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BURMA: ‘Civilian’ Govt Eases Iron Grip

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Sep 14 2011 (IPS) - With Burma’s quasi-civilian government relaxing the iron grip on power maintained for half-a century by military juntas, the big question is: How real is the change?

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Southeast Asian nation’s most prominent political dissident, appears convinced. “The past situation is the past. The current situation is the current one and there has been some progress,” the 66-year-old told reporters on Monday.

Suu Kyi wants a line drawn in the sand between the nearly 50 years of military oppression and the current government of President Thein Sein, a former general and junta leader.

Following a meeting on Monday with Derek Mitchell, the U.S. government’s special envoy for Burma, the Nobel Peace laureate added: “Due to the situation, (the U.S. delegation) is also interested and so we exchanged our perspectives.”

Suu Kyi, who was only freed from over seven years under house arrest in November last year, had an equally significant meeting on Sunday with the family of Min Ko Naing, Burma’s best known political prisoner, in Rangoon.

“It was a visit to offer moral courage to Min Ko Naing’s family and for him also,” Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP), told IPS in a telephone interview from the Thai-Burma border.

The plight of 48-year-old Min Ko Naing, condemned to a 65-year jail term, has come to symbolise the country’s political prisoners who have paid a heavy price for dissidence. Currently, there are 1,996 political prisoners in 44 prisons and labour camps, according to AAPP.

The few but noticeable political concessions, in a country frequently condemned for human rights violations since a military coup in 1962, started in July when the Thein Sein administration permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit three prisons.

ICRC’s visit, to improve water and sanitation conditions, came six years after being denied access to political prisoners.

In August, Suu Kyi figured in the thaw between the former generals who doffed their uniforms for mufti in March and the anti-military opposition rallying around the banned National League for Democracy (NLD), which she heads.

On Aug. 19, she had her first face-to-face meeting with Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, the remote administrative capital in central Burma. The next day, she attended a meeting on alleviating poverty in the country, also known as Myanmar.

“Suu Kyi was quite encouraged by the level of openness at the conference and she wants to support the poverty alleviation efforts,” Zaw Oo, a Burmese economist who attended the meeting, told IPS. “It is one area where she and the government share a common interest without many ideological or political differences.” Thein Sein is also receiving credit for turning the spotlight on poverty, a scourge in a country rich in natural resources, including natural gas, which the earned the country eight billion dollars from export to Thailand from 2000 to 2008.

The former strongmen who reportedly profited from the windfall kept under wraps the fact of 19 million people – or 33 percent of the population – living below the poverty line.

Burma is currently ranked 138 out of 182 nations in the human development index of the United Nations.

“Giving such a high priority to poverty alleviation and economic development was unprecedented,” said Zaw Oo. “The government, recognising the problem and the challenges it faces, also held discussions that were open, with even ministers being challenged by members of the audience.”

The hint of reform in Burma under Thein Sein – who was chosen in late March by a national parliament elected in a controversial November poll, including blatant military interference – is winning international applause.

The European Union (EU) which has criticised the junta for years, and imposed sanctions on it, has responded positively. “I see an opportunity for more openness in Myanmar,” said Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner for international cooperation and humanitarian aid.

“I was encouraged by the authorities’ willingness to expand humanitarian access to more areas of Myanmar,” she told journalists here on Sunday following a two-day humanitarian mission. “The atmosphere in the country is different. We know there are agents for change.” The EU olive branch follows concessions announced after a pro-reform speech by the Burmese president soon after he assumed office. European ministers are now allowed to visit Burma and visa restrictions on Burmese officials, including the country’s foreign minister, have been lifted.

But, that is small comfort for victims of Burmese military oppression like Bo Kyi, a political prisoner for over a decade.

“The government has to release political prisoners and end human rights abuse across the country,” he says. “This change is only to ease international pressure and improve image.”

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