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Tricks of the tyrannical trade

Francis Wade

Sept 23, 2009 (DVB), The Burmese junta's announcement of an amnesty for hundreds of political prisoners should be seen as little more than a facelift, as its prime minister arrives in New York for top-level UN talks.

The government has once again used the amnesty card to counter growing international calls for the release of all political prisoners, but only token gestures can be made due to the apparent threat they face from a viable political opposition. Outside observers however see this factor as a major stepping stone towards democratic reform in Burma, particularly the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The last time prisoners were released in their thousands was back in February, although only 23 came within the 'political' bracket. Burma analyst Larry Jagan labeled the move "showboating"; it came amidst a high-profile visit to Burma by UN human rights envoy Tomas Quintana. The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma (AAPP) has so far put the number released this week at an unprecedented 128, and includes the renowned journalist Eint Khaing Oo, who was imprisoned after reporting on cyclone Nargis last May.

But the skeptics are standing firm. A senior member of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, Win Tin, told DVB that the move was "like putting make-up on a dead person's face", while AAPP, a group comprised of former political prisoners, see it as a "cynical ploy to ease international pressure".

It is perhaps no coincidence that the announcement came shortly before the most senior-level Burmese delegation to visit the United States in 14 years arrived in New York. This week is the UN General Assembly, and Burma prime minister Thein Sein's appearance will likely unsettle the majority of those attending, following international outrage last month at the sentencing of Suu Kyi.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said in July that all of Burma's 2,200 imprisoned activists, lawyer, politicians and journalists must be released as a prerequisite for free and fair elections next year. His comments were reiterated by US senator Jim Webb who visited Burma in August, and calls from statesmen across the world have echoed both the men.

Yet while the exit gates for many are open, the junta continues to round up 'destructive elements' and cast them into political silence. Now is a particularly sensitive time in Burma, exactly two years on from the September 2007 monk-led uprising. Its architects are reporting intensified surveillance and intimidation, with at least four monks arrested in recent weeks and many more warned against a repeat of 2007. Already Burma holds some 240 monks, a normally apolitical community, behind bars.

The US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report last week stating that the number of political prisoners had doubled since the 2007 uprising. A wave of sentencing following cyclone Nargis last May saw around 500 added to the list within the space of two months, mainly consisting of relief workers and journalists.

This latest amnesty was announced the day after the HRW report made headlines, and a couple of days before the General Assembly kicked off. As before, the regime seemingly bowed to international pressure, evidently sandwiched in between two potentially major flashpoints. The move was akin to the commutation of Suu Kyi's sentence in August, when a dramatic interjection from Burma's home affairs minister, carrying a "goodwill" letter from junta supremo Than Shwe, reduced her sentence from five years with hard labour to 18 months' house arrest.

Contrary to appearance, the hermit regime in Burma do not enjoy being in the international spotlight, and thus regularly attempt to deflect scorn with minor concessions. Of course the families of those released this week are joyful, and so they should be , Burma's 43 prisons, some located in painfully remote environments, are notoriously brutal institutions, with heavier punishment often meted out to their political inmates.

But comments from some of those released this week really bring to light the cyclical oppression suffered by the political opposition in Burma, and provide a sobering afterthought to any rapture that might surround the amnesty. 'Freedom' for them is a murky concept, given that many of the characteristics of life behind walls are mirrored in civilian society.

"I take this as my arrival to a place with a limited kind of freedom from a place with no physical or mental freedom," said Aung Tun, a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, who spent nearly 12 years in prison. "I don't really feel any different".


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