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EU suspends invitations to Burma’s generals

A picture showing the room during a meeting of European Union ministers at the EU Council in Brussels, Belgium, on 18 May 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

The European Union on Monday dealt a blow to what had been increasingly warm ties between the bloc and Burma’s military, saying it would suspend any invitations to the Tatmadaw’s top brass and “review all practical defence cooperation,” as well as maintaining an existing arms embargo.

The fraying of relations comes amid turmoil in Arakan State, where the EU Council described a “disproportionate use of force carried out by the security forces” against Rohingya Muslims as reason for its actions. The UN’s top human rights officials has described the counter-insurgency campaign there as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing,” an accusation that Burma’s national security adviser denied in a statement before the world body last month.

“The humanitarian and human rights situation in Rakhine [Arakan] State is extremely serious,” reads a resolution adopted by the EU Council on Monday. “There are deeply worrying reports of continuing arson and violence against people and serious human rights violations, including indiscriminate firing of weapons, the presence of landmines and sexual and gender-based violence. This is not acceptable and must end immediately.”

The statement was notable in that it referenced on three occasions the affected “Rohingya” population, a use of the controversial terminology that just last year the EU ambassador to Burma said would not be uttered, at the request of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

“When so many people are displaced so quickly this strongly indicates a deliberate action to expel a minority,” said the statement, calling on Burma’s government to ensure that Rohingya refugees — more than 500,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh in recent weeks — are allowed to return “in safety and dignity.”

The mass exodus was prompted by a heavy-handed security response to attacks by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants on several police outposts on 25 August.

One European country not bound by the fetters of EU membership, however, does not appear to be fazed by the violence in Arakan State: According to Burmese state media, Switzerland on Monday received a delegation that included the Tatmadaw’s No. 2 general, Soe Win.

The EU Council resolution comes just weeks after a tit-for-tat between the Tatmadaw and Britain, with the latter suspending a training programme for Burmese military officers and the former then declaring that it would “never again” consider sending its men to the UK for any sort of military-to-military engagement.

The rupture in relations threatens to dent what had been seen as growing prospects for investment in Burma from EU entities after the lifting of a raft of economic sanctions in 2013. Burma looks to be increasingly falling back on old economic partners such as China as the situation in Arakan State spirals: State media reported on Sunday that a rally was held in support of that country’s leader, Xi Jinping, as well as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, for their hands-off approach to the crisis in Arakan State.

The EU Council on Monday also called on Burma to accept the UN fact-finding mission that was established in March to probe alleged human rights violations in Arakan State, as well as Kachin and Shan states. The government has said it will not allow members of the team to enter Burma.

It was not all condemnation from Brussels, however.

“The EU and its Member States reconfirm their strong engagement underlined in its Strategy on Myanmar [June 2016] to support the country’s democratic transition, peace, national reconciliation and socio-economic development,” said Monday’s resolution.