Ladies and Gentlemen,
Distinguished Panellists and Participants,
A warm welcome to all of you on behalf of the European Commission, and many thanks to all of you who have travelled from afar in order to attend our meeting on Burma/Myanmar.
With my introductory remarks, I would like to raise a few questions and set the scene concerning the humanitarian imperatives, hoping to stimulate our discussions.
As many of you will remember, we organized the first Burma/Myanmar Day
At that time, the focus of our discussion was the question of how to find and formulate possible answers to the political situation.
Over the past years, the processes in the country have been quite slow, and rather disruptive.
- We had to witness Depayin incident.
- We saw the marginalisation of the main legal party and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
- We saw the launch of the so-called “Myanmar Road Map” and a change at the helm of government.
What we did not witness was a move towards a genuinely democratic regime. Moreover and unfortunately, there has been change of the regime’s mind towards a truly representative and inclusive democratic process.
The Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General has been treated in an unacceptable manner and was unable to pursue his mandate.
The UN Human Rights Commission’s Special Rapporteur was unwelcome in the country for a disturbingly long period.
Furthermore, developments on the ground give no hope for an effective and comprehensive respect for human rights.
Therefore, our perception of government and governance in Burma/Myanmar remains unchanged.
The situation does not justify that we abandon our critical views vis-à-vis the military regime. On the contrary, we had to further strengthen the sanctions part of our Common Position.
As the EU was strengthening its sanctions against the military regime it also recognised that it did not mean to hurt the ordinary people of Burma/Myanmar. This is why Article 5 of the Common Position not only confirms the EU’s commitment to continue providing humanitarian assistance but also open assistance for longer term development in sectors such as health, education and livelihoods.
This is the aspect of the EU’s policy towards Burma/Myanmar we would like to discuss here today.
Most of you know the country first hand and from active involvement.
Most of you are familiar with the situation of the people, and will therefore agree that the slow – if any – movement of the political process is not the only reality.
There are many more realities – be they economic, social or humanitarian -- which we all need to take into account when looking for an adequate response in view if the rather disastrous performance of the Government in economic and social management of the country.
Other speakers will develop the various aspects in detail.
I may limit myself therefore to a few thoughts concerning the challenges of a possible response, keeping two main principles in mind:
· not loosing sight of the need to induce and support political transition,
· first and foremost to help and empower the people of Burma/Myanmar.
The overall political picture shows a government, which for decades has isolated itself and the country. In its desire to convey its criticism, the international community has compounded that isolation. The population has been the permanent victim of the situation.
At the same time, Burma/Myanmar enjoys fairly stable political and
economic relationships in the immediate neighbourhood in particular with
ASEAN has been - at least in public diplomacy – a faithful supporter of a soft approach towards Burma/Myanmar. More recently though, old members of ASEAN are becoming more critical notably with the prospect of Burma/Myanmar taking over the chair of the organisation in 2006.
While welcoming this new attitude of some ASEAN members, we do not know
to what extent ASEAN is prepared to challenge its own unity on the Burmese
question and how effective ASEAN pressure on the military regime can be if
Burma/Myanmar continues to enjoy the comfort zone provided by
At the same time, unfortunately, a large part of the Burma/Myanmar’s population is not in any comfort zone. The social and economic data – as far as they are available and trustworthy – shows a picture of widespread poverty and dire need. Even official figures confirm these facts.
In particular, people in mountainous border and ceasefire areas – mostly ethnic minority groups – live under appalling conditions. They have been cut off from development by five decades of civil war.
Natural resources are being exploited at an unsustainable pace, regardless of environmental damage. Very few people benefit, but many suffer.
The influx of refugees into neighbouring
- We do not know how long such military campaigns against innocent civilians will continue.
- We do not know when conditions for the return of refugees and internally displaced persons will be met.
- But we do acknowledge and agree that refugees and displaced persons deserve our continued support.
The economic picture is not rosy either, in stark contrast to a region that impresses us all with its economic dynamism and results in the fight against poverty.
The main reasons for the weak economic fundamentals are “home made”, such as inadequate economic policies, multiple exchange rates or the unpredictable export policy for rice.
In addition, external reasons have aggravated the situation, like the
high oil price and the sanctions, which the
Only the regime and a few people who are able to secure rents from various protected businesses are currently benefiting.
The government’s focus on infrastructural development and agricultural production – still too often involving inadmissible labour practices – ignores largely the needs of the most vulnerable people and their economic and social development.
By almost all developmental standards, Burma/Myanmar trails behind its ASEAN fellows. One figure says it all: 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line or at subsistence level.
With the virtually insignificant public expenditure on health and education, families and local communities are carrying the burden, financially and otherwise. The widespread absence of the rule of law aggravates the situation.
I quote health and education as two areas of outstanding challenge, given their crucial role for social development. In addition, families in Burma/Myanmar place traditionally a very high value on education – today the vast majority cannot realise these aspirations, because of an inadequate basic education system.
If we, as international donors, want to assist the Burmese population in facing these immense development challenges, there is no choice but to engage in some form of policy discussions with the Government. Only through a dialogue on sector policies will donors jointly be able to influence decisions on policy which have a direct bearing on the long term situation of the population.
Engaging in a policy dialogue with the Government sounds ambitious and it is ambitious and controversial, but it is probably also our best opportunity to make an impact on the lives of ordinary Burmese.
It will not be easy and it is for sure not something which can be undertaken by one organisation alone. All donors inside Burma/Myanmar will need to ensure that we share information, coordinate our policies and work together in our dialogue with the government.
There are positive models for such a dialogue to build on. In the UN-led Expanded Theme Group on HIV/Aids, the government joined the debate with the UN, the international donors and the implementing partners.
Another model has been implemented in the Wa and Kokang areas where opium production should come to a final halt over the next months.
Whether these examples can be used in other areas of assistance, such as education or illegal logging, will much depend on the Myanmar Government’s readiness to engage in sectoral debates.
On the European Union’s side, there is a clear basis for engaging in a sectoral policy dialogue.
Our Common Position – in its Article 5 – stipulates, “the EU will
continue to engage with the government of
The European Commission would like to see other international agencies follow.
At the same time, we are also aware of the need to engage at community and local level.
There is some degree of breathing space, mostly for service-delivery groups, but much less for advocacy organisations.
Clearly, Burma/Myanmar is still far away from having a flourishing civil society, but these small signals of community level activities encourage us to look into opportunities to support them.
This is particularly valid for the ethnic groups and groups in remote and border areas where the precarious cessation of hostilities will not translate into genuine social development.
Supporting these vulnerable communities could therefore possibly contribute to national reconciliation.
Again, it will depend on the government whether the UN agencies and international NGOs can increase their operations in remote and conflict-affected regions of the country.
At this point I would like to take the opportunity to highlight the important role played by the international organisations.
We have seen an improved working environment for the UN agencies in recent years, and I can only commend the commitment and performance of every single UN agency and their staff working in Burma/Myanmar, which has led to this improvement.
In addition, Burma/Myanmar has had access to multilateral funding for the first time in decades, since the Global Fund approved funding a national programme in the fight against Aids, malaria and tuberculosis.
Nobody can question the usefulness of these programmes, when looking at the level of child mortality in Burma/Myanmar, caused by easily preventable diseases.
International organisations, the European Union, individual countries and NGOs are all cooperating to ensure their successful implementation. We hope that this excellent cooperation will continue.
This brings me back to the aim of the meeting today.
I would like to invite our meeting to reflect on a comprehensive approach to the considerable humanitarian and development challenges that face the people of Burma/Myanmar.
An approach that mirrors not only our political values, but also the needs of the country and its people - today and tomorrow.
The future of the people of Burma/Myanmar is our challenge.
In the past, one has often called approaches either “soft” or “tough”. Alternatively, we have heard about some sort of “flexible” or “constructive engagement”.
Today, I see no need to invent a new qualifier. Instead, I propose to ask simply a few questions when checking response strategies and foreign assistance:
· Does foreign assistance help address the fundamental needs of the people in the country, and is it likely to decrease their vulnerability?
· Does such assistance contribute to empowering people and communities, do we therefore contribute to lifting the isolation of the citizens, and can we – in some way and with much patience – help achieve national reconciliation?
· Finally, can we, through our assistance promote a process of gradual change?
These questions are not exhaustive, and I am looking for your views.
As the European Commission is in the process of drafting an assistance strategy, your constructive input is very welcome.
The needs are endless, and any responsible donor will have to make hard choices.
In this respect, I would like to refer to the Independent Report, which you have seen in the preparation for our meeting.
You will be hearing a more detailed presentation of the report by Prof. Taylor and Mr Pedersen in a short while.
There has been quite some discussion about this report; let me underline that the Commission requested and financed this report - but the report’s conclusions and recommendations are the authors’ own and should be seen as an input to an on-going debate.
This should, however, not be a purely academic debate.
Whether we adopt a needs-based or rights-based approach, the result is the same: we see those in need as being entitled to assistance. And our humanitarian values challenge us to help the people of Burma/Myanmar to enjoy a life in peace and prosperity, as well as the political, social and cultural rights, as stipulated in the respective international covenants.
I am looking forward to interesting presentations and inspiring discussion.
Thank you very much for your attention.