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Dublin: 19 °C Friday 14 August, 2020

Praise for Burma's release of political prisoners

Some 651 political activists, bloggers, a former prime minister and heads of ethnic minority groups were released yesterday under a presidential pardon allowing them to take part in “nation-building.”

Nilar Thein, center, an activist of the 88 Generation Students Group, shakes hands with one of her colleagues as she arrives at Rangoon airport after released from Theyet prison
Nilar Thein, center, an activist of the 88 Generation Students Group, shakes hands with one of her colleagues as she arrives at Rangoon airport after released from Theyet prison
Image: AP Photo/Khin Maung Win

BURMA’S RELEASE OF political prisoners drew praise from longtime critics of its once-authoritarian government, with Washington responding with a major diplomatic reward.

The release sparked jubilation among the country’s pro-democracy activists — who were reuniting with their freed comrades Saturday — while signaling the government’s readiness to meet western demands for lifting economic sanctions.

The United States immediately announced it would upgrade diplomatic relations with the country it has shunned for more than two decades for its repressive policies.

Political activists, bloggers, a former prime minister, heads of ethnic minority groups and relatives of former dictator Ne Win were among the 651 detainees released Friday under a presidential pardon allowing them to take part in “nation-building.”

The initial euphoria over the prisoner release could dissipate, as it became evident Saturday that many convicts who are political detainees by most definitions remained behind bars.

A series of accelerating changes in Burma

But the release was still the latest in a series of accelerating changes in Burma, including the start of a dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the legalisation of labour unions and the signing of a cease-fire agreement in a long-running campaign against Karen insurgents.

President Barack Obama praised the release as “a substantial step forward for democratic reform,” and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said ambassadors would be exchanged between the countries in response.

“This is a lengthy process, and it will, of course, depend on continuing progress and reform. But an American ambassador will help strengthen our efforts to support the historic and promising steps that are now unfolding,” Clinton said.

The US has not had an ambassador Burma since downgrading its representation after a 1988 pro-democracy uprising was harshly put down by the army.

“With the restoration of full diplomatic relations, the United States has shown the government of Burma that it is ready to react quickly to concrete reforms,” Suzanne DiMaggio, a policy analyst for the New York-based Asia Society, said in a statement. “It also sends a message to the people of Burma that the United States is working to encourage the process of democratisation during this fragile period of transition.”

Norway changes policy on Burma

Norway on Saturday decided to reward Burma for its release of political prisoners by no longer urging Norwegian companies “to refrain from trade and investment in Burma.”

The Foreign Ministry in Oslo said the recommendation had only narrow application for Norway, and that the country would continue to follow the EU’s sanction regime.

“The change in Norwegian policy is a signal to the government of Burma that reform pays,” Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said in a statement.

The United States and its allies, meanwhile, may take a wait-and-see approach on sanctions to ensure that government truces with various ethnic rebel groups stay in effect, that discussions with Suu Kyi move forward, and that elections in April are free and fair.

Even the prisoner issue appeared far from settled. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had given the authorities a list of 604 prisoners considered political detainees to be released. Myanmar Home Minister Lt. Gen. Ko Ko said at a press briefing Saturday that the government was able to locate only 430 of them. Of the 430, 302 were freed Friday, while 128 remained detained for breaking laws considered strictly criminal or for links with the Taliban, Ko Ko said.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), based in neighboring Thailand, welcomed the releases, but pointed out that they are conditional and can be withdrawn, putting practical limits on the freedom of action of those freed. By its count, as many as 1,000 political detainees might still be behind bars, mainly because they were convicted under statutes not regarded by the government as political offenses.

Top western diplomats visit

A parade of top western diplomats has visited Burma lately — Clinton in December and British Foreign Secretary William Hague last week. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe was arriving this weekend.

The message conveyed by western countries has been clear: they are encouraged by the reform process under President Thein Sein, but economic and political sanctions could not be lifted unless the prisoners were freed. The sanctions generally ban doing business with Burma , block financial transfers by military-backed leaders and their cronies, and deny visas to the same VIPs.

“I think we are close to the removal of western sanctions,” said Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at the University of Canberra, adding that the US and others might first wait to see Suu Kyi take a seat in parliament. “There’s a sense that there’s still more to go before the sanctions will be removed.”

Official reaction to the prisoner release was upbeat from groups that had taken a tough stand against repression in Burma.

“This is a courageous step and a further confirmation that the reform course chosen by the government of Burma-Myanmar continues,” said Catherine Ashton, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy.

Human rights activists added a word of caution.

“Pressure for progress on the remaining prisoners and other human rights concerns in Myanmar must not abate,” said Suzanne Nossel, Amnesty International USA’s executive director. “The risk is that the restoration of ties between the two countries may be premature and could weaken the pressure to address critical areas of unfinished business in addressing serious human rights abuses in Burma.”

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