By EDWARD WONG
A conflict in Myanmar’s northern hills threatens both to jeopardize its warming trend with the United States and to alienate Chinese officials worried about stability.
Reforms in Myanmar
Happy days again?
Jan 13th 2012, 9:56 by R.C. | SINGAPORE
THERE was a brief lull following the excitement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar at the beginning of December, maybe as everyone paused to take stock. This week the story of Myanmar’s gradual reform seemed to be back on track, with two more dramatic and hopeful developments; a significant release of political prisoners, on January 13th, and a ceasefire agreement between the Burmese government and one of the main ethnic armed groups, the Karen National Union (KNU), the day before.
This prisoner release, along with the one before, constitutes the most solid evidence that the regime is serious about changing its ways. The freeing of all the country’s political prisoners (there may be 2,000) has been one of the most consistent and forceful demands posed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the opposition, and Western governments over the years: Ms Clinton reiterated the same on her visit. Indeed, people had hoped for another round of prisoner releases around the time of her trip, though nothing happened then. Now, just when a trace of scepticism was creeping in about the whole reform process, the government has released 651 prisoners in one go under its amnesty programme.
At the time of writing it’s not clear exactly how many of the freed men and women can be classified as “political”, but it’s already evident that this batch includes many of the most prominent jailed dissidents, some of whom have spent decades in and out of the government’s jails. Several of them are leaders of the so-called 88 Generation movement, made up of those who took part in the student uprisings of 1988 and later. These include Nilar Thein, Min Ko Naing, Mya Aye and Htay Kywe. Several of these activists were first jailed for long sentences after the unrest of the late 1980s, only to be released and then jailed again after an aborted uprising led by Buddhist monks in 2007—the failed “saffron revolution”. Most intriguingly, the day's released prisoners include Khin Nyunt: no student revolutionary, General Khin served as the junta's intelligence chief and as the country's prime minister until his ouster in 2004. On being let out of house arrest, at the age of 71, he immediately expressed support for Ms Suu Kyi. (Incidentally, while in office the former general was credited with brokering an earlier series of ceasefires with the armed ethnic groups.)
Those among the opposition and in the West who support deeper engagement with Myanmar’s quasi-military government will see this as a further vindication of their approach. Sceptics on the other hand think that Aung San Suu Kyi has been moving too fast in her rapprochement with the new president, Thein Sein. But she already seems to be getting more out of the government than many might have expected by this stage. On her release today Nilar Thein immediately endorsed Ms Suu Kyi’s new strategy, giving another little fillip to the reform process.
For her part Ms Suu Kyi welcomed the releases. They came only the day after her National League for Democracy had announced exactly which of their number will be contesting vital by-elections set for April 1st. Ms Suu Kyi herself will be standing, for one. The elections should prove to be quite a test for the government’s reformist credentials.
Meanwhile, on January 12th the Burmese government signed a ceasefire agreement at Hpa-an, in Kayin state (formerly Karen state), with the KNU. The Karen have been locked in a civil war with the Burmese government ever since the country won its independence from the British in 1948; if this ceasefire does eventually lead to a durable peace this too will be regarded as an important moment. In the agreement both sides committed themselves not only to a ceasefire, but also to opening communication offices and to allowing passage for each others’ (unarmed) troops.
The series of conflicts between the central government in Yangon and the main ethnic groups, such as the Karen, the Shan and the Kachin, on the peripheries of the country, has been one of the most destabilising factors in Myanmar’s history. Everyone acknowledges that if Myanmar really is to recover and prosper again then these little wars will all have to be resolved; Ms Suu Kyi puts particular emphasis on this point in many of her speeches. So a ceasefire in the longest-running of those conflicts is certainly a step forward—particularly as this will be the first such written accord between the two sides. Nonetheless, as one KNU leader warned, “talks only go so far. What matters are practical steps taken on the ground.” Quite so, especially in Myanmar, with its sad history of false dawns and dashed hopes.
(Picture credit: AFP)
Myanmar began freeing prominent political prisoners Friday, in the latest reform that the government is taking in an apparent effort to get out from under the weight of Western economic sanctions.
Political detainees set free in the latest government amnesty included Min Ko Naing, a famous student leader from a failed pro-democracy uprising in 1988, and Khun Tun Oo, a well-known Shan ethnic leader, the Associated Press reported. Also released was Shin Gambira, a militant monk who helped lead antigovernment protests during the abortive 'Saffron Revolution' that was crushed by Myanmar soldiers in 2007.
Human-rights activists and family members said they expected more political dissidents to walk free later Friday or in the coming days, after the government said a total of 651 inmates would be released.
Japan eager to promote economic activity in Myanmar
A former political prisoner hugs his daughter after his release from Insein Prison in Yangon on Jan. 13. At far left is his wife. (Takeshi Fujitani)
NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar -- The release of more political prisoners on Jan. 13 in Myanmar (Burma) will likely spur Western nations to lift their economic sanctions against the Southeast Asian nation.