Largest Release of Political Prisoners in Asia’s History
Iam thrilled with the recent developments taking place in Burma (the opponents of the military regime refuse to call it by its official name, Myanmar).
Burma is a country with immense potential but is destroyed by military rulers who have continuously ruled it for the past 50 years, following a military coup in 1962 led by General Ne Win. Thousands have been killed, raped and incarcerated during this time.
The country remains one of the most poor but also one of the most corrupt nations in the world. I need not say that when there is corruption some become very rich while others end up being very poor: Burma is no exception. Some of the military Generals, both retired and serving, are billionaires while the common man lives on less than one dollar a day.
In the midst of all this, international sanctions and the campaign are resulting in the easing of some political suppression. The country last year held elections that did not permit major opposition parties to contest, including that of Aung San Suu Kyi.
A few weeks ago, a couple of hundred political prisoners were released. Another batch of 651 political prisoners was released in January that included those arrested in the brutally repressed student protests in 1988; a former PM ousted in an internal purge in 2004; and monks and others involved in anti-government protests in 2007, largely known as the “Saffron Revolution.” An American described the recent move as the largest single release of political prisoners in Asia’s history. President Obama praised it as a “substantial step forward for democratic reform.”
The United States has now announced to restore its diplomatic ties in response to the positive gestures made by the current semi-civilian Burmese administration. While the United States had never fully severed relations with Burma, it had downgraded it by withdrawing its ambassador after the 1990 elections that were won by Aung San Suu Kyi but not recognized by the military.
Since taking office in March 2011, the country’s president, U Thein Sein, has overseen changes that appear to indicate a new willingness to end military rule for the first time since the 1962 coup. He has sought to reform the economy and allow political competition. More importantly, the president has strived to achieve a cease fire with ethnic minorities such as Karens led by the Karen National Union, who faced human rights abuses at the hands of the military. In terms of regional policy, Sein seeks to end the country’s economic and diplomatic dependence on China, its influential neighbor to the north. In September 2011, he halted work on a $3.6 billion dam project on the Irrawaddy River, funded by a Chinese state company. For the first time since 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party will be allowed to seek elected office; the latter is planning to contest the April 1 elections scheduled to fill 48 parliamentary seats.
The releases, described officially as an amnesty, occurred around the country and included political activists, journalists, leaders of ethnic minority groups and relatives of General Ne Win.
While these releases are fantastic news, there are still many prisoners left in jail and the laws under which released prisoners were arrested are still in place meaning that the whole process is reversible. The critics of the Burmese regime accordingly are arguing against lifting of sanctions and asking the international community to wait and assess the situation before going over-board.
The recent developments in Burma show that campaigning does work and is appreciated by those in Burma struggling for true freedom. Friends of the people of Burma must keep up the pressure to ensure that change does in fact take place. The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court and a member of the Washington, DC Bar. He has been writing for various publications for more than 20 years and has authored several books.