Prisoners' Release Key to Future

Burma's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi may hold the key to freedom for all political prisoners by the end of the year.
A commentary by Larry Jagan
2011-10-13
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Family members of prisoners wait for their release outside the Insein central prison in Rangoon, Oct. 12, 2011.
AFP

The release of any political prisoner is something that is to be warmly welcomed. That more than 200 walked free from their cells this week cannot be dismissed lightly.

It is one of the biggest releases since the military seized power more than 23 years ago. But to loosely paraphrase the newly freed comedian Zarganar, we cannot be happy until all those political detainees are free.

And as the National League for Democracy leaders, like U Lwin, often said to me a decade ago, we cannot praise the regime for freeing prisoners who should never have been in jail in the first place.

This must also include the former military intelligence officers sentenced in the aftermath of the purge of the intelligence chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt in 2004. Some were also released on Wednesday, including the former military spokesman Hla Min, whose only crime was to remain loyal to his boss.

Of course some key political prisoners—including the Shan leader Khun Htun Oo, Min Ko Naing and other 88 generation activists—remain in jail for the time being. And only when they are released can the regime seriously claim to want national reconciliation. Human rights groups—including Amnesty International and the authoritative AAPP—insist there are still close to 2,000 political prisoners in jail.

The release of political prisoners is a process—two more batches of some 200 are planned for the near future, according to Burmese government sources.

Whether they are freed depends on the NLD and the newly released prisoners, a minister said.

If those who were released this week behave—that is don't cause problems—more will be freed.

Most of the political prisoners freed are believe to be associated with the NLD. This is no accident, according to military sources, as they expect Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to keep them in line.

The 88 generation leaders unfortunately are likely to be some of the last out—as the regime regards them as unpredictable and uncontrollable.

President Thein Sein is believed to have asked the Lady to exert her influence over them if they were freed. These activists are unlikely to be released until after the planned by-elections in November or December, to prevent them creating trouble or disturbances during the campaigning.

Thein Sein is being overly cautious, according to sources in Naypyidaw. The speaker of the lower house, Thura Shwe Mann, wanted to release quite a few more—but Thein Sein would not be moved.

Small steps at a time, was his approach. He understands that the hardliners are still waiting in the wings for their chance to contain him. There will be at least two more batches of releases before the end of the year, according to government sources, the next could be with two to three weeks.

It is understandable that pro-democracy activists are impatient and demanding the immediate release of all remaining political prisoners. But Thein Sein needs to be given some room to move.

The president and the liberal-minded members of the government are clearly planning a new era for Burmese politics. It is clear from talking with government officials and sources close to the new Burmese army that the old junta has gone–whether for good or not only time will tell.

Democracy in Burma will not take root overnight—despite the experience of the past and the democratic roots in Burmese history.

Under the new constitution, parliament is playing an increasingly critical role. But this can only be a major force for change if the calibre of the MPs is improved.

At present it is in essence a one-party state—with USDP the main actor. It is not quite as bad as the old BSPP days, as there is a sprinkling of opposition and ethnic politicians in the two houses.

This is why the forthcoming by-elections are so critical. There are 40 seats in all, at stake. While if the USDP loses most of them, it will not change the government or even endanger government bills, it could help provide a stronger, more articulate and functioning opposition.

That is why, in Thein Sein and his supporters eyes, it's so important for the NLD to contest these by-elections.

The new electoral laws are in the process of being changed and made more acceptable. This in itself cannot be sufficient grounds for the party to reverse its earlier decision not to seek re-registration.

Of course, the constitution remains the real thorn in the side of a future transition to democracy. But if the NLD does contest the elections—and wins a substantial number of seats—and even better if Aung San Suu Kyi runs for parliament and becomes the opposition leader—changing the constitution becomes a strong possibility in the future.

Sources close to Thein Sein say he is not opposed to constitutional amendments.

For the Thein Sein agenda to succeed, there will have to be a wholesale restructuring of the USDP—that may prove the hardest task the president faces.

Thura Shwe Mann then becomes the key. It is clear that he wants to be the next president after the 2015 elections. He is currently using parliament to boost his own power base.

While he will see the advantages of a reformed party, he may not be so comfortable with constitutional change. After all, he commands the loyalty of the 25 percent of MPs who are the military quota.