FASTLANES: Myanmar frees prisoners, but don’t celebrate yet

The release of more than 6,000 prisoners from Myanmar’s notorious prisons last October 12 was no doubt welcome news. It is too early however to celebrate and remove Myanmar from the rogues gallery in the community of nations.

Reports coming from the autocratic state with a nominally elected president and parliament actually pointed out that of those released in a properly stage-managed event that immediately drew praises from the global community, only about 200 were actually political prisoners.

Many political prisoners in Myanmar are ageing and suffering from different illnesses. Many are from the 88 generation or the activists of the August 1988 uprising that started in the University of Yangon after the fall of Ne Win and his atrocious experiment called the Burmese Way to Socialism.

Hordes of activists were also hauled to prison during the Saffron Revolution in 2008, and even during the 2009 calamity brought by cyclone Nargis. Among the prominent democracy activists jailed for organizing relief efforts after the cyclone which claimed about 150,000 lives and displaced about a hundred people in the Ayeyawaddy Division fronting the Andaman Sea, south of the country was the recently released comedian and satirist Zarganar.

Pressed by crippling economic sanctions by the US and Europe, and wanting to exploit their vast resources in agriculture, forestry, mining, natural gas and hydropower for domestic economic gains, the rulers of Myanmar have committed to a transition to democracy.

One of the measures that signalled the reforms was the release of the iconic democracy leader Aung San Syu Kyi who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, ahead of the elections and before the new constitution took effect last year.

The release last Oct. 12 of prisoners was no doubt another step towards improving the country’s image abroad.

Worthy of note was the early applause of countries like the US.

Although very harsh in its criticisms against Myanmar’s despotic generals and its economic sanction has somehow affected them, the US has always been waiting in the wings to exploit the country for its resources and for its proximity to emerging economic powers China and India, the other half of the BRIC formation (Brazil, Russia, India and China). The US maintains a sprawling Embassy Complex in University Avenue by the Inya Lake in Yangon.

By fomenting the new government of Myanmar into instituting cosmetic democratic reforms, the US, the world’s wounded superpower may then be able to justify its increased presence and involvement in the domestic affairs of Myanmar.

But wait, while the changes in the country are welcome and long overdue, celebrating before the proverbial singing of the fat lady may have serious risks. Among the risks would be a possible cover-up of the crimes against humanity of the generals who have ruled the country since 1989 and the genocide against the various ethnic nationalities.

It is cause for serious worry that while the former generals now sitting in the palaces in the capital Napyidaw as members of the Hluttaw (Parliament) or holding other positions in the civilianized bureaucracy, are on a propaganda tripping to improve their image, the conflict situation in the ethnic minority areas is going the opposite direction.

Fighting continues in the Kayin (Karen) state in the south and the 15-year old ceasefire between the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) and the Kachin Independence Organization has been broken last year in the Kachin State in the North.

Sporadic fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army has been erupting in the Kachin State since last year.

The construction by the Chinese of the 6,000-megawatt Myitsone Hydro- electric power plant in the Irrawaddy River’s confluence upstream the Kachin capital Myitkyina is further aggravating tension in the north of the country.

Although long overdue and almost forgotten by default by many peace-loving people of Myanmar, the international community should continue its vigilance in seeing to it that the democratic reforms in the country are sustained.

Many want to see the country’s movement to democracy comparable to the democratic reforms and economic progress in post-Suharto Indonesia.

Unless this is seen on the ground, the fat lady should be stopped singing yet.

(The writer had worked in a Myanmar peace organization as a Fellow of the Norwegian FredsKorpset (Peace Corps) in 2009-2010. He is now a Senior Editor of The Peninsula Qatar, based in the Philippine Bureau in the Subic Freeport Zone. Comments can be sent to [email protected])