The European Commission raises eyebrows by commissioning two Burma experts, known for their military regime sympathy, to write a report for a Brussels meeting.
European officials had to do a lot of not-so-nifty diplomatic footwork to explain a meeting in Brussels called “Burma Day 2005 (page 15).” It was an exercise in damage control in the face of a chorus of complaints by pro-democracy and human rights activists with other critics, who effectively thought it was more a Day of Shame.
The meeting centered on a European Commission-commissioned report authored by Robert Taylor and Morten Pedersen, dubbed by the critics as Burmese regime apologists. The affair was supposed to dwell on humanitarian aid to Burma which, said EU officials, was why Taylor and Pedersen had been chosen to write the report, and why only in-the-field aid experts had been invited. Nonsense, retorted the uninvited critics: Taylor and
Pedersen could in no way be described as aid experts, and nor could some of the other guests.
True, the lengthy report addressed the issue of aid only in passing as it called on the EU to resume high-level bilateral visits, call the country by the regime’s name Myanmar, rather than Burma, and ease sanctions. The EU’s sanctions mainly ban visas for Rangoon officials, freeze their assets, block arms sales to Burma and limit investment. The dubious rationale posed by the Taylor-Pedersen report for all this was basically that military rule in Burma is a fact of life, and all roads lead to the junta. As the report summed up, the military “would remain in power into
the indefinite future.”
European officials at the meeting rejected charges that the EU was softening its stance towards Burma, and insisted sanctions would remain. The report, they said, didn’t reflect EU policy so why, one wonders, was it commissioned (probably at substantial expense) in the first place, and exactly by whom? That is a question apparently being asked in some EU-member country capitals, where there is a move to find out just who.
“It was a poor report, and a mistake to write it,” huffed one senior European diplomat to The Irrawaddy. He claimed most EU countries didn’t agree with it, or the way the meeting was conducted, and would get to the bottom of it. “We will find out who was responsible, and there will be repercussions.”
A comforting thought, indeed. As outspoken British Member of the European Parliament Glenys Kinnock was reported to have said at the time: “I am dismayed that a small and unrepresentative band of anti-sanctions lobbyists have been given reign” at the meeting. The two members of that band who drew up the report even went so far as to conclude that the main opposition National League for Democracy had been marginalized i.e. either locked up (like party leader Aung San Su Kyi), neutralized or in exile.
When I wrote a similarly critical commentary in The Irrawaddy’s online service, I was taken to task in a letter (page 6) by one of the distinguished Burma experts invited to the meeting: former British ambassador to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos Derek Tonkin. His last known official connection with Burma was as a Burma desk officer at the Foreign Office from 1963-66. He accused me and my ilk of using “myths” and “invective” to buoy our case against the Rangoon regime, compared with his use of “facts” and “balanced assessment”.
One such “fact”, also adopted by other anti-sanctions lobbyists at the meeting, was used to put me right after I wrote that the military rulers decided only after losing the 1990 general election that the poll was to elect people to draft a new constitution, not form a government. Silly me.
As Tonkin helpfully pointed out, the regime had stated quite clearly before the election that those elected would be responsible for writing a new charter.
Of course they would. But only after forming a government. Burma’s leader at the time, Gen Saw Maung, was quoted in January, 1990 just four months before the election as saying: “As soon as the election is held, form a government. That is our responsibility. But the actual work of forming a legal government after the election is not the duty of the Tatmadaw [armed forces]. We are saying it very clearly and candidly right now.” After
winning 82 percent of the seats, the opposition NLD was decimated by the military, which arrested 65 of the elected, newly labeled “constitution drafters” by year’s end, with about a dozen others fleeing the country in fear.
But maybe, as report co-author Taylor said in an April 2 letter, we should not resort to “invective” curiously, the same word used by Tonkin. In his letter to the EC’s External Relations Commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Taylor responded to an earlier letter to her by big trade union umbrella groups the ICFTU, the ETUC and the WFL complaining about the report. He said he saw “no advantage in using invective in place of
Taylor would probably have been happier with Ross Dunkley’s front-page story in his newspaper, in which he described the report as “powerful and compelling.” Dunkley is editor-in-chief of that well-known regime exponent, The Myanmar Times.