Political Prisoners' Release 'Difficult'

A confidant of Burma's leader disputes the number of political prisoners.
2011-09-26
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An image from Burma's state-run MRTV shows Thein Sein (C) at his swearing-in ceremony in Naypyidaw, March 30, 2011.
An image from Burma's state-run MRTV shows Thein Sein (C) at his swearing-in ceremony in Naypyidaw, March 30, 2011.
AFP PHOTO / HO / MRTV

A key aide to President Thein Sein says it is difficult for the Burmese government to release all political prisoners, accusing several of them of having committed "serious crimes."

"I think it is very hard for the government to release all of them immediately and unconditionally as demanded by [groups] abroad," Ko Ko Hlaing, the president's political adviser, said in a weekend interview with RFA in New York.

In the interview, he also praised Aung San Suu Kyi, calling her "wise" and a "public figure," and admitted there were differences within the new nominally civilian government.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Burmese rights group, says there are more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma, but Ko Ko Hlaing disputed the figure.

Ko Ko Hlaing, who was part of a Burmese government delegation which visited New York for meetings with senior U.S. officials and to attend the U.N. General Assembly, did not give the actual number of political prisoners in Burma.

But he said that some of those deemed political prisoners had actually committed serious crimes, such as “terrorism” and “murders.”

"There is a difference in the [prisoners'] list prepared by our police force, and there are more than 100 people who committed serious crimes,” he said.


RFA Burmese service interviews key aide to President Thein Sein.

Ko Ko Hlaing said Burma's "stability, unity, and freedom" are key factors for progress and added that any decision by the government on releasing political prisoners would be based on "the people's desire for freedom and happiness while keeping the development and stability of the country."

The United States and several other Western governments have been pushing the nominally civilian government led by Thein Sein to release all political prisoners and forge peace with ethnic armed groups to underline its seriousness in embracing reforms and strengthening democracy.
 
Although the new government formed after November elections has introduced several reforms, it is believed that Western governments will relax political and economic sanctions on the country only if the two key issues are resolved, analysts say.

Differences

Ko Ko Hlaing acknowledged that there are differences within the cabinet but said there is no major split.

Reports have said that a group of hardliners within the cabinet are against reforms introduced or planned by Thein Sein that could lead to greater political and economic freedom.

"During this transition, some ministers may want to go pretty fast in bringing about reforms while some may prefer to go at a slower pace. But I don’t see any big differences or totally opposite views among the cabinet," Ko Ko Hlaing said.

On the issue of ethnic armed groups, he said they have to disband their armies for any quick resolution to the problem.
  
"Some ethnic groups want to keep the arms for their security and they see it as a way to get the attention of the government. But there is no constitution on Earth that allows states or subregions to keep their own armies, and our current constitution also doesn’t allow that," he said.

"So, they have to stay under the control of the one and only army of the state."

Ko Ko Hlaing also said that talks between Thein Sein and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi last month "were an important step in mutual understanding" between the opposition and government.

"General Aung San is our national hero and an idol of mine since I was a young boy," he said, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi's father, the assassinated Burmese independence hero.

"I respect Daw Aung San Suu Kyi very much as she is a wise, well-learned, very intelligent person and a public figure. She also knows international affairs well. I regard her as my elder sister," he said.

Top government officials have rarely showered praise on Aung San Suu Kyi, especially by recognizing her as a public figure.

The talks between Thein Sein and the opposition leader in August came after she was allowed to hold public meetings outside of Rangoon for the first time since her release from house arrest in November.

Aung San Suu Kyi has said that her National League for Democracy "supports and is satisfied" with the meeting.

Ko Ko Hlaing said Thein Sein also found the talks "positive."

Comparison with Indonesia

He likened Burma to Indonesia, which has emerged as a bustling Southeast Asian democracy after decades of military rule, saying that the Burmese constitution, which gave the military extensive powers, could be reviewed gradually.

"For example, once many MPs in Indonesia were army officials based on the previous constitution, but amendments were made to the constitution and there are no more army officials in the Indonesian parliament now," he said.

"There are some laws in the current constitution of Myanmar [Burma] that could be amended."

Under Burma's 2008 constitution, which was pushed through by the then-ruling military junta, one-quarter of the 440 parliament seats were reserved for military officials. The constitution also allows the commander-in-chief of the armed forces the authority to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs, and border affairs.

Ko Ko Hlaing also commented on the government's rejection of calls by environmental and other groups to suspend construction of a huge dam project on the key Irrawaddy River.

The Myitsone Hydro Electric Project, a joint Burmese-Chinese venture involving eight dams, "may bring a lot of benefits for us as we need capital income especially in this time of changing economic system."

"But at the same time we have to consider whether the damage to the environment is bigger than the benefits. It is not the time to blame each other, but to solve the problems by cooperation to keep the Irrawaddy River from generation to generation," he said.

Reported and translated by Khin Maung Soe for RFA's Burmese Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

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