Europe and Myanmar strengthen ties ahead of elections

Shwedagon Pagoda, in Yangon. [Jorge Valero]

Myanmar is progressing at a snail’s pace towards the end of nearly half a century of military rule. The campaign for the first free elections, to be held on 8 November, started on Tuesday (September 8). EURACTIV reports from Yangon.

As the Asian Development Bank (ADB) pointed out in a report last July, Myanmar’s immense potential could also be its Achilles heel. “This is because, as Myanmar’s history shows, there is a “dialectical” interaction between the two sides of the ledger, with the possibility always existing of perceived strengths turning into weaknesses and vice versa.”

Aung Kahm Kyaw illustrates the two sides of the coin. In his modern but tiny office in the capital Yangon, lent by an investor, the 23-year-old entrepreneur confessed to EURACTIV that he wants to stay in the country despite a well-paid job offer he got in Berlin. However, the self-taught internet marketer does not expect “a big change” in the next decade or so in Myanmar, because “education continues to be the main challenge, and the government is doing nothing to improve the situation”.

Remarkable growth

Although the economy has registered remarkable growth figures over the last three years (around 8.5% of GDP in 2014-2015), the military-led government spends less than 1% of the GDP in education for the 51.5 million person nation. “Past low public expenditure on health and education poses a serious challenge to building strong foundations for growth”, warns the ADB.

However, this is not the only challenge Myanmar is facing. Ethnic-related violence, the marginalisation of the Rohingya minority, and the sporadic but severe natural disasters are all stumbling blocks on the road to becoming a middle-income country.

An EU diplomat in Yangon told EURACTIV that the handling of the minority issues is a “big risk factor” that could bring “bad publicity” to the country and could jeopardize Myanmar’s attempts to further integrate in the Southeast Asia region.

Nevertheless, the country looks beyond its neighborhood to prosper. EU diplomats acknowledged that the junta has a “sincere interest” in using the EU to bring growth and investment to the country and, at the same time, to tame China’s overwhelming influence on its economy.

As part of the EU’s engagement in the country, Brussels is negotiating an investment agreement with Yangon.

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

Moreover, the country’s Union Election Commission invited the EU to observe the upcoming process. The EU will support the country with a monitoring team, voter education, public outreach targeting minorities, and assistance to develop media capacity.

>>Read: EU agrees to observe historic Myanmar election

EU sees opportunity

EU foreign affairs ministers affirmed last July that the elections would be “an opportunity to confirm that reforms are irreversible”. “We are in regular contact with all stakeholders, including the Union Election Commission and political parties, among them Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy”, said Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for the EU’s External Action Service.

Myanmar citizens do not trust their rulers’ intentions. The charismatic leader of the opposition and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, mother of two British-born sons, has been barred from running as president based on a constitutional provision that excludes those with foreign children. Nevertheless, the NLD is widely expected to win.

The president, an all-powerful post in the country, will be nominated by MPs elected in the ballot box. As the Myanmar press reported last July, the powerless ex-generals in the parliament and the current administration are courting potential winners in the race as a kind of capital insurance.

Despite this setback for her backers, Aung San Suu Kyi said in a video post that “for the first time in decades, our people will have a real chance of bringing about real change”.

>>Read: Aung San Suu Kyi calls on the world to closely watch the Myanmar election

But Europeans are not perceived as the ultimate saviors. In the Buddhist nation, US President Barack Obama, who has visited the country twice since he took office, is seen by some as a new prophet.

“Thanks to him, Aung San Suu Kyi was released,” stressed Koko, a young student of Economics in Yangon who helps out in a monastery. “Besides, Obama was born on Friday, like Buddha.”

Since early 2011, Myanmar (also known as Burma) has embarked on a remarkable path of political and economic reforms, departing from five decades of authoritarian rule. The government has committed itself to introducing genuine democracy, and some significant steps have been taken towards establishing a more open and equitable society. 

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest and her party's return to the formal political process were further milestones in the peaceful transition to democracy, which have injected a positive dynamism into political life.

The restrictive measures imposed by the EU on the government were suspended in April 2012 and lifted in 2013 (apart from the arms embargo), in order to welcome and encourage the reform process.

>>Read: EU lifts Myanmar sanctions, except arms embargo

But Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD fears that a possible victory in the ballot box may not bring military rule to an end. The junta ignored the party's landslide victory in the 1990 general elections. As a result, the NLD boycotted the last national election held in 2010, which triggered international concerns due to widespread irregularities.

Despite the remaining obstacles ahead, an Asian Development Bank report underlined that, this time around, “the sense of hope and optimism is palpable that Myanmar’s long-suffering people are finally headed for sustained progress toward prosperity and freedom.”

The ADB predicted that under an “ambitious and yet quite feasible growth scenario”, given the strong economic potential of the country, Myanmar could register a growth rate of 9%–10%. This would bring the country to high-middle-income status in 15 years, similar to Thailand. Under a more realistic scenario of a 7%-8% growth rate, in line with the past experiences of developing Asian economies, the country would reach a similar status to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

  • 8 Nov.: general elections
  • Feb. 2016: deadline to nominate a new president

Council conclusions on the elections in Myanmar:

Aung San Suu Kyi´s statement ahead of the elections:

Asian Development Bank report on Myanmar:

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