Myanmar: It’s time to bring back sanctions

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Aung San Suu Kyi and Donald Tusk. Brussels, May 2017. [European Council]

It’s not just Aung San Suu Kyi who is failing to act on the Rohingya massacre – it’s time we bring back sanctions, argues MEP Neena Gill.

Neena Gill is a British MEP (S&D).

A mind-boggling 500,000 people belonging to the Rohingya community – and counting – have fled to Bangladesh in recent weeks.

Flooded with images of unspeakable atrocities, we are overwhelmed by a feeling of powerlessness at the highest outflow of refugees since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Yet, as someone who has been closely following relations with South East Asia and has led negotiations on the European Parliament’s most recent resolution on the issue, I believe there is still more that we can do.

While the tragedy has been heartbreaking to watch, we must not forget our own power to act.

The EU Foreign Affairs Council’s response to the Rohingya crisis on Monday does not reflect the scale of the crisis. The Council reconfirmed the arms embargo, but this is largely symbolic, given that most military hardware in Myanmar comes from countries outside of the EU, including China. Disappointingly, the Council has not decided to adopt further restrictive sanctions, despite the continued deterioration of the situation, with an additional 200,000 and counting displaced from the region.

To make a real impact, we should focus our leverage on Myanmar’s powerful army, who not only hold a strong grip over the country’s economy, but also make many key political appointments and reserve 110 seats in parliament for unelected soldiers.

Council conclusions refer to suspending invitations to the military, but to influence the military, we also need to undermine their finances: both through more punitive sanctions and by targeting key industries like jade production, which have helped to finance the conflict.  

When Parliament elected Htin Kyaw – a close confidant of State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi – as president in February of last year, we welcomed the end to five decades of military rule. As a result, it is understandable that a lot of the anger in the international community has been directed at the inaction of Aung San Suu Kyi. 

However, given that unelected soldiers still make up a quarter of the assembly and hold veto power, it is clear that she is not in total control. We must not let our disappointment in Aung San Suu Kyi cloud our impetus to act to undermine Myanmar’s army.

It is not only through sanctions that the EU can help to end this humanitarian crisis. In addition, we can step up pressure on the authorities in Myanmar to pass legislation that prohibits the military, security services, and their members from enjoying beneficial ownership of natural resource companies.

The Myanmar army dominates the mining sector. Jade production alone is worth 48% of the country’s GDP (USD 31 billion in 2014 alone). This not only directly finances conflict, but it is also an important source of income for the military. The reference made in Monday’s Council Conclusions to the deeply concerning conflicts in two other states – Kachin and Shan, which are both important in the country’s mining sector – proves the importance of passing legislation that prohibits the military from exercising beneficial ownership over companies.  

Prioritising natural resource management in the country’s peace process would have the two-fold benefit of eliminating natural resources as a source of conflict across the country and squeezing the military financially. A useful step would be to increase coordination with the US, which has been very active on the issue of natural resource management but has not yet actively linked this to the peace process.

A third and crucial step to stop the bloodshed in the Rakhine is to persuade China to stop its unwavering protection for its neighbour at the UN Security Council. China currently protects Myanmar with its veto powers because of the country’s major strategic importance in Beijing’s new Silk Road plans.

The related deep-water ports, oil and gas pipelines and a Special Economic Zone in the Rakhine state are multi-billion investments. The EU and the US must use Chinese dependence on Myanmar to highlight the importance of stability in the region and pressure it to prevent any long-term continuation of the crisis, which has been described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

By exerting pressure where it hurts – in the pockets of those responsible for the atrocities – we can restore credibility to the sentence “never again” and end the bloodshed of the men, women and children of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

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