EU pledges aid and trade to support ‘historical change’ in Myanmar

Barroso Thein Sein.JPG

The European Commission praised the 'historical changes' taking place in Burma and pledged more EU development money and a bilateral investment agreement to mark the first visit to Brussels yesterday (5 March) of Myanmar President Thein Sein.

José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, praised the democratic reforms underway in Myanmar – also known as Burma – since the fall of the military junta in 2011.

Speaking alongside Thein Sein in Brussels, the Commission president said the day was a "historic" one as this was "the first time" that a Myanmar president was visiting the European Union.

"I had the chance of witnessing first-hand the historical changes that are taking place in the country," Barroso said, announcing a package of €150 million to support the country's democratic reform ahead of a national election in 2015.

"And today we have agreed to explore the feasibility of a bilateral Investment agreement," Barroso announced.

An EU mission led by Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani will travel to Myanmar later in the year "to flesh out further concrete support to the economic and political modernisation in the country," he said.

Democratic reforms 'not completed'

But despite the "impressive change that is underway," Barroso also cautioned that the reforms in Burma were "not completed" and had to be pursued vigorously before Europe further commits.

"Significant challenges lie in the way, such as the general improvement of fundamental freedoms, especially minority rights," Barroso said, citing the humanitarian situation in the Kachin and Rakhine states in the north of the country, where conflicts have erupted between Buddhist and Islamic communities.

Human Rights Watch, an NGO, said the military has been responsible for numerous violations of the laws of war since the resumption of the armed conflict with the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State in 2011.

According to HRW, these have included shelling of civilians, summary executions, rape, the use of child soldiers, unlawful forced labor, and looting. "Tens of thousands of displaced Kachin civilians have been unable to gain access to humanitarian assistance," the NGO said.

But Thein Sein claimed the unrest was now over. "There’s no more hostilities, no more fighting all over the country, we have been able to end this kind of armed conflict,” he insisted while on a visit to Vienna on Monday (4 March), the AFP news agency reported.

Sanctions

In Vienna, Thein Sein appealed for lifting the EU sanctions against his country. All sanctions against the regime were lifted in April last year, except for the arms embargo. But this was only a temporary measure that had to be reviewed after one year.

“What we lack is capital and modern technologies… all these are because of the economic sanctions for the last 20 years,” Sein told journalists following talks with Austrian President Heinz Fischer on Monday, according to AFP.

A key test of Maynmar's transition to democracy will be the 2015 elections, which Barroso said should "meet the highest international standards".

The United States, the European Union and others have gradually loosened restrictions on Myanmar since the end of military rule in 2011.

EU foreign ministers will debate lifting the restrictions permanently at their next meeting in March.

"The EU and Myanmar are turning a page in their relationship," Barroso said.

From 1988 until 2011, Maynmar - also known as Burma - was ruled by a military junta that suspended the country's constitution and turned it into on of the world's most impoverished nations. 

The European Union slapped sanctions on Burma in 2007, in response to a violent crackdown on protesters, led by monks, who were complaining about a rising fuel prices. 

The EU sanctions included a ban trade and investment in timber, metals and precious stones.

Asian and Western companies are active in the resource-rich country, exporting raw materials and natural gas. China has become Myanmar's most important trading partner through an increasing reliance on raw materials to fuel its rapid economic growth.

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