April 12: With the review of the European Union’s common position on Burma [Myanmar] due later this month, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European commissioner for external relations, urgently needs lessons about one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world.

The junta in Rangoon is guilty of every possible human rights violation – from the detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and 1,200 political prisoners on to torture, systematic use of rape, forced labour and conscription of child soldiers, use of human minesweepers, the destruction of more than 3,000 villages, and the displacement of more than a million people.

Reports, photographs, and documentary films produced by serious and well-respected organisations would fill the Commissioner’s office from floor to ceiling.

Yet the foreign affairs commissioner’s response to a question by UK MEP Sajjad Karim to my recent report for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) on violations of religious freedom in Burma was a crass repetition of regime propaganda.

The Myanmar Council of Churches and the Catholic Bishops Conference had, she noted, distanced themselves from the report, Carrying the Cross: the military regime’s campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma. This showed, she said, that “accurate information…is difficult to obtain”.

Really? In Europe, not long ago, heavily watched religious organisations in Romania or Hungary kept their counsel. Ferrero-Waldner’s native Austria, and with it the Catholic church, was in living memory under Nazi rule. If she really doesn’t know, any diplomat could explain that statements like this in a dictatorship are issued under duress.

“Tensions that have arisen between Buddhists and Christians should be addressed in a wider search for national reconciliation,” the Commissioner opined. No. At a grassroots level they generally get along fine, and Carrying the Cross has been warmly endorsed by the predominantly Buddhist government-in-exile, by several Muslim groups, and by Christian-majority ethnic groups.

The problem is not mythical “tensions” but a regime which has perverted Buddhism for its own political ends and relentlessly persecutes and discriminates against Christians and Muslims.

The suggestion that accurate information about human rights violations is hard to come by is an insult to the courage and determination of those braving minefields and feral Burmese soldiery to document them.

Her remark is all the more egregious given the fiasco of 2005, when – on her watch – a Commission-organised Burma Day pointedly excluded the Burmese democratic opposition; they were told, without explanation, that they were “not invited”. Instead, lobbyists with links to the regime in Rangoon were given the floor and a half-empty room to address.

Nor can this approach be excused as Ferrero-Waldner eccentricity, a naive belief that she personally can charm the dictatorship. Confusion and lack of resolution pretty well are the common position.

So far a grand total of €7,000 of the assets of individuals in the Burmese regime has been frozen across all 27 member states. The visa ban is no more than a shopping ban, being regularly lifted for international summits. As for the EU list of Burmese state-owned enterprises in which investment is banned, it includes a pineapple juice factory and a tailor’s shop. There is no reference to a single company in the oil, gas, or timber sectors. It is time Ferrero-Waldner kept a decent silence or did the unthinkable: tell the truth, which is that any half-way serious policy is effectively blocked by French national interests.

Total Oil, France’s largest company, is the single largest corporate investor in Burma and provides the regime with some €340 million a year. In the words of Aung San Suu Kyi: “Total has become the main supporter of the Burmese military regime.” The other 26 member states care too little about human rights, or coherent EU foreign policy, to stand up to them. For its part, the UK has done nothing about large-scale investment through dependent territories such as Bermuda.

But even without civil and political courage there are ways of strengthening the EU common position. A start would be to extend the asset freeze to the regime’s assets, not just those of individuals. Clear support for a UN Security Council resolution on Burma and the engagement of the UN Secretary-General would help too. So would increased funding for democracy and civil society. And what about calling for meaningful tripartite dialogue between the regime, the ethnic minorities, and the opposition National League for Democracy – winners of the last free elections?
A failure to strengthen the common position is to send a clear message to the regime that it can continue its Mugabe-like oppression of its own population with impunity.

I invite the commissioner to join me on my next visit to the landmined fields, burned-down churches, and terrified villagers of Karen State. They could enlighten her sur place about the “tensions that have arisen”.

Benedict Rogers is the author of A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen People (2004, Monarch).