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U.S.: Burma Release, Ceasefire Hailed by Obama, Rights Groups

WASHINGTON, Jan 13 2012 (IPS) - The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama Friday hailed the release by the Burmese government of hundreds of political prisoners, suggesting that it went far toward satisfying Washington’s conditions for fully normalising ties between the two countries.

Dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the Bayda Institute in Rangoon Nov. 30, 2011. Credit: Burma Democratic Concern (BDC)/CC By 2.0

Dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the Bayda Institute in Rangoon Nov. 30, 2011. Credit: Burma Democratic Concern (BDC)/CC By 2.0

In a statement released by the White House after the first releases were confirmed, Obama called it a “crucial step in Burma’s democratic transformation and national reconciliation process”.

“I have directed Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton and my Administration to take additional steps to build confidence with the government and people of Burma so that we seize this historic and hopeful opportunity.”

For her part, Clinton, who met last December with President Thein Sein and the country’s most famous dissident, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, during the first trip by a U.S. secretary of state to Burma in nearly 60 years, called the releases “a substantial and serious step forward in the government’s stated commitment to political reform”.

She added that the administration will soon send an ambassador to Burma, among other measures, to “strengthen and deepen our ties with both the people and the government”.

She also praised a ceasefire agreement reached Thursday between the government and the six-year-old Karen National Union (KNU) insurgency as an “important step forward”.

At the same time, she stressed, as did Obama in his statement, that full normalisation will depend on continuing progress on all fronts, “including taking further steps to address the concerns of ethnic minority groups, making sure that there is a free and fair by- election, and making all the releases from prison unconditional, and making sure that all remaining political detainees are also released.”

International human rights group echoed the administration’s praise but also warned against a rush toward normalisation, noting that the 651 political prisoners to be freed by the amnesty announced Friday may still leave as many as 1,000 behind bars.

“Today’s release of some of Myanmar’s political prisoners was the result of concerted, sustained pressure by the international community and bold leadership by the United States,” said Suzanne Nussel, executive director of the U.S. chapter of Amnesty International (AIUSA).

“While we welcome the releases, thousands more remain behind bars. Pressure for progress on the remaining prisoners and other human rights concerns in Myanmar must not abate,” she said.

“The risk is that the restoration of ties between the two countries may be premature and could weaken the pressure to address critical areas of unfinished business in addressing serious human rights abuses in Myanmar.”

“The United States has demonstrated that engagement combined with pressure can deliver important breakthroughs, and must sustain both elements of its approach.”

Similarly, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) hailed the release as a “crucial development in promoting respect for human rights in Burma” but called for all remaining political prisoners to be freed “immediately and unconditionally”.

“The latest releases are wonderful news for the individuals and their families, but foreign governments should continue to push for the release of all political prisoners, and for international monitors to verify the process,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director, Elaine Pearson.

“The next step for Burma’s government is to allow international monitors to verify the whereabouts and conditions of remaining political prisoners.”

Among the prisoners released Friday were a number of leaders of the 1988 student uprising, of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party that swept the 1990 parliamentary election, and of the 2007 “Saffron Revolution”. Some detainees had been in prison for more than 20 years.

The U.S. recalled its ambassador to Burma after the 1990 elections, whose results were ignored by the ruling military junta which subsequently renamed the country Myanmar.

Beginning in 1997, Washington has imposed a series of economic sanctions, including a ban on imports and new investments by U.S. companies. It has also encouraged the European Union to impose sanctions, although they have not been nearly as far-reaching.

But the result, according to the sanctions’ critics, is that Burma’s economy has become increasingly dependent on China, which has invested heavily in exploiting Burma’s abundant natural resources, including its off-shore oil and gas fields. It has also been building hydroelectric dams, much of whose power is then transmitted into China itself.

Increasingly alarmed by the growth in Chinese influence, India and Burma’s Southeast Asian neighbours which, over U.S. objections, made Rangoon a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1999, have long called for Washington to engage the regime instead of isolating it.

That became possible when the military junta initiated a transition to a civilian-led government, and Thein Sein, a former general, was inaugurated as president last March.

Although still dominated by former generals, the government took a number of steps, including an initial release of some 200 political prisoners, enactment of labour reforms, a relaxation of media censorship, consultations with the International Monetary Fund, engaging Suu Kyi in an intensive dialogue and legalising the NLD.

Perhaps most intriguingly and unexpectedly, it also suspended a planned Chinese-funded and -directed dam project designed to harness the hydroelectric power of the Irrawaddy River, that persuaded the administration to send Clinton to Burma.

Building on the work of Washington’s special envoy, Derek Mitchell, Clinton reportedly mapped out a series of conditions – most importantly, the release of all political prisoners; free and fair elections; serious efforts to reconcile with Burma’s many ethnic minorities, including the Karens; and full disclosure of its alleged military and nuclear transactions with North Korea – that, if met, would permit the U.S. to fully normalise bilateral relations.

In that respect, the ceasefire agreement announced Thursday, combined with the prisoner released announced Friday, takes the rapprochement to a new stage. U.S. officials have said that the government has also been forthcoming on the North Korean question.

Sen. Jim Webb, one of the most outspoken and effective advocates of engagement and who in 2009 was the first member of Congress to visit Burma since sanctions were first imposed, said Friday he was very encouraged by the latest developments.

“Throughout my time in the Senate, I have repeatedly called for the United States to adjust its policies toward Burma as part of a wider strategy of reinvigorating our relations in East Asia,” he said. “It is in our national interest and the interest of regional stability to bring Burma back into the international community in a positive way.”

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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