The EU is to cut back ties with Myanmar's military in response to the brutal security force crackdown on Muslim Rohingya areas of the Southeast Asian state.
European foreign ministers agreed on Monday to suspend invitations to top Myanmar commanders, including General Min Aung Hlaing, chief of the armed forces, who has in the past year visited several European countries and hosted a top EU military official.
The move reflects the difficulties facing international powers who have invested heavily in relationships with both Aung San Suu Kyi, de facto head of Myanmar’s landmark civilian-led government, and the country's still-powerful military.
While Ms Aung San Suu Kyi has borne the brunt of international outrage over the Rohingya crisis, human rights groups have called for ,uch tougher action against the armed forces of the country also known as Burma.
The group Burma Campaign UK condemned the EU response as inadequate. “Only to suspend invitations to some Burmese military officers to visit Europe is an absolutely pathetic response to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya,” said Mark Farmaner, its director. “This weak response will be interpreted by the head of the military, Min Aung Hlaing, as a green light to continue abuses.”
EU ministers meeting in Luxembourg criticised as “disproportionate” the security force action in Muslim areas of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine — an offensive the UN’s top human rights official has branded a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing”. The EU states will stop hosting senior Myanmar officers and also “review all practical defence co-operation”.
European countries would consider further measures if the situation in Rakhine did not improve, the ministers said — although they added that they also stood “ready to respond accordingly to positive developments”. The EU will maintain its embargo on sales to Myanmar of arms and also equipment that could be used for internal repression.
The statement balances EU countries’ alarm at the violence with their desire to continue to support a political transition touted in the west as a rare success story of the past decade. The Myanmar military stepped down formally in 2011 after almost half a century in power, in a handover that led to the formation of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government — albeit one over which the military still holds vast formal and behind-the-scenes powers.
Gen Min Aung Hlaing has in the past year visited Germany, Austria, Italy and Brussels — as well as India and Japan. In May, he hosted Gen Mikhail Kostarakos, chairman of the European Union Military Committee, in Myanmar.
The EU has also invested significant civilian aid in Myanmar, including police training that came under scrutiny after a violent clampdown on student protesters in 2015. Brussels is also in talks with Myanmar for an investment protection agreement for EU companies, which figure prominently in the influx of foreign businesses, notably in consumer industries.
Human rights groups are now assembling evidence of what they say are grave crimes by Myanmar security forces and armed ethnic Rakhine civilians against Rohingya, including extrajudicial killings, rape and killings of children.-Agencies