Commentary: Prisoner releases are old news

Pascal Khoo-Thwe

Feb 23, 2009 (DVB), The release of political prisoners in Burma announced by the Burmese regime on Friday is not news. They shouldn’t be there in the first place.

21 February. A snow storm hits Oslo. Burma’s military junta declares the release of 6313 ‘state’ prisoners ‘out of charity’. Neither of these events, in my opinion, is news.

The similarity between the two is that the events have occurred in their respective countries so often in the past that no local residents care. But the latter is manmade and it is impossible not to find it laughable but also depressing at the same time as the tragedy is preventable.

My first reaction was; ‘I didn’t know that there were that many criminals in our country.’ The State Peace and Development Council released 9002 prisoners in September 2008 and there were fewer than 10 political prisoners among them. This time around 20 political prisoners are released. Again, it is nothing new. There are more than 2000 political prisoners still languishing in jails throughout the country, away from their families.

One constant characteristic of the Burmese military government is its obsession with numbers and names. If you read the state-controlled newspapers and watch Myanmar television, you will see how many watts of electricity the state is providing for the nation while half of the habitable parts of the country are in darkness every night, or how many tons of rice are being exported while most people can afford only one meal a day, or which generals went to ‘inspect’ which state factories (in fact, they are owned by companies controlled by their relatives and cronies) and ‘gave necessary instructions’. If they could, they would also state how much air the people breathe every day as it is almost impossible not to be breaking one law or another in the country. You can be charged with treason if you are found possessing foreign currencies, or talking to your relatives abroad or offering food to monks or burying the dead. It all sounds like a joke but it is a cruel truth. Charles Dickens, eat your heart out.

Not only political prisoners but also ordinary people who go about their daily business to find their daily rice in Burma are imprisoned unjustly. For example, villagers were ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of kyat for collecting firewood and threatened with violence by gun-toting soldiers who fired their guns into the air when villagers could not pay them all the money they demanded, while logging and mining companies are allowed to destroyed the country as they like.

Burma is a country dominated by (not a country of, mind you) thugs, thieves and busybodies who have nothing else to do but ruin the soul of a nation. By now the international community, especially the United Nations, should realise that they are dealing with a group of ruthless generals who would do anything and would say yes to anything to stay in power but will do nothing that humanity and decency demand. The UN is only promoting the cause of the junta by just meeting and talking to the generals without putting muscle behind its words.

On his release, Rangoon Sanchaung National League for Democracy chairman Thet Wai, who was jailed for reporting forced labour practices in Burma to the International Labour Organisation, said that he looked at his release in a positive light but he insisted that it has become a habit of the junta to release only a few political prisoners whenever it is pressured by the international community and neighbouring countries.

In fact, the generals only release a few political prisoners when they have major political gains to make, such as the time when it wanted to sell its new constitution to the international community last year and now ahead of the proposed 2010 election. The junta is like people who give only the smallest amount and the poorest quality to other people and want to get all the best things from them. When I checked the numbers of other prisoners released I noticed that they don’t add up, and I started to doubt whether 9002 prisoners were actually released last year or 6313 this year. The junta has never released the list of prisoners released from each jail or allowed independent groups to monitor the releases.

When DVB asked Mandalay Amarapura MP-elect Dr Zaw Myint Maung’s only daughter how she felt about her father’s release, she said in a tearful and joyful tone, "I am nearly 21 now but I have never lived with him. My daddy often told me that he would come back for my graduation." She was only months old when he was imprisoned in 1990. I wonder how many mothers and children are still crying tonight behind this happy ending. There are people who can help end their sorrows and they know who they are. All they need is political will.

Meanwhile, the snow keeps on falling in Oslo and the Norwegians continue to wait for the unusually late trains without a murmur in the freezing temperature , to go shopping. As I write this, unknown people are still being imprisoned, beaten up tortured and killed in Burma for various reasons.

I will only believe that there is a change for the better in Burma when there is a snow storm in Burma or when the Norwegian government releases thousands of prisoners in one go.

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