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.
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."
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
"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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."