The recent decision by the Burmese military to release 6,313 prisoners indicates that the rulers are well-versed in undertaking public relations exercises ahead of proposed multiparty elections in 2010.
Some parties see this as a positive first step in the seven stage roadmap to democracy, a sign that the junta may be ready to enter the international community after years of isolation and secrecy. If the amnesty granting is supposed to be a sign of genuine reform, it should be remembered that Burma has been at war for over six decades. The military uses armed conflict, rape, torture and displacement of civilians to maintain power and crush anyone challenging their authority. An anonymous Burmese blogger on the BBC website remarked that the junta’s way of dealing with any ‘people power’ movement is to “simply shoot everybody.”
A key component of any reform at the insistence of the army is that they will play a powerful role in the parliamentary make-up and retain 25 per cent of seats in parliament, thus keeping the entire population of Burma under the gun.
What this announcement by the junta means is that a wedge has been driven between nations debating the sincerity and intentions of this action, and whether democratic change in Burma may occur under the brutal leadership of reclusive leader, General Than Shwe. The road map to democracy is regarded in some quarters as a sign of progress, notably by the United Nations and the Japanese government who adopt a policy of dialogue and diplomacy with the junta.
Of the inmates that have been released, just 24 are deemed political prisoners. According to the Burma Campaign UK, there are over 2,100 political prisoners are still behind bars, with no possibility of freedom in sight. Will the released prisoners be forced to vote for the junta’s candidates of choice at the 2010 election, if they go ahead? If not, then they may well find themselves losing their freedom faster once again.
Naturally, the most famous political prisoner in Burma and around the world, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, continues to remain under house arrest. The 82 year-old deputy leader of the National League for Democracy, Tin Oo, also remains confined to his home in detention. In February 2009, the junta extended his ban for an additional year.
The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has repeatedly called for the unconditional and immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet the man charged with securing her freedom, Ibrahim Gambari, the Special Envoy for Burma, has made seven visits to Burma, and on each occasion, he has failed to win any concessions.
It is little wonder that Aung San Suu Kyi is fed up with appearing for media appearances that do not produce a significant shift in policy from the Burmese leadership, namely alleviating poverty, increasing rights and access to health and education, and granting freedom of expression and freedom of political association to all citizens. There is little doubt that her political party, the National League for Democracy, will be banned from taking part from any proposed elections next year.
Perhaps the only party interested in seeing Gambari on a regular basis is the Burmese military junta. In a response to the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial criticizing the value of Gambari’s visits published on 28 August 2008, the Consulate-General of Burma (Myanmar) to Hong Kong defended Gambari by praising the mutual respect shown between the junta and the Special Envoy for Burma. At the same time, the regime accused critics of failing to listen to the Burmese government’s side of the story, with the official saying that if “such people wear dark glasses, you cannot see the truth.” Tragically, it seems that too many nations around the world have forgotten about the 2007 Saffron Revolution that was brutally crushed by the Burmese military, resulting in the death of hundreds of protestors and detention of thousands more. The government blocked 85 per cent of e-mails. Lines of communication were severed, preventing civilians from pleading to the outside world for assistance and blocking foreign news agencies from reporting within Burma’s borders.
The website of one courageous individual, Nay Phone Latt, allowed the world a rare glimpse into the actions of the armed forces, complete with photos, videos and a cartoon lampooning General Than Shwe. His site was eventually closed. Following his arrest and subsequent trial without legal representation Nay Phone Latt was found guilty of breaching both the Electronics Act and the Video Act, and sentenced to 20 years jail. One year later, Burmese publications in exile such as The Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice for Burma were shut down, and now as so many nations reel from the fallout from the impact of the global financial crisis, the events of 2007 seem a distant memory, with world leaders unable or unwilling to hold the Burmese military dictatorship to account.
With negotiations inside of the country failing to make any progress, what can the outside world do? The world is pre-occupied with the global financial crisis and each country is implementing measures to minimize the damage, so a foreign policy matter such as Burma will not be high on any list of priorities. United States President Barack Obama has stated that the policy towards Burma is now under review, but even the most heartened optimistic will not expect this to be tended to immediately. His foreign policy priorities include an increase in U.S. and allied troop numbers in Afghanistan, and improving diplomatic relations with Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Immediate action needs to be taken and it must go beyond the usual rhetoric of tough talk and imposition of sanctions. The United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, the members of ASEAN and Australia need to take a more proactive role. More importantly, Burma’s allies, China and India, need to stop insisting that “private diplomacy” will work in convincing the regime to step down and change their ways.
In previous years, Burma’s leaders have made announcements that provide some hope of changing their attitude to the outside world and become more accountable. But their record of releasing and re-arresting Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilians deemed as enemies of the state is just one factor why the Burmese regime’s human rights record is regarded as abysmal.
Under the present climate, no polls will be free or fair. Following the horrendous slaughter of thousands of civilians on 8 August 1988 by the military, the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won nearly 60 per cent of the vote in elections held in 1990. However, the military refused to honor the results and forcibly took power. The Burmese government also has the option of cancelling the election if they suspect a perceived or genuine threat to their grip on power is possible, and cite security concerns as the official reason. In the meantime, the number of ethnic minorities that have been raped, tortured and/or killed will continue to rise, more foreign companies will continue to line up and invest in Burma, and ultimately all revenues will benefit only the select elite.
Should there be any doubt relating to the Burmese government’s ignorance for the plight of its own people, perhaps the closing line in the letter defending the visits of Ibrahim Gambari offers some insight; “The sky is always blue in the Union of Myanmar.” This may be the case for those who reap the rewards from blood money, but the sun is definitely not necessarily shining bright enough to offer hope for those in Burma, sadly too many ordinary civilians. For as long as the stench of blood fills the streets, the battle to secure the freedom of the Burmese civilians will never end. The international community cannot accept any more token gestures. Burma must have a genuine democracy, not a ballot sheet marked with the military junta’s calling card of bloodstains and bullets.