Sunday, September 20, 2009

Don’t Let the Junta off the Hook

The Irrawaddy News - Editorial

On the eve of the 21st anniversary of the bloody coup that crushed the 1988 student-led pro-democracy uprising, Burma’s junta announced plans to free 7,114 prisoners. MRTV, the state-owned television station, announced on Thursday night that the prisoners were being released on “humanitarian grounds.”

Previous mass releases have mostly involved petty criminals, with just a handful of political detainees among those freed. No details were provided about the identities of the prisoners included in this latest amnesty, so it is difficult to even confirm if the regime has actually released the number of prisoners it said it would. But according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), 87 political prisoners have so far been set free, while other sources estimate that the total could reach as high as 250.

This is good news for the prisoners and their families, and we should welcome it. However, we should also note that this apparent act of magnanimity comes as Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein prepares to travel to New York to attend this year’s United Nations General Assembly. Indeed, it has been widely expected for several months. In July, Burma’s ambassador to the UN, Than Swe, promised the Security Council that his government would grant an amnesty to an undisclosed number of political prisoners to allow them to participate in democratic elections scheduled for 2010.

Thein Sein will be the highest-ranking Burmese official to attend a UN meeting in over a decade, so it should come as no surprise that the regime decided to do something to deflect criticism of its abysmal human rights record ahead of his visit. Releasing some of the country’s estimated 2,100 political prisoners was an obvious course of action, as there are growing concerns over the dramatic increase in the number of activists detained since the monk-led Saffron Revolution was crushed almost exactly two years ago. Human rights watchdogs estimate that the political prisoner population has doubled since late 2007, when Burma witnessed its largest anti-regime protests in nearly two decades.

Conspicuously absent from the list of those released so far are the names of some of Burma’s most prominent activists. Far from considering leniency towards these prisoners, the regime appears to be intent on making their lives as miserable as possible. U Gambira, one of the leaders of the All Burma Monks Alliance, the group that spearheaded the 2007 uprising, has been moved to a remote prison, making it harder for his family to visit him. Other prisoners, including Shan ethnic leader Khun Tun Oo, activist-comedian Zarganar, labor activist Su Su Nway and 88 Generation Students group leader Min Ko Naing, are also suffering from physical and mental health problems due to their mistreatment, according to AAPP.

Political prisoners have always been treated like pawns in the junta’s political game. The regime continues to insist that there are no political prisoners in any of the country’s 43 prisons and more than 50 labor camps, but the fact is that the generals do not hesitate to imprison anyone who speaks out openly against their brutal misrule. Even as the junta makes a show of releasing some prisoners, it continues to round up new ones, including several democracy activists and monks who were arrested just last week.

With this in mind, the international community must continue to confront the regime and demand the release of all political prisoners in Burma, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Until this happens, and until all activists are allowed to participate freely in the country’s political process, we can only assume that the generals’ occasional release of political prisoners is just part of a cynical game.

Burma Newscasts - Don’t Let the Junta off the Hook
Saturday, September 19, 2009

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