Largest Re­lease of Po­lit­i­cal Pris­on­ers in Asia’s His­tory

Southasia - - CONTENTS -

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.

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