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Transparency, Peace and the European Union in Myanmar

Donors saying one thing, and their government doing another, is always a bad look.

A network of civil society organisations in Myanmar released a statement this week criticising the European Union’s attempts to negotiate an Investment Protection Agreement, or IPA, with the Myanmar government.

At one level, this exposed the frustration felt by many civil society organisations about the way donors conduct consultation. The European Commission were inviting civil society leaders to come to a debriefing about the IPA even though their many concerns from previous meetings had seemingly not been taken on board. Consultation surely cannot be a tick-the-box event so donors can make claims to having ‘civil society support’.

But what makes this such a bad look for the EU in Myanmar is that they are on one hand talking about ‘transparency’, but then on the other hand the EU is doing something quite different.

Transparency is a crucial part of the European Commission’s programs in Myanmar to build ‘good governance’. Part of a well-functioning democracy is that government budgets and processes are made public so that citizens can scrutinise policy making and feel ownership of the process.

Yet in the statement this week by Myanmar civil society leaders, they are critical of the European Union’s lack of transparency about the negotiations over the Investment Protection Agreement.

It is a legitimate question to ask why the EU’s negotiations and draft documents have been so secretive. It is a crucial moment for Myanmar’s peace and democracy so why would the EU want to engage in closed door negotiations about investment – investment that will have potential benefits but also risks for the country? How can the European Commission on one hand talk about ‘good governance’ and ‘transparency’ when the EU in Myanmar are so cautious about making their own investment negotiations more public?

The lesson here is that aid agencies are not disconnected from the other actions of their governments. For the European Union in Myanmar to be supporting good governance reforms and peace negotiations is important. But if the wider actions of the European Union – and the way they negotiate trade or investment agreements – cut against those goals, then the credibility of these aid programs is seriously undermined.

All international donors and agencies of course have their own agendas when they work in, or invest in, Myanmar. But the double standards of the European Union are particularly striking. If transparency is actually important to the European Union in Myanmar, then they should be responsive to civil society requests to be more open about EU investment agreements in Myanmar.

Saying one thing and doing another is always a bad look. Let’s hope the European Union understand that they are judged not only on what they say, but on what they do.

Tamas Wells is editor of the PK Forum

European Union in Myanmar

pic: VOA

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