Prisoner amnesties only offer false hope

Alex Ellgee

July 16, 2009 (DVB), As Burma's UN ambassador finished his brief interjection to the Security Council earlier this week, news headlines leapt on the pledge that Burma was due to release political prisoners in lieu of the 2010 elections.

The news sent a glimmer of hope across the world that Burma's ruling generals had finally given in to international pressure. World leaders have said that an amnesty for the country's 2,100 political activists currently behind bars is the only way to gain legitimacy before next year. Had Ban Ki-moon's quiet diplomacy really stirred the hard-line generals into rethinking their old ways?

It is evident that the Burmese government fears the UN , Senior General Than Shwe is notoriously fearful of being brought to the International Criminal Court – yet it is unlikely that the junta leader would derail even slightly from his 'roadmap to democracy'.

Releasing political prisoners is too much of a threat to the government's planned election, which observers say is set to cement the continuation of military rule in Burma. The dissidents that remain behind bars are democracy fighters and leaders who could once again inspire the nation to reject the government's sham elections and take to the streets in revolt.

The government's indifference to the suffering of its opposition is palpable. Over 130 political prisoners in Burma urgently require medical treatment. Denied access to doctors, many are in life threatening conditions and forced to languish in prisons far from their families. It was only last month that the 140th political prisoner died in prison as a result of denied access to proper medical treatment. Salai Hla Moe was a prominent National League for Democracy (NLD) member and sometime security officer for Aung San Suu Kyi. His family was not informed about his death until their end of month visit when they learnt that he had been denied a traditional Christian burial.

Since November last year, 230 political prisoners have been transferred to remote prisons, unable to receive necessary medical treatment from their families. The objective is to silence them through both isolation, and more worryingly, death. If the government is serious about allowing prisoners to participate in the elections then these potential political leaders need to receive proper medical treatment immediately.

Perhaps most tellingly, the ambassador did not use the phrase 'political prisoners' during his speech. Burma has always denied that it holds political prisoners, instead that its only detainees are common criminals. Opposition groups and critics of the government are therefore dubious about whether any political prisoners will be released. The NLD spokesperson Nyan Win suggested that "the amnesty is not in response to Ban Ki-moon's suggestions" and is "irrelevant to what was recommended".

If it does turn out that political prisoners are released it is equally unclear as to what level they will be able to participate in the elections, especially so given that the election laws are yet to be announced. Free and fair elections require freedom to form political parties, but "participation", in the words of the ambassador, could merely imply power to vote.

Over the last five years, four prisoner amnesties have released around 37,900 prisoners – only 120 of them have been political prisoners. The latest, in February this year following a visit by UN human rights envoy to Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana, saw the release of 6,313 prisoners, again supposedly on "humanitarian grounds" so that prisoners could participate in the 2010 elections. However, only 31 political prisoners were released, most of whom were already coming to the end of their sentences.

Prisoner amnesties have always coincided with increasing international pressure on the regime, and this time is no different. Ban Ki-moon expressed "deep disappointment" with his trip to Burma earlier this month, and suggestions have been made that China's confidence in its neighbour is waning. Fear of Security Council action, which would see Burma enduring the same UN resolutions that North Korea has accumulated over the years, may have caused it to attempt mild appeasement. Indeed, following his statement, Than Swe told the meeting that "no Security Council action is needed".

If the current political stalemate in Burma endures, there is no chance that Aung San Suu Kyi will be released in time for the 2010 elections. She is the junta's most feared political leader and they know that her freedom could be the end of the constitution. Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma, stated that "The release of Aung San Suu Kyi would be the first step to show the world that [the SPDC] is serious about releasing all political prisoners."

History shows, however, that amnesties are nothing more than a currency used by the generals to buy time and deflect international pressure. Yet one lesson can be learned from this , it is in the Security Council that Burma's stubbornness starts to waver. The world should stop buying into false promises, and instead hit them when they are vulnerable. But for the time being, the longer the UN lets the generals play their mind games, the more political leaders will be allowed to die in Burma's prisons.

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