David Scott Mathieson
MAE SOT--United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appears to have been granted a belated booby prize from Burma's military rulers after his recent trip. On July 13, Ban bleakly reported to the Security Council that his visit was a major lost opportunity for the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to demonstrate their commitment to change. They did not allow him to visit Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi nor did they release any political prisoners.
Yet after Ban's speech, the Burmese ambassador to the UN, Than Shwe, said that his government was "processing to grant amnesty to prisoners on humanitarian grounds and with a view to enabling them to participate in the 2010 elections." This step was one of three benchmarks Ban announced before his visit, the others being the resumption of a substantive dialogue inside Burma, and to create conditions conducive to a credible and legitimate election.
Burma's president, General Than Shwe (no relation to the ambassador), had assured Ban during his visit that the long-planned elections would be "free, fair, and credible."
Can the SPDC be trusted to release all of Burma's 2,100 political prisoners and allow them to run in elections? Unfortunately we've been through this all before.
Recent amnesties in Burma have been little more than public relations stunts. In September 2008, 9,000 prisoners were released, but only six of them, including the 78-year-old journalist U Win Tin were political activists. The amnesty was to detract attention from the one-year anniversary of the brutal 2007 crackdown against monks and other activists in which at least 21 people were killed. In February this year, to illustrate cooperation with a visiting UN human rights envoy, another amnesty freed 6,000 prisoners. Only 24 of these were imprisoned for political activities.
Meanwhile, in the two years since the 2007 crackdown, the number of political prisoners in Burma doubled, to 2,100 and courts have sentenced hundreds of activists to long prison terms.
Political prisoners in Burma are incarcerated because they have called on the military government to protect basic freedoms. They have urged Burma's rulers to engage with Burmese society and address long neglected social issues such as health, education and basic living standards. Or they have spoken to foreigners about repression in their country.
They include Burma's most famous comedian Zargana, sentenced to 59 years of imprisonment for providing aid to cyclone victims and then publicly criticizing the government's poor relief efforts (his sentence was later reduced to 35 years). The student leader Min Ko Naing has spent most of the last 20 years in prison for heading the 1988 democracy uprising. A young Buddhist monk, U Gambira, led other monks in the September 2007 protests and is serving 68 years in prison. Authorities hunted Ma Su Su Nway, a firebrand labor activist, for months before she emerged from hiding to stage a protest near a visiting UN human rights envoy in late 2007.
Many of these prominent activists have been transferred to isolated prisons in Burma's hinterlands, far from family and friends. The squalid conditions, including lack of adequate health care and basic sanitation, have exacerbated chronic health problems. The International Committee of the Red Cross has not been allowed inside Burma's prisons for nearly four years.
Burma's political prisoners are the nucleus of an emerging civil society network inside Burma consisting of activists, writers, journalists, bloggers, hip-hop artists, monks, nuns, and aid workers. Their activities are peaceful; their message is of cooperation, consultation and community. These are the very people who should be preparing now for multi-party elections next year.
Despite the SPDC's promises, even if a few of these 2,100 prisoners are released, it is unlikely that they will be permitted to participate in the 2010 elections. Without political party registration or electoral laws, there is widespread uncertainty about who can run in the first elections for twenty years. Systematic intimidation and repression of political activities are not conducive conditions for any sort of democratic process. Moreover, Burma's new SPDC orchestrated constitution bars convicted criminals from running.
It's time now for Burma's allies and trade partners, including Security Council members China and Russia, to act and call Ambassador Than Shwe's bluff. They should push Burma to free all 2,100 political prisoners and enable them to participate fully in the elections. As long as these brave individuals remain in prison they are the starkest reminder of Burma's illegitimate political reforms.
David Scott Mathieson is Burma Researcher for Human Rights Watch.