The European Union agreed Monday to lift all economic sanctions on Burma despite a new Human Rights Watch report accusing Burmese authorities of complicity in a “campaign of ethnic cleansing” against the minority Rohingya Muslim community.
EU foreign ministers announced the scrapping of the sanctions at a meeting in Luxembourg, hailing a “new chapter” in relations between Europe and the once-pariah state a year after suspending sanctions in reward for political reforms under Burmese President Thein Sein.
"In response to the changes that have taken place and in the expectation that they will continue, the council [of the European Union] has decided to lift all sanctions with the exception of the embargo on arms," a statement after the meeting said.
New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch called the rollback “premature,” saying Burma had not yet met benchmarks for the lifting of sanctions the EU had outlined last year, including improved treatment of ethnic Rohingya Muslims.
In a report released earlier on Monday and immediately rejected by Burmese officials, HRW said the authorities and members of Rakhine Buddhist communities had committed “crimes against humanity” during communal violence in western Burma’s Rakhine state in June and October last year.
Citing evidence of mass graves and forced displacement affecting tens of thousands, the report said Burmese officials, community leaders, and Buddhist monks had organized and encouraged Rakhines “backed by state security forces” to conduct coordinated attacks on homes of Rohingyas.
HRW’s Asia director Phil Robertson called on President Thien Sein’s administration to hold perpetrators accountable.
“We found all the security forces were involved in abuses against the Rohingya, including the Nasaka, the Tatmadaw, and police,” he told RFA’s Burmese Service, using the Burmese names for the country’s border guard force and the military.
Ye Htut, a spokesman for President Thein Sein’s office, rejected HRW’s report as “one-sided” in a post on his Facebook page on Monday, saying that the Burmese government was conducting its own inquiry into last year’s violence in Rakhine.
Rakhine State spokesman Win Myaing rejected claims that authorities had stood by and watched the violence.
“HRW’s accusations in their report are not true,” he told RFA, questioning the reliability of the sources of the report.
“If they wrote this report by listening to ... only Muslim refugees … it is baseless,” he said.
He added that in the first days after riots broke out in June and October, there were too few security personnel to contain the violence until reinforcements were sent in.
‘Significant challenges’ remaining
The EU foreign ministers’ statement warned that tensions regarding the Rohingya and other issues, including the ongoing ethnic conflict in Kachin state, were “significant challenges” that Burma still has to address despite the removal of sanctions.
The EU’s move to lift the sanctions gives more certainty to European firms contemplating investments in one of the least developed markets in Asia, and could put pressure on the United States to do the same.
On April 23 last year, the ministers had agreed to a one-year suspension of measures targeting almost 500 individuals and more than 800 firms.
In May last year, the U.S. suspended sanctions and allowed U.S. companies to invest through a general license. Some American executives have urged Washington to go further and lift sanctions entirely.
Reported by Win Naing for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.