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POLITICS-BURMA: Mass Amnesty for Prisoners Signals New Era

Larry Jagan

BANGKOK, Sep 25 2008 (IPS) - Burma’s military leaders have signaled the start of a new political era with the release of 9,002 prisoners, including several key political detainees.

The mass amnesty for the prisoners appeared timed for the anniversary, this week, of last year’s brutal crackdown on the monk-led demonstrations in Rangoon that left hundreds dead and many more injured. This exodus of prisoners from jail is believed to be part of the regime’s preparations for the planned elections in 2010.

In what became known as the ‘Saffron Revolution’ police and soldiers beat and shot protesters on Sep. 26-27, to end two months of anti-government demonstrations, sparked by a dramatic fuel price hike on Aug. 15, 2007.

“The regime never does anything that is not part a bigger game plan,” Win Min, an independent Burmese academic based in Chiang Mai told IPS. “The release of these political prisoners probably signals the start of a process of preparations for the elections planned for two years time. The regime knows it must find ways of controlling the outcome without looking too draconian,” he said.

The elections, which are part of the country’s roadmap to “discipline flourishing democracy,’’ are scheduled to be held in the early part of 2010, according to Burmese military sources. As yet there is no concrete information as to which parties will be allowed to field candidates, and it is unclear whether Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) will be allowed to field candidates.

But the release of the political prisoners in particular came as a complete surprise, according to diplomats and residents in Rangoon. Among those freed was the country’s longest serving political prisoner, the veteran journalist and political activist, Win Tin. At least four other prominent former legislators from the NLD were also released.

However the party leader, Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest in her Rangoon residence, where she has spent more than 13 of the last 19 years with no sign that she will be freed soon.

“I will be happy only when all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi are released,” Win Tin told Burmese journalists shortly after his release. Two other members of the NLD were also released along with the five other NLD politicians. One of them, Win Htain, was Suu Kyi’s private assistant before he was detained in 1996 and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.

“The release of these political activists, particularly those who were very close to Aung San Suu Kyi, must be seen as an olive branch to the pro-democracy leader, on the part of the Burmese leaders,” a Rangoon-based Asian diplomat told IPS. “It may not be an offer of dialogue, but it may represent a softening of the regime’s hardened position towards the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Win Tin served as a close aide to Suu Kyi and helped found the NLD with her in 1988. He was arrested on Jul 4, 1989 – days before the opposition leader was also detained.

He was initially sentenced to 14 years in prison in a military court for allegedly being a member of the banned Communist Party of Burma. In 1996 he was sentenced to an additional seven years for writing to the United Nations about prison conditions and for writing and circulating anti-government pamphlets in prison in 1996.

A long-time editor, journalist and poet, Win Tin refused to allow prison to silence him. “He would write poems on the walls of his cell with ink made of brick powder and water,” Zin Linn, a former political prisoner and close colleague of Win Tin, told IPS.

Immediately after he was released, Win Tin vowed to continue fighting until Burma was a democratic nation. “I will keep fighting until the emergence of democracy in this country,” he told Burmese journalists gathered outside his house in Rangoon.

The international community has welcomed the releases – especially that of Win Tin. But most analysts and diplomats in Rangoon do not believe this is the start of a mass amnesty for the country’s remaining political prisoners. The Britain-based human rights group, Amnesty International, estimates that there are more than 2,100 political prisoners still languishing in Burma’s jails.

“While the release of U Win Tin and his fellow prisoners is certainly the best news to come out of Myanmar for a long time, unfortunately they represent less than one percent of the political prisoners there,” Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher told IPS from London in a phone interview. “These handful of people should never have been imprisoned in the first place, and there are many, many more still in prison.”

The regime recently announced through state-run media that thousands of prisoners would be released in the run up to the elections because of their good behaviour and to allow them to serve the nation.

The government often releases prisoners to mark important occasions, like Armed Forces day or National Day, but these are usually petty criminals, and sometimes a handful of political prisoners. The current Burmese leader, Gen. Than Shwe has also used the mass release of political prisoners as a way of signifying the start of a new era.

More than 20,000 prisoners, including hundreds of political prisoners, were released over several months in 1992, to mark his becoming the head of state and the start of the constitutional drafting process, with the preparations for the National Convention.

Again in November 2004, after the prime minister and military intelligence chief, General Khin Nyunt was ousted, more than 10,000 prisoners were freed, including many of the ‘88 student generation’ – Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and others, who had been in prison for 14 years. They were re-arrested a year ago because of their involvement in last September’s ‘Saffron Revolution’.

In the weeks to come as the regime plans the scheduled elections, there is likely to be many changes in Burma’s political scene. However most of these are likely to be cosmetic. The regime has already begun to describe itself as a transitional authority.

The information minister, Brig. Gen. Kyaw Hsan, told U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari, when they met in Rangoon last month, that the Transitional Government would “oppose and wipe out those who attempt to jeopardise or harm the Constitution.”

This can only mean the military authorities are going to continue to ruthlessly suppress dissent. And there is little likelihood of the forthcoming elections being free and fair. “The military will not make the mistake it did in 1990 – allowing a free and fair election [which the NLD convincingly won]”, Win Min told IPS.

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