Hope is a dangerous thing. In moments of darkness, it can bring light into the lives of those who need it most. But when hopes are dashed, they can throw a harsh light on reality and breed a deep determination to achieve real change, at whatever cost.
In recent weeks, the people of Burma have enjoyed a rare respite from decades of gloom. President Thein Sein's announcement that he would order a halt to construction of the Myitsone dam in response to popular opposition to the project was welcomed as a sign that Burma was about to enjoy its own version of the Arab Spring—a transition to democracy, without the chaos and bloodshed.
Now, however, it appears that government-led reforms are stalling. Reports that there were only 220 political detainees among the 6,359 prisoners slated to be released as part of an amnesty declared on Monday was a disappointing reminder that the current “civilian” administration is not so different from its predecessor—the brutal military junta that locked these prisoners up in the first place.
Zarganar, the celebrated comedian who was among those released yesterday, minced no words when asked what he thought about recent developments in Burma, which included a meeting between Thein Sein and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in August.
“I wanted to believe in these positive changes that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about. But since this morning, I lost belief in them because I found that the government does not have a true desire to release all political prisoners,” he told The Irrawaddy hours after his return to Rangoon from Myitkyina Prison in Kachin State.
Zarganar said he wanted to see all political prisoners freed, from the four little-known Buddhist monks he met in prison to high-profile leaders such as Min Ko Naing and Ashin Gambira. He even called for the release of Khin Nyunt, the ousted intelligence chief who was the hated nemesis of Burmese democracy activists for more than a decade.
Compared to Zarganar's generosity of spirit, the government's display of “magnanimity” in releasing barely 10 percent of the nearly 2,000 political prisoners in Burma's gulag looked not only mean, but like a needlessly cruel slap in the face of people's expectations.
Politically, it could also prove to be profoundly stupid. Thein Sein has won accolades for his decision to call off the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam project, a bold move that came at the risk of angering Beijing, Burma's major ally, but now he appears to have given in to hardliners within his own administration who refuse to even acknowledge the existence of political prisoners. This could undermine his efforts to win greater support from the Burmese public and international community, which could in turn play into the hands of the reactionaries in his midst.
It is still too early to declare the end of the “Burmese Spring”—if, indeed, we can even say that it has truly started. But if Thein Sein is sincere about pursuing reforms, he needs to retake the high ground and respond positively to calls for the release of all political prisoners, without further delay.
The government may have missed its chance this time, but it can still regain some momentum if, as UN human rights envoy to Burma Tomás Ojea Quintana has urged, it releases all remaining prisoners by the time by-elections are held at the end of this year.
According to Quintana, who will submit his latest report on Burma's rights situation to the UN General Assembly next Wednesday, Burmese officials told him they were reluctant to release political prisoners because they were worried about public demonstrations.
What Burma's government should really fear, however, is the consequences of building up expectations that it cannot, or will not, meet. If recent signs of change prove to be no more substantial than the false promises of the past, they could fuel the very unrest the government seeks to avoid.
In other words, releasing all of Burma's political prisoners is the only way forward for Thein Sein's government, because the alternative—undoing recent progress and inviting something akin to what the world has witnessed in the Arab world—is far worse.