Friday, 10 July 2020

Larry Jagan

Myanmar's military junta claims its recent release of several political detainees and about 9,000 other prisoners marks the dawn of a new political era and another milestone in its roadmap to "disciplined democracy”, but analysts say it is merely part of a masterplan to dominate the next election.

The mass amnesty appears to be timed to coincide with the first anniversary of last year's 'Saffron Revolution' when police and soldiers brutally suppressed monk-led anti-government protests against spiraling inflation and a dramatic fuel price hike, leaving possibly hundreds dead and many more injured.

But the release also probably signals the start of preparations for the national elections in 2010, said Win Min, an independent Myanmar academic based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. "The regime knows it must find ways of controlling the outcome without looking too draconian ... [it] never does anything that is not part of a bigger game plan."

The elections are part of the country's roadmap to what the regime has referred to as "disciplined, flourishing democracy'', according to Myanmar military sources. There is no word yet if opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), or other opposition parties, will be allowed to field candidates.

The mass release of prisoners has come as a surprise to diplomats and residents in Yangon, as while the regime frequently grants amnesties to mark important occasions, such as Armed Forces day or National Day, these are usually petty criminals, albeit with a handful of political prisoners.
Among those freed was Win Tin, reportedly aged 79, the country's longest serving political prisoner and a veteran journalist and political activist. At least four other prominent former members of the NLD were also released. Suu Kyi, however, remains under house arrest in the Yangon residence where she has spent more than 13 of the last 19 years, with no
sign she will be freed any time soon.

"I will be happy only when all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, are released," Win Tin told local journalists shortly after his release. Two other NLD members were also released along with five other NLD politicians. One of them, Win Htain, was Suu Kyi's private assistant before he was detained in 1996 and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.

"The release of these political activists, particularly those who were very close to Aung San Suu Kyi, must be seen as an olive branch to the pro-democracy leader on the part of the [Myanmar] leaders," a Yangon-based Asian diplomat told Inter Press Service. "It may not be an offer of dialogue, but it may represent a softening of the regime's hardened
position towards the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Win Tin served as a close aide to Suu Kyi and helped found the NLD with her in 1988. He was arrested on July 4, 1989 - days before the opposition leader was detained. He was initially sentenced to 14 years in prison in a military court for allegedly being a member of the banned Communist Party of Burma.

In 1996, he was sentenced to an additional seven years for writing to the United Nations about prison conditions and for writing and circulating anti-government pamphlets in prison.
A long-time editor, journalist and poet, Win Tin refused to allow prison to silence him. "He would write poems on the walls of his cell with ink made of brick powder and water," Zin Linn, a former political prisoner and close colleague of Win Tin, said.

Immediately after he was released, Win Tin vowed to continue fighting until Myanmar was a democratic nation. "I will keep fighting until the emergence of democracy in this country," he told journalists gathered outside his house in Yangon.

The international community has welcomed the releases - especially that of Win Tin. But most analysts and diplomats in Yangon do not believe this is the start of a mass amnesty for the country's remaining political prisoners. British-based human rights group Amnesty International estimates that there are more than 2,100 political prisoners still languishing in Myanmar's jails.

"While the release of U Win Tin and his fellow prisoners is certainly the best news to come out of Myanmar for a long time, unfortunately they represent less than 1% of the political prisoners there," Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Myanmar researcher said from London in a phone interview. "These handful of people should never have been imprisoned in the first place, and there are many, many more still in prison."

The regime recently announced through state-run media that thousands of prisoners would be released in the run-up to the elections because of good behavior and to allow them to serve the nation, with Myanmar's current leader, Senior General Than Shwe, attempting to paint the mass release as the start of a new era.

The amnesty is not without its precedents. More than 20,000 prisoners, including hundreds of political prisoners, were released over several months in 1992 to mark Than Shwe's becoming head of state and the start of the constitutional drafting process.

Similarly, more than 10,000 prisoners were freed after former prime minister and military intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt was ousted in November 2004, including many of the 1988 student generation such as Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and others who had been imprisoned for 14 years. However, most were re-arrested for involvement in the 'Saffron Revolution' last year.

There are likely to be many changes in Myanmar's political scene in the weeks ahead as the regime gears up for the elections, but even though it has already begun to describe itself as a transitional authority, most of the these are likely to be cosmetic.

Information Minister Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, told UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari when they met in Yangon last month that the transitional government would "oppose and wipe out those who attempt to jeopardize or harm the constitution".

This can only mean the military authorities will continue ruthlessly to suppress dissent, while there is little hope of the forthcoming elections being free and fair. “The military will not make the same mistake it did last time,” said Win Min, referring to the landslide victory the NLD won
against the junta in 1990, which was ignored by the regime.


Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok
Source:September 26, Asia Times