Amnesty for Reuters reporters seen easing EU trade tensions

The release of two Reuters reporters and some 20 other political prisoners may help ease tensions with the EU but the government will need to do more to maintain Myanmar’s trade privileges, according to business leaders in Yangon.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, jailed for more than 500 days, were freed on May 7 following a presidential amnesty for 6,520 prisoners. President U Win Myint has pardoned thousands more prisoners in mass amnesties since Thingyan.

Members of the foreign business community welcomed the releases but some said they doubted the partial amnesty would end the EU’s threat to scrap trade preferences over Myanmar’s human rights record.

Vicky Bowman, director of Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, said the amnesty “removes one high-profile issue that was emblematic of the EU’s concern about deterioration in freedom of expression and the media, so it is certainly a welcome step”.

But she doubted it would be enough in itself to lead the EU to conclude that the overall human rights situation was improving — the key consideration in deciding whether to remove Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) tariff preferences.

Ms Bowman noted other main issues of concern for the EU, such as the human rights situation in Rakhine and other conflict areas, workers rights, and other aspects of freedom of expression.

“The welcome release of the Reuters journalists seems to be a decision by the government not to shoot themselves in the foot in terms of their worsening image abroad,” said Tony Picon, director of Hong Kong-based New Asia Property Consultants and former chair of British Chamber of Commerce Myanmar. The move will “certainly send better signals” to international investors but “the elephant in the room of northern Rakhine still remains.”

Filip Lauwerysen, European Chamber of Commerce Myanmar executive director, said the amnesty was a positive development but Myanmar needed to tackle a wide range of issues.

“While the release sends a strong signal in the right direction, I am sceptical if this alone is sufficient to convince the EU to drop the investigation,” he said, noting the EU’s examination of labour rights and human rights in conflict areas.

“That said, media freedom is high on Brussel’s agenda and resolving the Reuters case will create some room for engagement instead of sowing further division between the two parties.”

Mr Picon also emphasised that trade tensions revolved around concerns in conflict areas as well as labour rights, adding that “the Reuters case could help on the margins.”

“Overall business sentiment seems to be more optimistic in 2019 compared to a dismal 2018 even before the release, perhaps with a feeling that the overall political situation may have bottomed out,” he observed. But this attitude relates more to foreign investors already operating in the country.

Earlier this year European Commissioner Cecilia Malmström indicated that Brussels needed to see “clear progress” on implementation of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine as well as media freedom.

A EU spokesperson in Myanmar welcomed the release of political prisoners, including the two Reuters reporters, but declined to comment on how the amnesty might affect the EU’s pending decision to withdraw trade privileges.

“We will continue to stand up for media freedom and pluralism as essential pillars of democracy around the world, and will continue to work with the Myanmar authorities in support of democracy in the country,” the spokesperson said.

Brussels is reviewing Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade arrangement based on whether human rights have improved or deteriorated in the period that trade privileges have been in force. The EU is at the stage of “enhanced monitoring”, during which the bloc will decide whether to launch the process of withdrawing trade privileges it has offered Myanmar.

GSP regulations stipulate that preferential treatment may be withdrawn if Myanmar is found to have “serious and systematic violation of principles” laid down in international conventions on human and labour rights.

Youth activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi said the government still lacked the political will to resolve the EU’s wide range of concerns, notably peace talks, freedom of expression and Rakhine.

“Take the protest law as an example. They [Myanmar authorities] try to criminalise peaceful protesters. This kind of behaviour shows that the current government does not want improvement in the freedom of expression,” she said.

There are still 23 political prisoners who have been convicted, nearly 100 in jail awaiting trial and more who are outside prison and facing trial, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Ma Thinzar herself was among more than a dozen activists arrested during a protest last year calling for an end to the conflict in Kachin.

The EU reinstated GSP for Myanmar in 2013 with the aim of providing political, economic and social support for its democratic transition. As a “least developed country”, Myanmar has since enjoyed tariff-free access to the bloc’s single market under the EBA arrangements. An estimated 520,000 workers are directly employed in the garment industry. Europe’s market share is expected to reach 60pc this year.

The IMF warned last month that any withdrawal of trade preferences could reduce concessional donor financing and investment leading to lower growth.

Source: Myanmar Times

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