The news that the European Union is considering revoking trade privileges for Myanmar due to alleged Tatmadaw atrocities in Rakhine State has provoked near-universal condemnation.

On a subject as divisive as the Rakhine State conflict, this is no mean feat.

Under the Everything But Arms programme – part of the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences – Myanmar has tariff-free access to the EU market. Since its introduction here in 2013, EBA has been a major boon for Myanmar’s economy, particularly the garment sector.

Garment manufacturing is one of the country’s economic success stories and is now thought to employ 450,000 people. Garments and footwear account for more than three quarters of Myanmar’s exports to the EU; agricultural products, in particular rice, take up most of the rest.

Trade and investment in manufacturing and agriculture directly benefit some of the poorest households in Myanmar. This is not just about creating jobs, but creating better jobs. The presence of European buyers, who face more stringent due diligence requirements, has helped improved conditions for workers in Myanmar factories.

To acquire and maintain EBA access, however, countries have to meet certain standards for human rights and labour. Given the overwhelming evidence of abuses and the government’s refusal to ensure accountability, withdrawing Myanmar’s trade privileges could probably be justified according to the letter of the law. But that could put hundreds of thousands of people out of work. It would be a textbook example of a misdirected sanction – one that has little impact on those directly responsible for suffering in Rakhine.

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Few, if any, observers have called on the EU to revoke EBA access. In fact, some human rights advocates told Frontier that they were shocked when the possibility was raised earlier this year.

So why is it now on the table?

It is a reflection of the Myanmar government’s poor handling of the Rakhine crisis, which has seen it alienate many of its former partners. On the part of the EU, it seems to be born out of frustration at the government’s apparent intransigence and state of denial. The idea is that it would create leverage for the EU. Reviewing EBA access will require dialogue on the human rights situation ­­– a conversation that the government is doing its best to avoid at present.

But this is a risky and arguably reckless strategy, given the potential effect on vulnerable households. Will the National League for Democracy administration blink at the prospect of all these people being suddenly out of work in an election year, when its economic credentials are already in doubt? If its behaviour to date is anything to go by, it seems unlikely to have much effect.

Myanmar’s private sector appears to be – perhaps belatedly – realising what’s at stake. But there is a lack of urgency within the government at the prospect of trade privileges being removed. Ministry of Commerce assistant secretary U Khin Maung Lwin told Frontier that it wouldn’t have a significant effect on exports. While he is right that it wouldn’t happen quickly – it would take at least a year for any change to come into effect – he also seemed to misunderstand the process, believing that withdrawal required the unanimous support of EU members. In reality, member states would only have to be consulted.

The potential revocation of trade privileges is just one of the many ways in which the Rakhine crisis could continue to impact Myanmar in the years to come – politically, economically and socially. These are beginning to add up and have a tangible effect, on everything from investment to tourism.

Even if the EU decides to maintain access, the review period is likely to dampen investment and trade, and could destabilise the economy. Who would invest in Myanmar’s garment sector at a time when preferential access to its biggest market is at risk? Investors will revert to a wait-and-see approach, or look elsewhere.

The most important thing now is for both the EU and the Myanmar government to find a way forward that does not put hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk.

This editorial first appeared in the October 11 issue of Frontier. 


YANGON — About 200 truck drivers attempted to block a section of Strand Road last night as part of a protest against limiting their hours of operation.

The drivers began gathering on Strand Road near the corner of Home Street in Kyeemyindaing Township at about 10pm. Standing on the road or the roof of their trucks, they shouted “unite all drivers” and demanded that limits on when they are able to access Yangon’s port area be relaxed.

Regional transport minister Daw Nilar Kyaw arrived at the protest late last night and tried to talk to the drivers, but the group had no spokesperson or leader to deal with the authorities. About 50 riot police arrived at 11:30pm but made no attempt to break up the protest.

Instead, some drivers began leaving the demonstration in the early hours of the morning. Those who remained tried to flag down more trucks to join the protests with varying degrees of success. If container drivers were unwilling to stop, some of the demonstrators pelted them with bricks and sticks – breaking several windscreens in the process. The last of the protesters finally dispersed around 9am this morning.

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“I assume that they were demanding to extend the time limit [for operating hours],” said U Tin Myo Win, secretary of Myanmar Container Trucks Association.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

The spark for the protests was the recent enforcement of a regional government order from 2016, under which large trucks are only allowed to operate on Strand Road from 9pm to 6am.

The order has only periodically been enforced over the years, but on October 4 Nilar Kyaw reiterated the government’s policy in the Yangon Region Hluttaw in response to a question from a lawmaker.

She added that the government announced on August 25 a limited extension of the hours, with a 90-minute window added in the middle of the day at the suggestion of the Myanmar Container Trucks Association.

Tin Myo Win said that after Nilar Kyaw spoke in the legislature police started enforcing the operating hours again without warning.

Drivers have also complained that they weren’t informed about the August 25 announcement.

Tin Myo Win said Nilar Kyaw met association members at about 8am this morning.

“She said she would report the facts to the chief minister and review last night’s protest,” said he said. “The authorities promised to allow trucks from 11am to 3pm and 8pm to 6am but it’s not official. They said the government will release an official statement after discussing it further today.”


YANGON — A Rohingya family of five has returned to Myanmar from Bangladesh, sources said Thursday, a rare development while a large-scale repatriation deal remains stalled.

More than 720,000 of Myanmar’s stateless Muslim minority fled a brutal military crackdown in August last year, taking shelter in crowded camps in Bangladesh.

There they recounted tales of rape, murder and arson as villages in Rakhine State were burned to the ground.

United Nations investigators have said senior Myanmar military officials should be prosecuted for genocide, but the country has rejected these calls, insisting it was defending itself against militants.

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Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a deal to bring back the Rohingya but many fear returning without guaranteed rights such as citizenship, access to healthcare and freedom of movement.

Authorities in Myanmar say more than 100 displaced Rohingya have returned in recent months though rights groups have questioned whether the returnees did so voluntarily.

The family of five “displaced people” came back to Rakhine State on Wednesday morning, state mouthpiece Global New Light of Myanmar reported Thursday.

Myanmar’s government has trumpeted each return but Bangladesh insists that the official process has not commenced.

The Bangladesh government’s Rohingya camp commissioner Mr Mohammad Abul Kalam said he had only heard about the family leaving, but has not received official confirmation of their return to Myanmar. 

“Anyone can go back if he/she wants,” he said. “But formal repatriation has not begun.”

Mr Abdur Rahim, a Rohingya camp leader in Bangladesh, said the family had been staying in the Balukhali camp in Cox Bazar district.

“They returned to their home…near Maungdaw Township in Rakhine yesterday,” he said.

UN agencies, which signed a deal with the Myanmar government to assess conditions on the ground in northern Rakhine, said they had carried out an initial survey in September of about two dozen villages.

“Mistrust, fear of neighbouring communities and a sense of insecurity are prevalent in many areas,” they said in a statement.