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Myanmar prisoner release seen as another ploy
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK - The initial euphoria that greeted the recent release of nearly 4,000 prisoners from jails in military-ruled Myanmar seems to be dissipating fast. For all it may be, this amnesty might not necessarily translate into political reform.

Despite the release after 15 years of solitary confinement of Min Ko Naing, Myanmar's second-best-known political prisoner after Aung San Suu Kyi, the profile of most of the prisoners freed, the timing of their release and the reasons being offered by Yangon's junta have fed this assessment, undermining any hope the military rulers might have had of profiting from this goodwill gesture.

For one, only between 20 and 28 of the 3,937 prisoners granted freedom last Thursday were jailed for their political activities. The majority were thrown behind bars by the oppressive regime for alleged crimes, including theft. In addition, most of the prisoners released already had served their full sentences.

Currently, Myanmar has close to 1,400 political prisoners held in harsh conditions within the 39 prisons spread across the Southeast Asian country. They include parliamentarians, writers, pro-democracy activists and Buddhist monks. Among them is Win Tin, a close aide of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, jailed since 1989 for his political beliefs.

"The release of the prisoners suggests nothing other than an effort to please the international community," Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner, told Inter Press Service. "Most of the prisoners had finished their terms, so they were not being released for special reasons."

According to Bo Kyi, who heads the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Myanmar, a group based in the northern Thai town of Mae Sot, the junta is still committed to jailing citizens who challenge its political view.

"Last week they arrested three members of the NLD," he said, referring to the National League for Democracy, the political party headed by Suu Kyi that won a landslide victory at the 1990 elections but was denied power by the junta. Suu Kyi herself currently is under house arrest.

Same old song and dance
This mass prisoner release is nothing new in military-ruled Myanmar. The country's hardline military leader, Senior General Than Shwe, has sought to woo the international community with similar ploys before.

In 2001, the release of nearly 200 political prisoners from jails, including the notorious Insein prison in Yangon, was typical. The move occurred at a time when the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially known, was under fire from the international community. Then, too, the prisoners released had served their full sentences and were not freed by any special amnesty.

Three years later, Myanmar's strongman is facing a more formidable array of critics on the international stage. This follows the sacking of Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt from his prime minister's post on October 19. Khin Nyunt, who currently is under house arrest, was appointed premier last year and soon convinced some Myanmar watchers that he was a moderate keen on pushing ahead with political reform.

His successor, Lieutenant-General Soe Win, is regarded as a military hardliner and has been named by Myanmar political exiles in Thailand as having been the primary figure behind an attack led by thugs linked to the junta on Suu Kyi and her NLD supporters in May last year.

Besides the usual critics such as the United States, the United Kingdom and other European Union countries, Myanmar finds itself feeling the heat from regional allies who together form an economic bloc of Southeast Asian nations. Some Myanmar watchers see a link between the release and the Association of South East Asian Nations summit to be held in Laos next week; ASEAN is one of the few international organizations to have diplomatic ties with Myanmar, which is a member.

On another front, a body of regional parliamentarians led by a bipartisan group from the Malaysian legislature is also exerting pressure on the regime. And the International Labor Organization (ILO) added its voice this month to the growing number of UN bodies and officials losing patience with Yangon's lack of political reform. In fact, the Geneva-based labor agency has threatened to consider imposing sanctions against Myanmar for its continued use of forced labor.

"If the SPDC is sincere about reform, it should start by releasing all political prisoners," Soe Aung, foreign-affairs spokesman for the National Council of the Union of Myanmar, a group of Myanmar political exiles, told IPS. "Then it must start talks for the restoration of democracy with the NLD and other ethnic political parties."

Myanmar watchers also feel that the SPDC is gaining little sympathy by blaming Khin Nyunt and the military-intelligence division that he headed for much of the country's political trouble. Last week, for instance, Yangon accused Khin Nyut's intelligence network for imprisoning the nearly 4,000 people who were given amnesty last week.

"Khin Nyunt was part of the problem, but Than Shwe cannot get away making him a scapegoat, because all levels of the military regime have oppressed the people," Soe Aung said.

Myanmar has been under the jackboot of the generals since a military coup in 1962. In 1988, students led the way toward a democratic uprising, which was brutally crushed by the junta, with more than 3,000 pro-democracy protesters killed.

One of the famous student leaders in that mass uprising, Min Ko Naing, was arrested in March 1989. After enduring more than 15 years of solitary confinement, Min Ko Naing, 42, was among the 4,000 prisoners released last week.

"His release cannot be ignored since he is well respected and has the potential to reorganize," Beejoy Sen of the Myanmar Lawyers Council told IPS. "Than Shwe can use it to his advantage against his critics. But he will have to do more to win sympathy, like making the release a process towards political change."

(Inter Press Service)

Nov 24, 2004
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