When Myanmar’s bumpy and cumbersome transition to democracy came to a halt on February 1, it took many in Europe by surprise. The EU and its member states had strongly supported Myanmar’s democratization process since 2012 and stood firmly with the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi as the main civilian actor. From the very beginning, however, many in Europe failed to take seriously the Tatmadaw’s praetorian worldview and interests, which were never aligned with a full transition to democracy. Simultaneously, Aung San Suu Kyi’s margin for maneuver was overestimated, with European leaders assuming that her credentials as a “Burmese Nelson Mandela” were enough to ensure a smooth transition to democracy. Europe’s approach remained almost exclusively focused on her figure, thereby justifying the relevance of Brussel’s own policy choices while neglecting other civilian actors in Myanmar as well as the leadership of the armed forces.
This distorted evaluation of the reality in Myanmar had direct consequences when, from 2017 onward, relations with Aung San Suu Kyi turned sour due to her position during and after the Rohingya crisis. As a consequence, the EU and most of its member states became more distant toward their erstwhile partner and the transition process as a whole because of the atrocities committed against the Rohingya.
As a result, the EU’s relationship with Myanmar has often appeared as an emotional rollercoaster ride between pariah and partner, between sinner and saint. But relations have rarely been on time or in line with the complex realities on the ground. This might be the case once more. The EU and its member states would therefore be well advised not to see the past as prologue when the configuration of forces in the ongoing crisis – with a leaderless, social-media connected protest movement and probably a more fragmented Tatmadaw – is much more difficult to appreciate than it initially appears.
But even if the EU’s capacity for influence is thin in Myanmar, it exists and should be used. Stakes are high: How the EU continues to react to the coup beyond its initial principled statements is not only a litmus test for its support to the transition in Myanmar, but also a test of its capacity to adjust to and impact new systemic challenges in the region – beyond mere condemnations, statements, and targeted sanctions. A quick glance at Southeast Asia demonstrates that beyond Myanmar’s specific parameters, what is at stake is the continuing shift to an authoritarian model of political and socioeconomic development. That model has the potential to, in the medium or long term, sideline European positions and multifaceted interests in this crucial region.
The Usual Trap
The EU has a long history of misunderstanding Myanmar. The intricacies of Myanmar’s recent history (including a rather traumatic process of decolonization) are part of the explanation. The over-simplification of complex local realities partly explain why successive past EU policies have failed to be productive, while Europe’s message has been perceived as either mere normative rhetoric, or, conversely, overtly emotional.
Many in the NLD administration (2015 – 2020) experienced relations with the EU as consisting of ups and downs and even public antagonism. The perceived harshness of the criticism from the EU and its consequent distancing after the Rohingya events were a major source of confusion and had a dramatic impact to the ongoing transition. Many Burmese policymakers and activists we personally spoke to argued that the EU often appeared stuck to its normative prerequisites, deliberately hardening its positions, resulting in diplomatic dead-ends. This created a perception of an erratic behavior and unreliability. The crucial question now is to evaluate how past misunderstandings and misperceptions might be transformed into a more constructive perception of the EU engagement, especially in times of domestic crisis in Myanmar.
The EU’s foreign policy and influence are all the more under scrutiny as the new European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, pretends to be “geopolitical in nature.” This direction is motivated by the need to adapt the European posture to the return of great power rivalry and a more multipolar but less multilateral world, and for the EU to focus more on its specific value in a challenging world stage. But by pointing out the need for Brussels to increase its role in the EU’s external action, it exposed its diplomacy to higher expectations, notably in pushing for democracy, defined as one of the five priorities by the president. Indeed, if the current situation is misevaluated, if the EU’s posture remains more declarative than realistic, the bloc risks being perceived as a non-actor by the main participants in the Myanmar crisis.
For now, the EU has mostly remained reactive. The EU foreign ministers meeting on February 22 stated that the EU “stands ready to adopt restrictive measures” targeting those directly responsible for the coup and their economic interests. For its part, the European Council condemned the coup “in the strongest terms,” insisting that the EU stands with the people of Myanmar and asking for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the reinstatement of her government. This is nothing really new nor audacious. More is expected beyond injunctions, because one can infer from historical experience that simply piling external pressure on the Tatmadaw will most likely exacerbate its public hardline nationalism.
Before deciding on the appropriate measures, and to better calibrate their impact, the EU must first assess the perception the Tatmadaw has of its influence. In the current context, with systemic stakes, the question is no longer how to reiterate European values, but finding new ways to revisit and protect them in the local power game unfolding right now in the streets of major cities. Very basically, the question is how to drive the Tatmadaw into a negotiation process and avoid violence against citizens of Myanmar.
Can the EU Have an Impact?
Europe had invested heavily in Myanmar’s transition to democracy over the last decade and it can be argued that it contributed a great deal to the emerging political awareness in Myanmar. For one, it has been a major actor in the field of overseas development assistance (ODA) since 2012. Between 2014 and 2020, almost 700 million euros worth of ODA has been made available to Myanmar. In line with this, many NGOs and grassroots activists across the country have established ties with either the EU or its member states and/or received funding from Europe. These are the same actors that are currently heavily engaged in the democratic opposition movement that has taken to the streets. If the EU were to engage more geopolitically, we suggest viewing those development aid networks as a basis for future political networks and thus, as a prime asset. EU officials and member state officials need to be as creative as possible here.
New forms of support should also be considered, including access to SIM cards and VPNs, online trainings in civil disobedience tactics and funding, and targeted sanctions against military leaders and businesses. Elected parliamentarians discharged after the coup could be visited regularly by European embassy personnel. European officials could carefully listen to grassroots opposition forces in order to understand their needs and ideas and thereby figure out new, creative ways of engagement despite internet bans and app blockages.
If the EU were to fail to engage with the current opposition, it risks losing touch with networks and change agents they have spent time and money to carefully cultivate for years. To be blunt here, it would be foolish not to. In doing so, the EU would follow the experience of other donors like Japan, Australia, or India, careful not to throw their weight against any one of the conflicting parties. Rather than overtly focus on Aung San Suu Kyi and the imprisoned NLD leadership, expanding support to these grassroots networks at the heart of the opposition movement should be another option for the EU.
There are plenty of small, creative ways to act if the EU does not want to repeat the old mistake of focusing too heavily on sanctions. For one thing, it has been extensively demonstrated that sanctions penalize the local people more than the leadership. Second, some other countries, like China, will be more than happy to undermine any sanctions regime and exploit a vacuum we would have created by some inept response. And last, the Tatmadaw does not care much about EU sanctions, having few assets in Europe (compared to what they have in other Asian countries or the United States). It’s time for the new geopolitical Commission to be more innovative with authoritarian regimes and contenders.
Obviously, if the EU wants to see a swift resolution of the current tension, it also must cooperate with other like-minded countries. ASEAN and its member states have a wealth of experience in dealing with Myanmar and have proven their track records. Because voices are not harmonized within the grouping, the EU should push for the solutions of those closer to its positions. As the priority step is to avoid bloodshed, every bit of EU support to those involved in a settlement of the crisis is welcome. Jakarta and Bangkok are pushing for an agreement on an action plan over the coup that would hold the junta to its promise of new elections, with monitors to ensure they are fair and inclusive; an informal ASEAN meeting is on track. The EU should clearly declare its support to solutions stressing the importance of the ASEAN Charter (and its promotion of democracy) even if this solution falls short of its initial ambitions.
Privileging long-term solutions over short-term illusions will demonstrate the importance the EU is giving to the lives of people in Myanmar and to the EU-ASEAN strategic partnership signed in December 2020. In the same line, Brussels should work closely with Japan, India and Australia and continue to work for policy convergence on how to approach post-coup Myanmar with the United States.
To conclude, Europe can make a difference in the current situation if and when it develops new, innovative approaches built on close dialogue and engagement with the multitude of actors that currently form the opposition. This is not to say there is any guarantee of success. However, one thing seems clear: The outcome of the domestic contestation between the multitude of democratic forces on the one hand and the armed forces on the other is going to determine the future of Myanmar – rather than the extent and level of external sanctions, however targeted and smart they might be. And the (geopolitical) stakes are high: Myanmar might transform (yet again) from a (defective) liberal system to an authoritarian system under a military dictatorship.
Sophie Boisseau du Rocher is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Asian Studies, French Institute for International Affairs, Paris.
Felix Heiduk is a senior associate at SWP, the German Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, Berlin.