Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme

The EU's announcement Monday that it is lifting sanctions against Burma, following their suspension last year, poses some important questions about the country's future political and economic development – and the role of the international community.

Discussing the suspension of sanctions, which had been in place since 1990, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said last April that 'great progress has been made' in Burma, but added that he was 'very concerned about conflict and human rights abuses.' These concerns justified suspending rather than lifting sanctions. A year on, it is unclear that those concerns have been eased.

In the intervening twelve months, what amounts to a pogrom has been launched against Burma's Rohingya minority. The Rohingya are Muslim, are denied citizenship and so are effectively stateless. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, more than 125,000 have been displaced.

'The criminal acts committed against the Rohingya and Kaman Muslim communities in Arakan State beginning in June 2012 amount to crimes against humanity carried out as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing,' Human Rights Watch adds.

Other organizations have adopted a different line. On the day sanctions were lifted, the International Crisis Group, which has been vociferous in its demands for war crimes investigations against Sri Lanka, honored Burma’s president, Thein Sein, at its annual 'In Pursuit of Peace' award dinner. The extent of this divergence raises a number of questions which are, for now, unanswerable, but the key question is whether sanctions worked.

Received wisdom in 2009 would have been that the sanctions regime was not working. More recently, there have been claims that political liberalization came in response to the sanctions regime. At the same time, countries in the association of Southeast Asian Nations claimed that it was their policy of 'constructive engagement' that had encouraged reform.

Of course, Burma's government wanted the sanctions regime lifted, both to boost the economy and to lessen the country's reliance on China. What is less clear is whether it has any intention of giving up power; constitutional change requires a 75 per cent majority vote in parliament, but 25 per cent of seats are held by the military. The question for the West is which policy – engagement or exclusion – would best encourage further reform, presuming that the military's commitment to giving up power is not as high as its statements suggest.

Problematically, there are two narratives regarding the treatment of the Rohingya. The first is that increased freedom of expression has revealed suppressed enmities within Burma. The military and police have been powerless in the face of such pent-up rage. The second is that the government has encouraged a lax approach by law enforcement authorities. Continued violence will be used, in the future, to justify continued strong government.

And in terms of human rights, while the average citizen in Burma may be feeling freer than a couple of years ago, the treatment of the Rohingya is a pretty significant caveat. Essentially, for all of the statements requesting better treatment of Muslims, the approach taken would appear to be rather utilitarian, encouraging the 'greatest happiness of the greatest number,' at the expense of the Rohingya.

If the new approach is to work, it will be imperative for the EU and its member states to continue to push a broad – and not just commercial – engagement. Offering to assist in police reform (to deal with communal tension) will test the commitment of Burma's government to engagement. The question will be how the EU responds if the government pushes back against specific types of engagement, now that it can no longer threaten the re-introduction of sanctions.

Ultimately, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. If EU engagement helps drive progress towards a free and fair general election in 2015, and if its wider engagement leads to better treatment of minorities, including the Rohingya, it will be vindicated. If reforms stall or retreat, however, giving up on sanctions may come to be seen as a mistake.

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