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Monday, Jan. 23, 2012

Watch for new arrests of political opponents before singing the praises of Myanmar's spring

Special to The Japan Times

WELLINGTON/TOKYO — When Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in late 2010, there was much cause for celebration, yet the Burmese people and the global community watching from afar remained skeptical.

It felt like just another grand, symbolic gesture orchestrated by the generals to placate the growing chorus of criticism outside of the country, before they returned to business as usual. Yet surprisingly the process of reform continued and began to build up a momentum of its own.

Could the new Thein Sein government really be a different entity from the old regime? Could real and irreversible change be occurring in a country where it once seemed little more than a pipe dream?

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano's visit to Burma (Myanmar) on Jan. 12, the first in 12 years by a Japanese trade minister, coincided with what is arguably the largest victory for the Burmese democracy movement to date.

The mass release of political prisoners the next day is significant not just because of the large number of political prisoners involved — 651 at latest count — but also because of who was released. The freeing of Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Htay Kywe, Mya Aye and other key figures from the "8888 Uprising" is in many ways as significant as the release of Suu Kyi herself.

The uprising — named after the day it started, Aug. 8, 1988 — was the most serious challenge made to the power of the generals in living memory, and democracy activists such as Min Ko Naing were the architects and leaders of that challenge.

History warns us not to jump the gun and praise Burma's rulers quite yet. Many of the activists released Jan. 13 were also freed in 2004 or 2005 and then arrested again in 2007. One of those was Min Ko Naing, who headed the All Burma Federation of Student Unions in 1988 and is probably Burma's most well-known opposition leader after Suu Kyi. He was previously released from prison on the eve of a debate on Burma at the U.N. Security Council where a resolution on human rights abuses in the country was being proposed.

Thus Burma's rulers have a long been in the habit of using political prisoners as bargaining chips to gain concessions from Western governments and this is clearly the strategy of the current government. Yet this time things are happening on an unprecedented scale.

Previous prisoner amnesties, such as the one in May last year, for example, saw only 55 political prisoners released alongside thousands of regular convicts.

And recent concessions from Western governments have been larger, more tangible and quicker than ever before. Shortly after the Jan. 13 prisoner release, quid pro quo-seeking Washington announced that ambassadors would be exchanged between the two countries as a signal of renewed formal diplomatic relations for the first time since 1988.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made the announcement, also commended the new government for signing a ceasefire agreement with the Karen National Union (KNU) and bringing an end to one of the country's longest-running insurgencies.

Yet little has been said of the fact that the Burmese military is still carrying out offensives against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north of the country and that thousands of Kachin refugees have been displaced to the Chinese border.

Since March last year a constant stream of prime ministers, foreign ministers, trade ministers, members of Parliament, senators and other emissaries, from Tokyo to Oslo, including international heavyweights such as Hillary Clinton and British foreign minister William Hague, have made the pilgrimage to the Naypyidaw.

Japan has been quick of the mark in this race, sending high ranking government ministers to Burma on three separate occasions since mid 2011. Deputy Foreign Minister Makiko Kikuta visited in June last year; Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba in December; and Trade Minister Yukio Edano just last week.

Alongside them delegations of global financial investors and business executives have also been flocking to the country to carry out market research and explore potential business opportunities.

Burma is a nation rich in natural resources, such as minerals, oil and gas, which decades of isolation and mismanagement have left largely untapped. It also has a fairly large population of 62 million people who could make a sizable industrial labor force and also a sizable consumer market. Its location between China and India, the world's two largest emerging economies, gives the country added potential for economic development and profit making.

Hedge fund billionaire George Soros announced that he would open up an office for his philanthropic mission in the country after he met with Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this month. Trade Minister Edano was accompanied to Yangon by a delegation of officials from top Japanese companies, such as Hitachi, Toshiba, Mitsui and JX Nippon Oil and Energy.

Without doubt, Burma is opening up to the world, but what is the hidden agenda motivating the country's rulers to open the iron gates? Are the people able to freely get involved in the political process creating the changes in their country?

So far, the former generals are still playing a largely unilateral game, where they dominate and control every step along the way toward building a new Burma. Economic liberalization without political emancipation is no victory for the Burmese people. For a former military general, President Thein Sein is clearly a moderate and may well prove to be a decent human being, but in order to continue carrying out his reformist program he ultimately needs to retain the backing of the army and its commander in chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, a man who has a reputation as a hardliner.

In the afterglow of such a massive victory for human rights in Burma, it is critical that we do not forget the hundreds of political prisoners — by some accounts more than 600 — who still remain in captivity, living in exceedingly harsh and inhumane conditions.

In addition, the crooked laws and legal processes that made the imprisonment of political prisoners possible in the first place remain unchanged.

For Burma to call itself a democracy, it must go beyond releasing its political prisoners; it must become a society where there is no risk that political prisoners will be taken in the future — a country where speaking out against the government is not a crime but a right.

Naing Ko Ko, recipient of the 2010 Amnesty International New Zealand Human Rights Defender Award, is a former Burmese political prisoner. Simon Scott is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes on Japan and Burma-related issues.

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