Burma's rulers play the numbers game to win international approval

 Published: 10/11/2011 10:46:02 AM GMT
Original Cached

Burma's rulers have always cynically refused to acknowledge holding any political prisoners at all. Despite swapping military uniforms earlier this year for suits and ties in a bid to brush up their international image, they still maintain this fiction.

But few outside the regime's inner circles and the state media credit the illusion. Most estimates put the number of political detainees at about 2,100, many of them incarcerated for years in appalling, life-threatening conditions.

How many of these unsung heroes of the Burmese people's struggle for freedom and democracy will be among the more than 6,000 prisoners expected to be released from jail on Wednesday is anybody's guess. Previous amnesties granted by the regime have included disappointingly few activists from the much-proscribed National League for Democracy (NLD), whose landslide election victory in 1990 – Burma's last credible national poll – triggered the military takeover.

Little more than one year ago, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN human rights council's special rapporteur on Burma, drew attention to what he called "a pattern of gross and systematic violations of human rights" that he said had been in place for many years, particularly in Burma's hidden prison camps.

"The possibility exists that some of these [violations] may entail categories of crimes against humanity or war crimes, under the statute of the international criminal court," he said.

The prospect of its leading lights being hauled off to The Hague, however remote, could be one reason why the remodelled junta now led by President Thein Sein is ostensibly relaxing its grip on dissent.

The mooted prisoner release follows recent moves to ease censorship, open up a dialogue with the NLD's Aung San Suu Kyi, and cancel an unpopular, Chinese-run dam project. These developments have been hailed by outside organisations, such as the International Crisis Group, as evidence of a welcome change of political direction, partly in response to western pressure.

An open letter published this week by Win Mra, chairman of the newly-formed Myanmar [Burma] national human rights commission (sponsored by Thein Sein), seemed to back up this analysis. Win Mra wrote that prisoners who did not pose "a threat to the stability of state and public tranquillity" should be released.

"The commission humbly requests the president, as a reflection of his magnanimity, to grant amnesty to those prisoners and release them from the prison."

But decades of repression and abuse cannot be wished away with a few flicks of an autocrat's fountain pen, no more than can the habit of mind that sustained and justified such egregious behaviour for so long.

It seems unlikely that Thein Sein and his cronies have suddenly seen the moral light, or that they have finally bowed under the weight of western disapproval. If substantial numbers of political prisoners are released on Wednesday, it will be the result of some very hard-headed, unsentimental calculations.

One is that Burma's resource-rich economy, hobbled for years by dictatorship, isolation and under-investment, is set to take off, if western sanctions and restrictions are lifted.

The release of political prisoners has always been the foremost demand of the US, Britain and others. If this demand is fulfilled, even partially, then pressure will grow on the EU and the US to ease back.

That pressure will come in part from countries such as Germany that, in the case of Burma, have consistently prioritised commerce and trade over reform.

Another junta consideration is China's increasingly overbearing behaviour, which contrasts unfavourably with the attractive blandishments, real and potential, attendant on improved relations with India, Japan and others intent on curbing Beijing's ambitions. China reacted with imperious displeasure to the postponement of the Irrawaddy dam project.

India's non-judgmental handling of Burma over the years has been much less threatening. No coincidence then that Thein Sein will be visiting Delhi this week. For its part, Japan is quietly rebuilding its bridges to Burma.

Burma's rulers are also motivated by a desire for rehabilitation in the premier regional forum, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), whose rotating chairmanship they hope to hold in 2014.

The appearance of reform in Burma, even if only superficial, would greatly assist this aim. And it would be heartily welcomed by businesslikecountries such as Thailand and Malaysia that have their own human rights challenges and have never been entirely comfortable with Burma's continued ostracism.

Although genuine human rights concerns will continue to influence its policy, the US, too, has a clear interest in improved relations, for similarly persuasive commercial and geostrategic reasons.

So overall, a self-serving consensus is emerging among interested states rendering them increasingly ready to accept the junta-inspired reform narrative now emanating from Burma.

Never mind what the Burmese people or the NLD activists held in solitary confinement may say. Never mind how hollow the promises of change could prove to be.

In this developing storyline, Burma is coming in from the cold – and all may share in the resulting benefits with a good conscience. Trouble is, the story is almost certainly untrue.


TAG CLOUD Tags Cloud

Get Adobe Flash player

Previous Next
News in Pictures

Will There Be a Digital 'Pearl Harbor'?

Capitalizing on Investment Opportunities in China

Deadly Blast At Fast Food Outlet

Raw Video: Deadly gas explosion in China

Buffett's Bet on Big Blue