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Burma Prisoner Release: Don't be Fooled

Source: UK Guardian Comment | Waihnin Pwint Thon

Don't be fooled by Burma's meagre prisoner release, says Waihnin Pwint Thon.

The dictatorship is seeking legitimacy through token gestures – my father is among thousands of political prisoners still in jail.


Waihnin Pwint ThonWaihnin Pwint Thon When rumours first emerged that the Burmese government was planning to release some political prisoners, I told myself not to get my hopes up.

Since 2008, when my father was sentenced to 65 years in jail for his political activities, I have been trying to come to terms with the fact that I may never see him again. His health is not good, but the government won't let him get proper medical treatment.

But as the rumours persisted, and diplomats talked up the prospect of a large number of political prisoners being released, I could not help but start to hope.

The UN has raised the case of my father with the government, and one UN body has ruled his detention is illegal. Dictatorships in Burma do regular prisoner amnesties, usually including some political prisoners. Perhaps this time he would be freed.

A clever political game

Since becoming president earlier this year, Thein Sein has played a clever political game. He has made promises of reform, and allowed slightly more political debate, and a slight relaxation of censorship. A steady drip, drip of small but seemingly positive steps has created an impression of change happening.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that Thein Sein is a moderate, as we understand the word. This is a man who was named by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma in 1998 for ordering soldiers under his command to commit human rights abuses. In recent months he has sent his soldiers to the ethnic Shan and Kachin states, where they are gang-raping women and even children. Some are so brutally raped they die afterwards.

The goal is continued dictatorship

Thein Sein is not, as some claim, fighting a battle against hardliners, trying to bring democracy and human rights to Burma. His goal is continued dictatorship, but he appears more willing to make some compromises to get sanctions lifted, and to gain international legitimacy. I hoped that this would mean many political prisoners would be released.

This is a key practical benchmark for judging change. The US and EU have said that prisoners must be released before sanctions are lifted. Despite knowing Thein Sein isn't a genuine reformer, part of me still hoped that he would turn words into action and release most political prisoners, even if his motivations are not what he wants the world to believe. But he didn't.

It now appears that the number of political prisoners released will be in the low hundreds, leaving more than a thousand still in squalid jails, including my father. I am extremely disappointed, not just for myself, but for what this signifies for the prospects of change in my country.

Thein Sein appears to be trying to make the minimum amount of concessions to get the maximum in return. These releases will probably be enough to persuade the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to allow Burma to take its turn as chair of the organisation in 2014. I hope that the British government, the EU and US will not be fooled by this token release, and start to relax sanctions. If they do relax sanctions, the pressure for further releases, and genuine reform will lessen.

Not truly free

Those freed from prison are not truly free. They live in a country that is still a dictatorship, even if it now has a civilian face. The repressive laws under which they were arrested remain in place. I still cannot safely return to my homeland. We will know change is coming when all political prisoners are released, when there is a nationwide ceasefire, not increased conflict and human rights abuses, and when there is a genuine dialogue process, which includes genuine ethnic representatives.

It is wonderful to see the prisoners who have been released, and for their families, but there are still so many families yet to be reunited. Like me, my mother had hoped against hope that my father would be released. She told herself not to get her hopes up, she has been disappointed too many times before. Yet she tidied the house just in case, and cooked a special meal, my father's favourite. In the end, my mother and sister had to eat the meal alone. More than a thousand other families had to do the same.

Reality Check

Some governments and observers have got carried away recently talking up prospects of change in Burma. I hope this will be a reality check for them. Burma's rulers have been lying to the international community for decades, always promising change is just round the corner. Some have fallen for the lies yet again. Until all prisoners are released and there is a nationwide ceasefire, don't believe the hype.


Waihnin Pwint Thon

Waihnin Pwint Thon is a campaigns officer at Burma Campaign UK, and the daughter of Ko Mya Aye, one of the Generation 88 student leaders who is currently serving a 65-year jail sentence in Burma for his part in the 2007 protests

Burma Campaign UK news briefing about Release of Political Prisoners

' Genuine political progress cannot be achieved while democracy activists and ethnic leaders remain behind bars and the rights of ethnic people continue to be ignored. The release of all political prisoners is an essential first step in a transition to democracy, but only a step. The international community must not be fooled again by releases of political prisoners that in reality may be a tried and tested ploy by the government to gain international credibility without introducing genuine democratic change.'