Markus Löning, the Federal Government Human Rights Commissioner, has called the elections in Myanmar a “definite leap forwards” in comparison to 2010. He has urged the EU to recognize the progress made and switch from a policy of sanctions to one of support. This interview was broadcast on the Deutschlandfunk radio station on 2 April 2012.
For Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, yesterday was a historic moment. For the first time, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was permitted to stand for election again. She is revered almost as a saint in her native country, with people expecting her to bring not only democracy but also economic progress. This may have been only a little by‑election, but it is hugely symbolic politically.
An important question now is whether the European Union will continue loosening the sanctions regime it has imposed on Myanmar. I will be talking today about that, and more besides, with Markus Löning, who is the Federal Government Human Rights Commissioner and currently in the capital city, Rangoon. Good morning, Mr Löning.
Good morning, Mr Meurer.
Pictures have been reaching Germanyof euphorically happy people cheering and celebrating Aung San Suu Kyi. What impression have you been getting of the mood in the country and the capital city itself?
I have been travelling around the country for the last week, and for the election yesterday I was here in Rangoon. I was at the NLD headquarters last night – that’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s party – so I was able to be part of those celebrations. There was a big screen projecting the results, and the crowd in the streets was delighted, breaking out into waves of cheering, as each result came in – as another constituency and another and another went to the NLD. It was indescribable: the sheer joy all over the streets, people wearing red t‑shirts, head-bands, waving flags, and the mood in front of the police headquarters there was just fantastic. And later on we saw a long cavalcade of cars making its way through the city. There are pickup trucks everywhere here, and 10, 20 people sat in the back of them waving flags, cheering; the mood here was really euphoric, just great. It was very peaceful, very relaxed and not at all aggressive. Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters were just absolutely delighted last night.
You spent the week observing whether the elections were free and fair and everything was as it should be. What was your impression – was this a free election?
Well, we will of course only be able to say that for sure in two or three days’ time, as there were complaints here and there. In one place, for example, there was allegedly wax on some ballot papers, and elsewhere there was some obstacle at some point, and there have been various other reports. I think each case needs to be investigated individually. There is a central electoral commission where people can lodge complaints, and it seems that a number of people have already done so. That is a good sign too. People are going to the electoral commission and reporting any problems they witnessed. But everyone I have spoken to, in the course of the campaign and during the voting yesterday as well – whether they were international observers, or civil rights activists from Myanmar themselves, or candidates – everyone said that the whole campaign was altogether very free. The candidates were able to go out to the people, and to hold events. We saw that for ourselves yesterday with the NLD supporters’ cavalcade. A large assembly of 300 people gathered, a speech was made, flags were waved, big posters were hung up – and we saw a similar situation in the minority region that we visited in the mountains. There too, the NLD candidate told me she was able to campaign without hindrance. All in all, as far as we can assess it at this stage, that really is a definite leap forwards compared to the 2010 elections. And I think the most important thing is the high turnout: as one of the local observers, a civil rights activist, said to me, the fact that 80 percent or maybe even more came out to vote demonstrates how confident people were that the election would be run better this time. I can say that my impression right now of the way things were done is a very good one.
Mr Löning, the European Union loosened a number of sanctions early this year, so that certain members of the Government in Myanmarare now once more allowed to enter the EU. Will you be recommending the lifting of more sanctions?
I believe the European Union now has a decision to make. It needs to decide whether to drag its feet or to acknowledge that what we always demanded from the Burmese was that they release political prisoners, establish a ceasefire with the minorities and run these by‑elections properly. I believe the European Union should now have the gumption to say okay, those expectations may not have been met 100 percent, but what has been done already goes a very long way. And other reforms have been undertaken as well. Internet censorship has been lifted, and freedom of assembly has been improved; people are now free to gather together. You can sense all around the country that people are simply less fearful, and that’s the crucial thing. I believe it is important for the European Union to now change track from what has been, shall we say, a policy of threats and punishment, a sanctions regime, and go over to a policy of encouragement, of support. We need to be asking ourselves what we can do to help improve democracy and human rights here. My view is that we can do that better through positive measures than the threat of sanctions.
Which sanctions do you think should be lifted then, or do you advocate lifting all of them?
We need to look at everything in detail. I think the most important thing is that a visible, courageous, clear step is taken. What counts is the psychological effect. As I see it, we need to send a message to Myanmar that the steps they have taken, and the steps which they will hopefully continue taking, have brought them closer to the international community. We need to signal our support for them in the reforms that still lie ahead. After all, it’s not as if there were nothing left to be done, but they have our positive support for that work, and we should manage our sanctions in such a way that demonstrates our readiness to collaborate once more with Myanmar, and to engage in development policy again. Right now, the sanctions are preventing us from doing that – which is completely nonsensical. We can’t support democracy because of our own sanctions. What we do needs to send a clear political and psychological message to signal our recognition of the progress made and our willingness to provide support from now on.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has won the by‑elections in Myanmar. My thanks to you, Markus Löning. The Federal Government Human Rights Commissioner was speaking to us by telephone from Rangoon. Thank you, Mr Löning, and goodbye.
This interview was conducted by Friedbert Meurer and is reproduced here by kind permission of Deutschlandfunk.