Today is Burma's Independence Day, but the country is in no mood for celebrating. To mark the occasion, the now nearly year-old “civilian” government of President Thein Sein has announced the latest round of prisoner releases—the third since he assumed power last March, and by far the most disappointing.
Thein Sein's prisoner “clemency” came as a real blow to those who expected far more, including not only those unjustly imprisoned for their political convictions and their families, but also the nation as a whole. With only a few dozen political prisoners released—most after already serving the bulk of their sentences—it appears that last year's tentative moves toward reform are quickly losing steam.
If that is the case, 2012 is off to a very somber start. Thein Sein's order to commute death sentences to life imprisonment and reduce lengthy prison terms by a decade or less will be cold comfort to those still behind bars, and also sends the message that Burma's transition to full democracy is set to proceed at a glacial pace.
Last October, the government freed 6,395 prisoners, of whom only about 200 were political detainees. That number also fell far short of what the people of Burma and the rest of the world wanted to see, but it didn't prevent the country winning its bid for the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations in 2014, or stand in the way of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's landmark visit in December.
Now, however, it will be harder to justify such gestures from the international community, which must step up its efforts to secure the release of all political prisoners in Burma before making further conciliatory moves.
For her part, Burma's pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, today conceded that “Changes have not come about as quickly as we had hoped,” while urging her followers not to lose patience. She also emphasized her continuing confidence in Thein Sein's reform efforts, which she enthusiastically endorsed last year.
But at this stage, not even comforting words from the most trusted person in Burma can change the fact that hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars for no good reason. Until that changes, and political leaders such as Min Ko Naing and Hkun Htun Oo are once again in the public eye, hope for real change remains dim.
There are, of course, other issues that must be addressed, such as negotiating an end to ethnic conflicts and reforming the country's economy, but these are no excuse for allowing some of Burma's most courageous and patriotic citizens to languish in prison cells.
Since this is the time of year that many people make resolutions, the people of Burma—including those who have appointed themselves as our leaders—should firmly resolve to make 2012 the year that our country becomes truly free by freeing those who have devoted their lives to standing up for our rights.