Sun, Jan 08, 2012 - Page 13 News List

Is democracy finally coming to Myanmar?

With elections and the release of prisoners, Myanmar’s brutal regime seems to be loosening its grip. But can the generals be trusted?

By Jason Burke  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Protesters clamor for democratic reforms in Myanmar, also known as Burma, outside the UN building in Bangkok on Dec. 10, 2007.

Photo: Bloomberg

At around 10am one day earlier this week, a dazed and haggard man in surprisingly clean blue convict’s fatigues walked out of Insein jail on the outskirts of Myanmar’s capital, Rangoon. Tang Naing Oo had been in prison — held for the most part in a cell measuring 9m by 15m that he shared with 110 other inmates — for 14 months. He had originally been sentenced to three years in jail, back in September 2010, for distributing pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, the famous pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel laureate, on a Rangoon pavement. Now, he was walking past the noodle sellers, the watermelon hawker, a crowd of waiting passengers at the ramshackle bus stop, to a form of freedom.

Tang Naing Oo had learned he was to be released only a few hours earlier. When he woke in the fetid cell at 5am, he saw “hope” on the faces of his fellow inmates, he says. His release came the day before national celebrations commemorating the independence of Burma (later renamed Myanmar) from Britain 64 years ago, and some kind of amnesty had long been expected from the government. However, the hopes of most inmates in Insein, and the vast network of other prisons and interrogation camps around the country, were disappointed. Of the between 600 and 2,000 political prisoners estimated to be in detention, only a couple of dozen were released. None were senior figures.

“If the government are serious, they will release all the other detainees,” Tang Naing Oo says, slumped against the grubby wall of a nearby shop-cum-home-cum-cafe. “This is just for getting more interest from the international community. It is not real change.”

The international community arrived in Myanmar on Thursday in the shape of William Hague, the British foreign secretary. He is the first UK official of such seniority to come to the country since the army took over in 1962. Last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first US secretary of state to visit for a similar period, flew in and Hague is following her exact itinerary. He arrived in Naypyidaw, the new capital hacked at huge expense out of swamps and scrub in the center of the country, where he met Thein Sein, the retired general who was named president and head of the new, nominally civilian government last year by the dictator Than Shwe, following the latter’s supposed retirement from public life. Hague then flew to Rangoon, the bustling city on the Irrawaddy delta, where he met representatives of civil society and ethnic minorities before having a private dinner with Aung San Suu Kyi.

The visit, British officials in Rangoon say, has been prompted by the reforms recently made by Myanmar’s rulers and the desire of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government to encourage further progress on the path to democracy, stability and prosperity. Even 18 months ago such an ambition would have been laughable. Successive military regimes have won deserved reputations for brutality, corruption and human rights abuses.

Myanmar has been repeatedly shaken by uprisings, most recently in 2007. One of the world’s longest running civil wars has pitted ethnic groups against the national army, creating a vast refugee crisis and reports of forced labor as well as systematic rape and torture. The nation is, despite considerable resources and a prize strategic position on the Indian Ocean seaboard, one of the poorest in the world. A clique clustered around the top generals and their relatives lives in great luxury, while only one in 10 villages has electricity. The government response to the catastrophic Cyclone Nargis in 2008 was a toxic mixture of cynical disregard for human suffering, secrecy and incompetence. Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who assumed the leadership of a popular pro-democracy revolt in 1988, has spent most of the subsequent 23 years in prison or under house arrest.

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