Myanmar’s release of political prisoners drew praise from longtime critics of its once-authoritarian government, with Washington responding with a major diplomatic reward.
The release sparked jubilation among the country’s pro--democracy activists — who were reuniting with their freed comrades yesterday — while signaling the government’s readiness to meet Western demands for lifting economic sanctions.
The US immediately announced it would upgrade diplomatic relations with the country it has shunned for more than two decades for its repressive policies.
Political activists, bloggers, a former prime minister, heads of ethnic minority groups and relatives of former head of state Ne Win were among the 651 detainees released on Friday under a presidential pardon allowing them to take part in “nation-building.”
It was the latest in a series of accelerating changes in Myanmar, including the start of a dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the legalization of labor unions and the signing of a ceasefire in a long-running campaign against Karen insurgents.
US President Barack Obama praised the release as “a substantial step forward for democratic reform” and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said ambassadors would be exchanged between the countries in response.
“This is a lengthy process and it will, of course, depend on continuing progress and reform, but an American ambassador will help strengthen our efforts to support the historic and promising steps that are now unfolding,” Clinton said.
The US has not had an ambassador in Myanmar — formerly known as Burma — since downgrading its representation after a 1988 pro--democracy uprising was harshly put down by the army.
“With the restoration of full diplomatic relations, the United States has shown the government of Myanmar that it is ready to react quickly to concrete reforms,” Suzanne DiMaggio, a policy analyst for the New York-based Asia Society, said in a statement. “It also sends a message to the people of Myanmar that the United States is working to encourage the process of democratization during this fragile period of transition.”
However, the US and its allies may take a wait-and-see approach on sanctions to ensure that government truces with various ethnic rebel groups stay in effect, that discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi move forward and that elections in April are free and fair.
The message conveyed by Western countries has been clear: They are encouraged by the reform process under Burmese President Thein Sein, but economic and political sanctions could not be lifted unless the prisoners were freed. The sanctions generally ban doing business with Myanmar, block financial transfers by military-backed leaders and their cronies and deny visas to the same VIPs.
“I think we are close to the removal of Western sanctions,” said Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at the University of Canberra, adding that the US and others might first wait to see Aung San Suu Kyi take a seat in parliament. “There’s a sense that there’s still more to go before the sanctions will be removed.”