Mizzima (Brussels) – Robert Goebbels, a member of the European Parliament (EP) from Luxembourg, received Mizzima at his office in Brussels. The Socialist member of the EP since 1999 is vice-chairman of the delegation for relations with the countries of Southeast Asia and Asean and has been minister of economic affairs, transport and public works and energy for Luxembourg. He is a member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group within the EP, the second-largest bloc in the parliament.
Since the early 1990s, the European Union (EU) has maintained a set of sanctions on Burma that, given the lack of progress on human rights and democracy in the country, has been strengthened over time. These restrictions comprise a travel ban on junta leaders, members of the judiciary and figures associated with the state-controlled economy (and in most of the cases, their close relatives); an assets freeze; and a ban on the export of regime-linked entities working in the industries of woods, metals, construction material, information technology and the media.
Do the existing EU sanctions on Burma bear any influence on the Burmese military rulers?
I am personally against any policies based on sanctions; history has shown that they never work. The imposition of restrictions only serves the EU to give itself a good conscience. First of all, restrictions rarely hit the ruling elites. Cuba, Iraq and now Iran have evidenced how in the end, this type of embargoes only disrupts ordinary people. Furthermore, I seriously doubt that sanctions could ever prove conductive to bring about change in any way.
How can the EU streamline its current range of sanctions if it is to promote human rights and democracy in Burma?
The Burmese regime does not look at the approval of the West. Besides, the junta still makes business with a number of EU companies [the EU economic sanctions on Burma do not apply to companies operating in the country prior to the ban]. On the top of this, the junta’s dealings with a number of mighty economic allies [China, Russia, India, for example] secure the establishment with much-needed foreign investment. In its endeavour to persuade the military regime to pave the way for opening up, the EU would be better advice if it engages in dialogue with the Burmese rulers.
They are certain policy discrepancies between the EP and the European Commission (EC) – the EU’s executive body – as the latter favours further dialogue with the junta. What do you make of this?
That is true. In the EP, there are a number of members who monopolise this debate, and I am afraid that these very people tend to be wrong. Some members of the EP subcommittee on human rights keep pursuing a misguided strategy on Burma – one that has largely failed in its aim to enhance the junta’s respect for its citizen’s fundamental freedoms. Consequently, I back the EC approach of generating new channels of dialogue. There are some times when we make the mistake to act in a paternalistic fashion, dictating to others what they should do.
Since last year, the EC has declined to finance aid for Burmese refugees living along the Thai-Burmese border. What could possibly be the EC’s reasons to stop such funding?
I am not informed about the details of the EC’s motives. I suspect that most of these funds go to NGOs. Despite that, the non-profit sector plays a very constructive role in the field; some NGOs also finance themselves out of the resources provided by the EU. The EC may know better than the EP committees concerned what the situation on the ground is. This would have probably prompted its decision.
Does the Burmese issue interfere with relations between the EU and Asean?
The situation in Burma is always present on EU-Asean talks. Nonetheless, we should bear in mind that the ties between both supranational entities are essentially of an economic nature. In such a framework, the economic actors do not pay much attention to the human rights situation in Burma – otherwise, there would not be so many companies operating in the country.
Are you satisfied with the Asean method of dialogue without meddling in members’ domestic affairs?
Obviously, Asean could have a larger influence on the junta’s policy-making. Yet, it should not be forgotten that various Asean member states have themselves poor records on human rights, which partially explains why the organisation is not very vigorous in challenging the junta. Nevertheless, the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [formed last year] embodies a platform that should be better brought into play when dealing with the Burmese leadership.
Recently, the EP encouraged the governments of China, India and Russia “to stop supplying the Burmese regime with weaponry and other strategic resources”. However, China has just sold 50 jet fighters to Naypyidaw. In the end, China, Russia, India and others are reluctant to stop their arms sales and energy deals with the regime. Could the EU possibly take any initiative to warn these states of Brussels’ annoyance?
I would focus my answer on China, as I do not think that the EU has at its disposal much leverage against Beijing. One can say that China has not friends, only interests. In addition, we should not forget that many EU member states run vast investments in China; thousands of joint-ventures produce goods in China for the EU market. A number of European economies need China to expand, and the situation in Burma is unlikely to get in its way.
If it was for you to say what the Burmese military should first do to boost the credibility of the forthcoming elections, what would be your advice?
If the junta were really aiming to hold credible elections, the regime should invite foreign observers to monitor the whole process. Following the polls, I am confident that the newly established parliament will not be satisfied with its given powers. At some point, the parliament will contest its original rubber-stamp role. I am positive that the new assembly will gradually challenge the military.