Government tells the EU that the country will turn to China if Europe decides to punish Myanmar for persecuting the Rohingya.
For the past year, the United Nations has accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing, claiming that the country’s security forces have systematically persecuted a small Muslim minority, the Rohingya.
But now, the Myanmar government warns the EU against punishing Myanmar by imposing sanctions.
“On behalf of the entire government, I want to make an appeal to the European Union. Do not isolate us again,” said Aung Hla Tun, Myanmar’s deputy minister for information.
He explains that new sanctions will force his country to turn its back on the West and look to China instead.
“We would not have a choice. We cannot stand alone,” said Aung Hla Tun, adding that an alliance with China would “create many problems.”
“It would have a huge influence on everything. Foreign policy. Trade. Cultural affairs – and our transition to democracy. That’s what worries me. We would be forced to go back to square one. I hope that this will not happen,” he said.
China has already invested billions of dollars in Myanmar, and the Chinese are ready to pour more money into the country. For the last couple of years, the Myanmar government has sought closer ties to Europe and the US in order to counterbalance China’s dominance. However, this balancing act is now becoming much more difficult because of the security forces’ persecution of the Rohingya.
In December, the US administration decided to freeze all assets belonging to the Myanmar general who until recently was in charge of the military’s operations against the Rohingya in the Rakhine state in the western part of the country. Several prominent American lawmakers are arguing that the US should impose more wide-reaching sanctions.
Last month, the EU’s foreign ministers followed suit, and they are now preparing sanctions targeting Myanmar generals to prevent them from travelling to Europe and depositing money in European banks. At the same time, the EU’s foreign ministers have made it clear that they are ready to impose more sanctions if the situation deteriorates.
This means that Myanmar is at a risk of being stigmatized once again by the international community. Until the most recent elections in 2015, the country was ruled by an oppressive military junta and considered a pariah state.
According to deputy information minister Aung Hla Tun, the Myanmar government is particularly alarmed by the thought of losing the special access to European markets that it got as a reward for the democratization process that it initiated around the time of the elections in 2015.
“I’m very concerned,” he said, accusing the EU of surrendering to pressure from Muslim countries and politicians that sympathize with the Rohingya.
Aung Hla Tun was appointed to the post of deputy information minister and charged with the task of defending Myanmar against the international media. Politiken is among the first Western media to interview him at his office in Myanmar’s capital city, Naypyidaw.
Denmark’s foreign minister, Anders Samuelsen, dismisses Aung Hla Tun’s criticism as “absurd” and points to the fact that up to 700,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh and that the UN and other organizations have described abuses committed by Myanmar’s military.
In addition, Mr. Samuelsen refuses to recognize “the logic” behind Myanmar’s threat to turn to China.
“As Myanmar’s neighbour, China already has considerable influence and interests in the country. That’s a basic condition. But that does not mean that we in the European Union will not put our foot down in the face of abuses such as those committed in Rakhine,” the Danish foreign minister wrote in an e-mail to Politiken.
In Myanmar, Aung Hla Tun denies the accusations of persecution.
“I do not claim that we are perfect. But in most cases we are innocent. We have been misinterpreted,” he said, claiming that the Rohingya are pulling a huge PR stunt on the world in order to gain protection from the UN.