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Myanmar: Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the EP debate

February 9th, 2021  •  Author:   European External Action Service  •  10 minute read
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Ms President, Honourable Members of the European Parliament,

As you know, on the 1st of February 2021, the Myanmar military declared the State of emergency for one year in Myanmar. All powers were transferred to the Commander-in-Chief of the army. The opening of the democratically-elected Parliament was cancelled. Hundreds of people were arrested, including the President [U Win Myint] and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. TV channels have been shut down and Facebook blocked.

These events abruptly turned back the clock of history in Myanmar. The path towards democracy, which had started in 2011, and the will of the people as expressed in the November elections, have been reversed, once again, by the military power.

The military has already appointed new ministers, trying to establish facts on the ground. It is crucial to act swiftly, strongly and in coordination with our partners.

Swiftly: I have issued a statement already on the 1st of February. On the 2nd of February, the European Union issued another statement, agreed by all Member States, and contributed to a G7 statement. So, first, my statement engaging only my responsibility, but quickly; secondly, a 27 Member States Statement engaging the responsibility of the Foreign Affairs Council; and then contributing to a G7 statement.

Strongly: Yes, we are currently reviewing all our options. And we have three tools to use. First, consider additional targeted sanctions on individuals and on businesses owned by the military –you know that in these countries the military are a big economic power; they own an important part of the economic infrastructure of the country. Second, to review our development assistance. And third, to assess the use of the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences.

Our policy response should follow some basic principles: first, to try to affect change; second, to maintain channels of dialogue; and third, avoiding to affect the broader population, which are not guilty and they should not be punished.

We look at all these options carefully and the Foreign Affairs Council on the next 22nd of February will give the political guidance.

We will ensure we are doing nothing to legitimise the actions of the military, while trying to maintain support to the people of Myanmar. The review is taking into account how closely we work with the government and its institutions from a legal, financial and technical perspective, as well as the impact on beneficiaries.

At the same time, we should avoid rushing into measures that would adversely affect the most vulnerable part of the population. This often happens when you take restrictive measures. At the end, it is the poorest of the poor who pay the consequences.

Withdrawing [trade] preferences would damage the civilian garment sector, while leaving military businesses unscathed. 500,000 workers would be at risk – mostly women. So we cannot afford taking these kinds of measures.

Thirdly, on coordination, we have been in close contact with all partners since the outset of the crisis. We have engaged with ASEAN, India, the United States, Australia and I also discussed the situation yesterday with the Chinese Foreign Minister [Wang Yi].

We all agree on the need for quick responses, to avoid allowing a fait accompli that can last quite a long time.

We now need to develop a robust response to this unacceptable seizure of power, which reverses ten years of democratic transition.

This is what I had to inform you, Honourable Members, about the situation in Myanmar. I am looking forward to your debate.

Thank you.

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Closing remarks

Thank you Ms President,

It has been an interesting debate, where some points have been put on the table on some issues that require maybe an answer from my part.

“Should the European Union not use or trigger the Everything But Arms (EBA) withdrawal procedure [in view of] the grave situation and the grave regression in human rights caused by the military coup? If not when?”, some of you have been asking. The EBA withdrawal [procedure] is certainly a powerful instrument, which can foster positive change in partner countries.

With Myanmar, it was actually delivering some -although limited- positive results, notably on social and labour rights. But the power of this instrument lies in the threat of the withdrawal, not on the withdrawal itself. For example, in the process of monitoring before the actual decision is initiated.

But be careful, because the EBA is a blind instrument. In as much as it affects the economy -or at least the economic sector widely-, even if used to cover only some specific tariff lines, it is not the best suited to be applied surgically to target specific individuals, companies or business interests.

In the case of Myanmar, the aim is to target military interests, as they are responsible for the current situation, not the whole economy. According to the information available, military interests are focused on sectors that would not be affected by the EBA preferences. In fact, most of the Myanmar exports, under the EBA regime, are in the clothing sector, which employs more than 500,000 workers, mostly female workers, poor people. If we take this decision, they will suffer, not the military.

In sum, withdrawing the EBA preferences would hit Myanmar’s economy, putting half a million of low-skilled workers at risk of poverty and leaving military interests almost untouched. Is that what we want? No, so be careful when you ask to use some elements of our toolbox.

Another issue that has been raised by your excellences and honourable members [of the European Parliament] is how should the European Union review its policy towards Myanmar if the legitimate government is not restored. It is a legitimate question, but at present, our policy has two short-term objectives. Let us concentrate on them: The immediate and unconditional release of those jailed because of the coup and the development of some form of dialogue. That is what we should be focusing on.

The policy options I outlined in my intervention are aimed at driving change in the short term in order to avoid that the military government becomes a fait accomplit and it becomes impossible to get rid of them.

There have been other military rules in Myanmar. And these previous military rules lasted over 5 decades, 50 years, half a century, despite strong sanctions from almost the entire world. It shows that, sometimes, sanctions do not work.

We have to avoid repeating this situation. Our key objective remains to restore dialogue and, incidentally, the need for dialogue was also the key message given by the respected Cardinal [Charles] Bo. It is clear that the current crisis emerged from the military’s reluctance to cede power to the civilian side, but also from the breakdown of all channels of dialogue between the civilian and the military.

Dialogue has to be restored. There are many people who believe that “dialogue is bad; do not talk with the bad people”. Well, sometimes you have to talk with the bad people, precisely because they are bad people.

If the situation does not change, we will reassess the situation and re-examine our toolbox, having in mind the same principles I outlined before. Be strong to affect change. Be careful to avoid undue impact on the general population and on the most vulnerable. And the third issue, Madame [Dorien] Rookmaker has been asking me if I believe it is good to coordinate with the United States. Yes for sure. In Myanmar, we, the European Union, cannot seriously pretend to create a dynamics of change without coordination with the big powers. And the big powers there are the United States, China and the ASEAN.

From the outset, we, the European Union, the European External Action Service and I have been striving to coordinate this action and consult with as many relevant parties as possible.

Naturally, we were closely involved in working with our G7 partners, but not only the traditional ones: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway and Australia. We wanted to engage also with other relevant stakeholders: India, China and ASEAN.

In the case of the Rohingya crisis, the military coup in Myanmar is, first and foremost, a regional security issue. In addition to a humanitarian crisis, it is a regional security issue and regional countries have the right and the duty to be first in line to respond.

But this response has not been overwhelming. China, as you could expect, did not even qualify the event as a coup, but as a major government reshuffle. They changed the government and it is just a reshuffle. ASEAN was not able to reach consensus on a statement and resorted to a statement of the Chair. I know that sometimes it is difficult to get an agreement and it is the Chair who has to take the responsibility, but it is not the same thing.

Brunei, for example, with a very toned down language which was in fact agreeing with Myanmar. In ASEAN, the principle of the non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries prevails.

There were many other issues [raised], I would be delighted to continue answering them, going deeply into the subject. Should we, for example, the European Union and the Member States, recall our ambassadors from Myanmar? Yes, it would send a strong signal but I do not favour recalling our ambassadors. It would cut our communication channels at a moment where we should facilitate the dialogue. Once again, we should not lose the possibility of keeping dialogue [channels] open, even with the “devil”. That would also reduce our capacity to appraise the situation on the ground and our ability to gather information. But this is something that has to be checked permanently in order to fine tune our tools to the situation.

There are many reasons why we, the European Union, deployed a small electoral mission only, instead of a fully-fledged observation mission. You know how important are our electoral observation mission, and how much I praise the work that we are doing there, the civil servants of this house and the members of this house engaged in this kind of activities.

However the COVID-19 pandemic and the strict lockdown in Myanmar prevented the deployment of a fully-fledged exploratory mission which, as you know, is a prerequisite for the observation mission.

We were nevertheless able to engage with all relevant stakeholders and they are finalising their report. A report that will take very much into account what is happening in the Rakhine State. The elections were open to the participation of the Rohingyas and to the Rakhine people, but the actual results would have most likely further eroded the chair of the military-backed party, if they could participate fully.

In a nutshell, we have a been a strong supporter of the Myanmar democratic transition in the last 10 years. Yes, we had strong disagreements with the civilian government, notably after the 2017 events against the Rohingyas. But we will not stop advocating for the return of the government, for holding the perpetrators of the worst human rights violations accountable. We are calling upon to uphold the national democracy by Myanmar. With all its shortcomings, Myanmar remains a positive experiment in the region and we have to help them, acting strongly, quickly and in coordination with all our partners.

Thank you very much for your attention and thank you for holding this debate on something which is far away from us geographically but close to our minds and principles if we really want to be considered an institution that has human rights at the basis of its behaviour.

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