From Pariah Image to Partner and Back Again: The EU’s Complicated Relationship with Myanmar

Published date01 December 2020
Date01 December 2020
Subject MatterResearch Article
AIA_7.3.indb Research Article
From Pariah Image to
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
Partner and Back Again:
7(3) 349 –369, 2020
The Author(s) 2020
The EU’s Complicated
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Relationship with
DOI: 10.1177/2347797020962703
Felix Heiduk1
To make sense of the EU’s rocky relationship with Myanmar, we need to
consider how Myanmar’s political leadership is imagined in Europe. For decades,
this image was bifurcated: on the one hand a military junta with its disdain for
democracy and human rights. On the other hand, Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), ‘our’
saint-like Burmese ‘Nelson Mandela’, detained but still fighting for democracy
and human rights. As a result, Brussels implemented a tough sanction regime
and essentially assigned Myanmar pariah status. When Suu Kyi re-joined the
formal political process in 2012 and won the 2015 elections, Myanmar rapidly
transitioned from pariah to partner. Fast forward to 2017 and relations between
the EU and Myanmar had soured again because of the Rohingya crisis and Suu
Kyi’s ‘deafening silence’ on the issue. The article argues that to understand this
rollercoaster ride of EU–Myanmar relations one must turn to the imagery of
Suu Kyi in Europe. The strong cognitive dissonances, created by the widening
gap between the imagined ‘saint’ ASSK and the realpolitik ‘sinner’, have impacted
on the EU’s relations with Myanmar and can help us make sense of the recent
turbulences in the relationship.
Myanmar, common foreign and security policy (CFSP), democratisation, image
theory, cognitive dissonance
1 German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin, Germany.
Corresponding author:
Felix Heiduk, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Ludwigkirchplatz 3-4, 10719
Berlin, Germany.

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 7(3)
The trajectory of Myanmar’s relations with the European Union (EU) and its
member states over the last decade resembles a rollercoaster ride. From 1988 until
the early 2010s, relations remained at an all-time low. Ever since the 1960s, a
military junta ruled Myanmar. In response to the brutal crackdown of the junta on
student protesters in 1988, and the international outcry that followed it, the EU
implemented a comprehensive political and economic sanctions regime and
essentially broke off relations with Myanmar. Until 2012, the EU and its member
states acted as one of the country’s most vocal critics on the international stage.
Myanmar was the first and, until the EU implemented sanctions against Belarus
in 2006, only country that faced concerted political and economic sanctions at
such a large scale. It was also one of the few countries for which regime change
was deemed a key foreign policy priority. Even the EU’s relations with ASEAN
became for quite some time essentially hijacked by quarrels between the two
regional organisations over how to deal best with Myanmar’s authoritarian
military regime. Thus, it seems safe to argue that the Southeast Asian nation had
been designated (unofficial) pariah nation-status for decades.
At the same time, the EU and its member states were among the most prominent
and allegiant supporters of the oppositional National League of Democracy
(NLD) led by Aung Sang Suu Kyi. For decades, Suu Kyi and the NLD enjoyed
almost unequivocal support in Europe and were largely regarded as the democratic,
non-violent opposition to a ruthless, brutal military dictatorship. Hence the image
most people in Europe, especially at elite level, held of Myanmar was essentially
bifurcated. On one hand, the ruling junta with its open disdain for human rights;
exploitative, oppressive, and totalitarian in its grip on power. On the other hand,
Suu Kyi and the NLD as icons of democracy and human rights; imprisoned,
exiled, powerless but still fighting an uphill battle against the military junta.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, European policymakers immediately lauded Myanmar’s
democratic opening. Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2012 and the fact that
the NLD was allowed to compete in elections was deemed by then president of
the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, as ‘historic’ and ‘a turning point in
Myanmar’s history, marking the departure from autocracy to the path of
democracy’ (European Parliament, 2012). In response to Myanmar’s gradual
opening, the EU essentially conducted a foreign policy U-turn: all sanctions were
lifted, diplomatic relations were quickly reinstated, and Myanmar effectively
transitioned from pariah to partner in the course of barely six months. The NLD’s
massive electoral victory in 2015 cemented the newfound image of Myanmar as
a new beacon of hope and close partner, led by a charismatic leader with a stern
commitment to democracy and human rights.
Fast forward to 2017 and relations between the EU and Myanmar had soured
again. In the wake of the escalation of the long-standing conflict in Rakhine state
in the southwestern part of Myanmar, state security forces had launched counter-
insurgency operations in the autumn of 2016, which killed hundreds of members
of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority and displaced more than 700,000
Rohingya over the border into Bangladesh. Suu Kyi and the NLD remained silent
and did not openly criticise the actions of the state security forces. The UN, in

Heiduk 351
turn, described the conduct of the state security forces as a case of ‘ethnic
cleansing’. Widespread international condemnation, including from the EU and
its member states, followed. Suu Kyi’s initial silence on the plight of the Rohingya
later was made worse by her tacit approval of the military’s narrative, which
portrayed its operations in Rakhine as counter-insurgency operations, labelled
the Rohingya as ‘Bengali illegal immigrants’ and ‘Islamic terrorists’ and
categorically denied any wrongdoings. In response to the so-called Rohingya
crisis, the EU cancelled all military-to-military relations with Myanmar and
sanctioned numerous members of the security forces for their complicity in
human rights violations. Brussels has also threatened to revoke Myanmar’s
preferential trade access to the Common Market. More so, the Rohingya crisis
marked Suu Kyi’s quintessential ‘fall from grace’. Her perceived tacit approval,
if not outright complicity, in the human rights violations against the Rohingya
had tarnished her almost saint-like image beyond repair. Relations between the
EU and Myanmar, while still short of a complete breakdown, have deteriorated
substantially over the last years.
So how can we explain this rollercoaster ride of EU–Myanmar relations since
2012: How can we make sense of Myanmar’s rapid rise and fall, from ‘pariah’ to
‘partner’ and back to ‘pariah’, within a short period of time (2012–2017)? It seems
credible, at least at first glance, to point to the Rohingya crisis as the main reason
for the fallout. While the discrimination of the Rohingya did start under the
military dictatorship, the escalation of the conflict from late 2016 on took place
under the NLD government led by Suu Kyi. The EU was simply unable to stand
by. Viewed comparatively, however, this argument seems rather broad brushed.
After all, there are numerous cases of gross human rights violations committed by
partner countries of the EU which have not triggered such a substantial
deterioration of relations (Borreschmidt, 2014; Portela, 2014). What the case of
Myanmar highlights though is the importance of two factors often overlooked in
research on foreign policy: The first factor being the role of leaders; the second
one being the role of images. I argue that it seems plausible to assume that it was
ASSK´s role as beacon of democracy, coupled with her saint-like image, which
raised almost Gandhi-like expectations regarding her behaviour as the perceived
de-facto leader of a democratic Myanmar amongst her admirers in European
capitals. Her behaviour during the Rohingya crisis triggered such a strong response
precisely because it persistently appeared to contradict this Gandhi-like image,
coupled with the fact that she provided a clear personal reference point for the
outrage in Europe and elsewhere due to her previous international exposure. I
argue that strong cognitive dissonance, created by the widening gap between the
imagined ‘saint’ ASSK and the realpolitik ‘sinner’ can help us make sense of the
recent turbulences in the EU’s relations with Myanmar.
Images and Leaders—Conceptual Notes and Analytical
While it is almost a truism to state that ASSK has played a pivotal role in
Myanmar’s relations with the European Union, the role leaders generally play in

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 7(3)
international politics nonetheless warrants attention, if only for the observation
that leaders create and shape policy, which in turn affects the behaviour of the
states they attempt to lead. While general International Relations (IR) scholarship
has so far paid little attention to leaders as individual foreign policy actors as such,
and has treated the actual decision maker generally exogenously from the field of
international politics, a number of theoretical approaches in foreign policy
analysis (FPA) have provided much insight on...

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