In an attempt to rectify the anti-democratic policies and human rights violations of the past by the military junta that ruled the country for 23 years till a few months ago, the government of President Thein Sein, a military strongman-turned civilian to head an ostensibly civilian government, has started releasing from October 12, 2011, political prisoners who were languishing in jail under the military dictatorship for many years.
The decision to release the prisoners under a general amnesty came in the wake of talks held by the government —including the President— with Ms.Aung San Sui Kyi, the leader of the pro-democracy movement, who was released earlier this year.
The decision to grant an amnesty was a sequel not only to the talks between her and the government, but also to stepped-up interactions between the government and US interlocutors, including Mr Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who has been monitoring developments in Myanmar on behalf of President Barack Obama in order to nudge the government to make a break with the authoritarian past .
In recent weeks—particularly after the dialogue between Suu Kyi and the government started— there were signs of excitement in the international community over what seemed to be the beginning of the blowing of winds of change in Myanmar. International observers noted that their fears that the government of Thein Sein, which came to office after an election manipulated to keep Suu Kyi and her associates out of power, might turn out to be nothing but the old military wine in a new civilian bottle had not proved correct.
The seemingly civilian government, which consists of many military members of the previous junta who had discarded their uniforms and projected themselves as civilian political leaders, started giving indications of new thinking on the road ahead for Myanmar.
Two indicators of the new thinking were reports that the government seemed keen to find ways of associating Suu Kyi with the new dispensation without letting her get into the driving seat of power and the decision to suspend the construction of a huge hydel project by a Chinese company in the Northern Kachin state because of strong opposition to the project on environmental and other grounds by Suu Kyi and her party, by Kachin leaders and non-governmental environment protection groups.
The significant decision to suspend the Chinese-driven project, which would have benefited the Yunan province of China more than the Kachin state of Myanmar, gave cause for hope that Chinese interests, which played an important role in influencing the decisions and policies of the military junta, may no longer play the same role under the new government.
Will the winds of change affect positively not only the political and economic landscape of Myanmar, but also its future diplomacy? That was a question that increasingly excited analysts.
In the context of these developments, it was, therefore, no wonder that in remarks made in Bangkok on October 10, Campbell hailed the recent developments in Myanmar, including what he described as "very consequential dialogue" between Suu Kyi and the leadership. Campbell, one of many US officials to hold rare talks with Myanmar foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin in Washington recently, added that while concerns remained, "it is also undeniably the case that there are dramatic developments under way".
Against this background, the release of the first batch of political prisoners by the government on October 12 was less daring and more hesitant. The first batch consisted largely of those arrested in recent years, including some activists of the monks’ unrest of 2007, but did not include any of the founding fathers of the pro-democracy movement who took to the streets in 1988, thereby triggering off a ruthless retaliation by the Army.
No exact figures of those released on October 12 are available. The government itself has put the number at about 300 out of a total of about 2000 political prisoners. Non-governmental organisations such as the Human Rights Watch of the US say that the number involved is less, including 28 monks. Among the prominent persons released were comedian Zarganar, who was arrested in June 2008 and sentenced to 59 years imprisonment for criticising the military junta’s poor and inhuman response to a cyclone disaster that allegedly killed 140,000 people, Sai Say Htan, an ethnic Shan leader sentenced to 104 years in 2005 for refusing to help draft a new constitution, and Su Su Nway, who was serving a 12-year jail term since 2008. Among the more prominent persons not released so far are the then student leaders of the 1988 movement, including Min Ko Naing. Some of them have been in jail for over two decades.
While the evidently hesitant first steps have been welcomed by Myanmar political activists, there are concerns that a group of pro-Chinese hardliners from the Army who had served in the junta in the past might be exercising pressure on Thein Sein to go slow and even reverse his policies. In this context, the visit of the foreign minister to Beijing reportedly for talks with the Chinese authorities on the decision to suspend the construction of the Chinese-driven hydel project has been noted with concern.
According to China’s State-owned Xinhua news agency, talks were held in Beijing on October 10 between Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi and his Myanmar counterpart U Wunna Maung Lwin, who was visiting China as a special envoy of President Thein Sein. A press release issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry after the talks said that the two sides conducted a thorough consultation over the Myitsone hydel project, which was ordered to be suspended by Myanmar's President. The two foreign ministers also exchanged views on bilateral relations and other issues of common concern, with both voicing commitments to push forward the bilateral comprehensive and strategic partnership in a bid to achieve joint development, the press release said. The visiting Myanmar foreign minister was also received by Vice President Xi Jinping.
It is not known whether the Myanmar foreign minister’s visit had been previously scheduled before the suspension of the hydel project or was triggered off by expressions of Chinese unhappiness over the suspension.
Suu Kyi has said she believes Thein Sein genuinely wants to push through reforms, but cautioned it was too soon to say whether he would succeed. The release of the first batch of prisoners came shortly before the departure of President Thein Sein, who has already visited China after assuming office, on his first visit to India.
While India has reasons to be gratified over the rectification of the past—even if it be hesitant— it should avoid any expressions or actions that could create an impression of a policy convergence on Myanmar between India and the US. The situation in Myanmar is still delicate. India should carefully watch its steps and control its mouth.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.
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