Myanmar: SPDC On The External Front - Winning Some And Losing A Bit

2000

[Name and address withheld. Ed.]

At first glance, Myanmar’s detractors appear to have made some recent significant advances against the intransigent State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). In May the United States President extended the 1997 ban on new US investments in Myanmar. A week later, some 150 senior government and military officials from Myanmar were listed for denial of visas by European Union (EU) member states. Then, on 14 June, the International Labor Conference (ILC) imposed sanctions on Myanmar for not complying with the International Labor Organization (ILO) convention against forced labour practices. In late June, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its World Health Report 2000, which placed Myanmar at the next-to-bottom rung in the overall ranking of health services in the world. The World Bank had harshly criticised the socio-economic failings of the government in December 1999. Furthermore, the European Commission announced on 7 July that it would extend the EU-ASEAN cooperation accord to Cambodia and Laos, but not ‘at present’ to Myanmar.

However, if one studies these events closely, they are not as damaging to the SPDC as they seem. The US sanction is but a continuation of punitive measures that have hardly impacted on foreign investment as the major investors in Myanmar have been from Asia. The EU visa ban has already been in place for some time on a generic basis. The ILC resolution was a ‘watered down’ version, giving the SPDC a grace period until end November 2000, and even if it fails to comply the ILO has no authority to expel Myanmar from the organization. It could only shame the state by putting the issue on the agenda of subsequent fora. Such acts would have very little impact on the SPDC which is a ‘Teflon’ regime as far as criticism and ridicule are concerned. The methodology and conclusions of the WHO report were disputed by the government and by some neutral observers. As for the exclusion of Myanmar from the EU accord, it was overshadowed by the EU’s agreement to Myanmar’s attending the forthcoming ASEAN-EU ministerial meeting as ‘part of ASEAN’, something the EU had withheld since 1997.

In spite of these criticisms, the SPDC will stick to its denial tactics and will utilize them to argue domestically that the West is waging a dirty-tricks campaign against Myanmar with the collusion of multilateral institutions. Helped by strict censorship, the junta’s message that the nation’s honour has been tainted and the dignity of the people has been denigrated may resonate with an under-informed public.

On the other hand, the junta managed to score some points in the propaganda war and reaped some tangible benefits as well. The US Supreme Court on 19 June upheld an appeal, thereby allowing state contracts to US companies linked to Myanmar. The business lobbies in the US, EU and Japan were jubilant and the junta applauded the decision. Japanese officials and business leaders have been visiting Yangon in large numbers, showing their independence of the US. Japan has recently shown interest in expanding humanitarian aid to Myanmar as part of the Mekong regional development. China and Myanmar recently exchanged high-level official visits on the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two states, and agreed on further expanding cooperation.

The ‘engagement’ approach appears to be gaining ground among some members of the EU who were ambivalent towards Myanmar. The foreign minister of France, who assumed the EU presidency in July, has even alluded to the separation of ‘sensitive’ issues such as human rights and democracy from those of economic, political, and security cooperation, between the EU and ASEAN as a group.

WATCHPOINT: Could it be that for once the SPDC is scoring higher, internally as well as externally, than its opponents?

 

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