Aung San Suu Kyi, the centre of gravity in the reform process. She will be the one likely to call for sanctions to be lifted when the time is right. Establishing a tight link with her, as Clinton has done, is central to any move towards a gradual easing of sanctions. The Americans are into this step-by-step game. They announced that the US will send an ambassador in response to the last release of prisoners.

Similarly, the EU needs to develop a fine tuned step-by-step approach to the gradual warming of ties and removal of sanctions.

EU sanctions are reviewed yearly in April, which this year coincides with the expected election of Aung San Suui Kyi and her fellow party members to parliament. On one side of the EU divide over sanctions is a hard line UK-spearheaded group including the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Slovenia, that wants to see the regime wither away completely before any easing (foreign minister Hague embodied this during his visit with a comment that much more needed to done before sanctions could be lifted).

On the other side are countries such as Italy who have had a long standing ambition to lift sanctions for years even before any meaningful reforms started. Ashton ought to set the pace for those discussions over sanctions, and assume a role as the mover and shaker of EU's Burma policy. Then the member states can follow up and give extra credence to EU policies. That would eliminate the current missing link in the EU's Burma policy.

This article first appeared in EU Observer

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: Asia & China, Human Rights, Europe and the world

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