Burma's Democracy Roadmap Back on Track?

Burma’s military leaders have laid the foundations for the next step in their democracy roadmap – elections in two years time. The regime usually signals the start of a new era with a mass release of prisoners, and this has now begun, with the freeing of more than 9,000, including several key political prisoners earlier this week.

Among those set free was the country’s longest serving political prisoner, the 79-year-old veteran journalist and political activist, Win Tin. At least four other prominent MP’s from the National League for Democracy (NLD) were also released. Two other members of the NLD were also given their freedom. However, the party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest in her Rangoon residence, where she has spent more than 13 of the last 19 years.

Win Tin spent the last 19 years in jail on subversion charges, and on his release vowed to continue fighting until Burma was a democratic nation – a battle he took up in 1988, when mass pro-democracy demonstrations brought the country to a standstill for months before the army intervened and seized power in a bloody coup.

"I will keep fighting until we achieve real democracy in this country," he told Burmese journalists gathered outside his house in Rangoon. "I will continue with politics as I am a politician."

The United Nations and international human rights groups have campaigned strongly for his release for years, citing his ill-health and age as reasons to set him free on humanitarian grounds. While in jail, Win Tin suffered two heart attacks and underwent a hernia operation. He also has high blood pressure, diabetes and spinal inflammation, according to the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres, which has been continuously campaigning for his release. Despite his ordeal in prison, he is in good spirits and good health, according to his family.

Win Tin served as a close aide to Aung San Suu Kyi and helped found the NLD with her in 1988. He was arrested on 4 July 1989, along with other opposition politicians. The authorities initially kept him without food, while interrogating him about his role in the democracy movement, the opposition leader wrote in a newspaper article in 1996, after she was released from house arrest for the first time.

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 UN about prison conditions and for penning and circulating anti-government pamphlets while 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, told Asia Sentinel. Now a free man, he remains defiant – insisting on wearing his prison blues as a sign of protest against the military rulers. “I will be happy only when all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi are released,” he said.

Win Tin's release came as a surprise. Many analysts believe the regime’s freeing of a few prominent political activists was timed to help deflect criticism and pressure from the international community at this year’s UN General Assembly, which started in New York last week. Last Friday the UN envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari appealed to the military junta to release the country’s political prisoners. “It is our sincere hope that the government of Myanmar will listen to the voices of the international community. As long as political prisoners including Suu Kyi are not released, it will continue to be a problem for the regime and it will draw back progress towards democratisation.”

It would seem that the regime may now be trying to make concessions to the international community for fear that the UN Security Council might resume its efforts to have international sanctions imposed against Rangoon. “The releases were planned to help reduce international pressure,” Bo Kyi, who runs an organisation for Burmese political prisoners based in Thailand told Asia Sentinel. “It is meant primarily to serve as a weapon for its allies - China, India, Russia and ASEAN – in order to defend it at the UN.”

The international community has welcomed the releases – especially that of Win Tin. But most analysts and diplomats in Rangoon do not believe this is the start of a mass amnesty for the country’s remaining political prisoners.

“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 one per cent of the political prisoners there,” Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher told the Bangkok Post from London. “These handful of people should never have been imprisoned in the first place, and there are many, many more.”

The releases run counter to the junta’s recent crack-down on dissent in the country. In the past few weeks, it has sentenced several students and NLD activists to long prison terms. During this month alone, it has arrested 37 political activists, including the renowned student activist of the 88 group, Ni Lar Thein, Bo Kyi said.

The sentencing of young labour activist, Thet Way to two years hard labour earlier this month drew sharp criticism from international organisations, especially the International Labour Organisation. Thet Way had been helping people, especially child soldiers, to file complaints against the government about forced labour. In a statement issued last week, the ILO said it was “concerned and disappointed” at the sentence - the maximum permissible under the law. The ILO had been in contact with the military government about the case “at a senior level”, it added.

Only last week Lu Tin Win was sentenced to two years in jail, on charges of "disrespectful act towards the state", according to opposition sources. Lu Tin Win was originally detained in 1999 but released in 2007. He was re-arrested almost exactly a year ago at a checkpoint where he was searched and found by the police to have a copy of the book Opinion of 88 Generation Students.

“This is the junta’s strategy – release political prisoners, especially when the sentences finish, and re-arrest them when they fear they are becoming a threat to the regime,” said Bo Kyi. But others feel that the regime’s larger strategy for the future may be behind the recent releases.

“The release of political prisoners probably signals the start of a process of preparations for the elections planned for two years time,” the independent Burmese academic, Win Min told Asia Sentinel. “The regime knows it must find ways of controlling the outcome without looking too draconian,” he said.

The elections, which are part of the country’s roadmap to “disciplined democracy”, are scheduled to be held in the early part of 2010, according to Burmese military sources. As yet there is no concrete information as to which parties will be allowed to field candidates, and it is unclear whether the NLD will be permitted to take part.

The regime recently announced through the state run media that thousands of prisoners would be released in the run up to the elections because of their good behaviour and to allow them to serve the nation. The junta has already started to release the 9,002 prisoners in a gesture of "loving kindness and goodwill", the state-censored independent weekly newspaper Myanmar Times reported. But there is no mention of whether any of these planned releases would include political prisoners. The UK-based human rights group, Amnesty International estimates that there are still more than 2,000 political prisoners languishing in Burma’s jails.

The government often releases prisoners to mark important occasions, like Armed Forces day or National Day, but these are usually petty criminals, and sometimes include a handful of political prisoners. The current Burmese leader, General Than Shwe also uses the mass release of political prisoners as a way of signifying the start of a new era. More than 20,000 prisoners, including hundreds of political prisoners, were released over several months in 1992, to mark his becoming the head of state and the start of the constitutional drafting process, with the preparations for the National Convention.

Again in November 2004, after the prime minister and military intelligence chief, General Khin Nyunt was ousted, more than 10,000 prisoners were freed, including many of the 88 student generation – Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and others, who had been in prison for fourteen years – they were re-arrested a year ago because of their involvement in the Saffron Revolution last September.

The regime fears a repeat of last year’s unrest and has implement stringent security measures throughout the capital on the eve of the anniversary of the brutal crackdown on the monk-led demonstrations a year ago. “At the moment what the junta fears most is another uprising on the streets – and Win Tin’s release in particular may also be intended to dampen the anger against the regime in the country that is growing and becoming more vociferous everyday,” Win Min told Asia Sentinel.