The EU is active in Southeast Asia to enhance its profile as a major ASEAN partner. But in order to be perceived as a full-fledged partner, the EU has to convince ASEAN countries of its changing style and tone. This is a difficult endeavour since the ‘Burmese experience’ has produced much unease and a lasting irritation on the ASEAN side.
After 20 years of sanctions escalation and clumsy declarations on Burma/Myanmar, the EU diplomacy has produced mixed results: on the one hand, it has enhanced its credentials as a global promoter of democracy and human rights, but on the other hand, it has done so in such a controversial way that its credibility and influence have been challenged. Vis-à-vis both ASEAN and Myanmar, it has produced widespread doubt on the EU capacity to become an actor of political influence in Southeast Asia, a doubt that is often underestimated by European circles.
The recent evolution, both from regional and inter-regional angles, offers the EU a window of opportunity for new policy orientations as a path to regain legitimacy in Southeast Asia.
In October1998, for instance, London proceeded with a brainstorming meeting (the Chilston Park meeting) to break the political deadlock and introduce a new approach for Myanmar. But the junta rejected this initiative, frustrated by the British intention to consult only with Aung San Suu Kyi.
Lee Jones, ‘ASEAN’s albatross: ASEAN’s Burma policy, from constructive engagement to critical disengagement’, Asian Security, Vol. 4, No. 3 (2008), pp. 271–293.
In2008, indeed, the EU’s total donation of €39 million proved to be the largest contribution (60 per cent) to the disaster relief effort within the international community; cf. European Commission, ‘Aid in action’ (April 2009).
Fan Hongwei, ‘ASEAN’s “constructive engagement” policy towards Myanmar’, China International Studies, Vol. 33 (March/April 2012), p. 56. During my own interviews in Southeast Asia, some basic questions were put on the table: are confrontation and ultimatums the most appropriate ways to defend values? Are sanctions the best tool to promote a political vision and explore compromise?
Until April2012, the EU did not have any diplomatic presence in Myanmar. It only had an ECHO (European Commission Humanitarian Office) antenna office, opened in December 2005 after two years of negotiations and many delays. With the EU delegation in Thailand overseeing relations with Myanmar, it means the EU as an institution relied heavily on second-hand information and had no contact with local actors.
During his visit in February2012, A. Piebalgs announced a €150 million aid package for the next two years, of which €100 million would be allocated to multi-donor trust funds for 2012. This package nearly doubled that which had been in place since 1996 (€174 million). A new substantial aid package is under discussion.
K. Mahbubani, ‘Can the Europeans learn the lessons from ASEAN?’, Europe’s World(22 May 2012); available at: http://www.mahbubani.net/articles%20by%20dean/can-the-eu-learn-lessons-from-asean.pdf.