The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
A Good Beginning to the New Year
By KYAW ZWA MOE Friday, January 13, 2012

“I will be very happy to meet my family,” Nilar Thein said over the phone today, just minutes after stepping through the gate of Tharrawaddy Prison. At the time, her family was in fact on the way to greet her, and her husband was in the process of being released from Taunggyi Prison in Shan State.

“What Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein are doing right now is what we had been expecting for many years. I want them to get more meaningful things done,” she said.

When asked for her response to the release of political prisoners, she remarked “many thanks” before being swarmed by political colleagues who were waiting outside the prison for her and other political prisoners to emerge.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is managing editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].

The last time I spoke on the phone with Nilar Thein was in 2008. She had been pursued by government authorities for leading political activities during the 2007 Saffron Revolution after her husband Kyaw Min Yu—known as Jimmy—was arrested, and she gave me an interview from her hideout. She expressed concern for her 4-month-old daughter, but was very committed to her political beliefs and to taking whatever risks necessary in support of them.

“My daughter will understand me one day why I have to leave her,” Nilar Thein said prophetically at the time. Soon after the interview, she was arrested and later sentenced to 65 years imprisonment, the same term as her husband. The couple also served lengthy periods of imprisonment in the 1990s.      

Nilar Thein and her husband Jimmy were among the 651 prisoners released today as part of an amnesty negotiated between pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. The group included many prominent political prisoners, including Min Ko Naing and the other leaders of the 88 Generation Students group, Shan ethnic leader Hkun Htun Oo and all other imprisoned ethnic leaders, and dissident monk Ashin Gambira.

Prisoners who were sentenced on charges related to their connection to armed groups were not released, but Khin Nyunt, the former chief of the military intelligence and prime minister who was arrested in 2004 on charges of corruption, was set free along with other former MI officers. 
The release of political prisoners, which has been a persistent demand of Burmese political activists and the international community, constituted the first concrete reform in 2012. The move was especially welcome following the “cruel clemency” of two weeks earlier, where instead of the anticipated release of a substantial number of political prisoners, only around 30 of the over 6,000 prisoners that were freed were political activists.

Thein Sein and his government deserve congratulations for the bold move in the face of internal opposition, but key issues remain that they must address in 2012. These issues will be a barometer used to assess whether Burma is making continued progress towards genuine democracy. 

The first test will be whether the government conducts the April 1 by-election in a free and fair manner. The chief of Burma’s Election Commission, ex-Gen Tin Aye, said in December that the by-election will be free and fair, but it is not yet certain the government will allow independent organizations to monitor the election to determine whether this is the case.

 If the election is free and fair, then Suu Kyi and many of her NLD colleagues are certain to win seats in Parliament. But if the government rigs the election through fraud and manufactured “advanced votes” the way it did for the November 2010 polls, then neither Suu Kyi nor her fellow candidates stand a chance.

The by-election is only a contest for 48 vacant seats out of 1,158 seats in the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament. A vast majority of those seats are firmly occupied by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and the appointed military candidates, and that will not change in the by-election. But the mere fact that Suu Kyi and the NLD will participate makes the polls extremely significant, and if they are free and fair it will be another indication that Burma is on the right track.

Another big issue to be addresses in 2012 is the country's ethnic conflict, which has roots more than six decades old and involves issues of autonomy that will be very difficult to solve. But while solving this problem may take some time, if it is being addressed seriously then we should see concrete steps in the direction of a lasting political solution throughout the year.

 One such step occurred on Thursday, when the Karen National Union signed a ceasefire agreement with the government. Another occurred in December, when the government also signed a ceasefire agreement with Shan State Army (South). Next on the agenda should be a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army, which the Burmese military is still fighting.

Once a nationwide ceasefire has been achieved, a full-fledged political agreement should be systematically pursued with the ethnic groups with no armed clashes occurring during the process. Achieving such a lasting settlement is crucial if Burma is serious about establishing a strong democracy, because without buy-in by the country’s ethnic minorities, any democracy will be fragile.

The release today of Hkun Htun Oo, the leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, was an encouraging sign that Thein Sein’s government is interested in pursuing peace and reconciliation with the ethnic groups. But there are still members of the ethnic armed groups in prison, and those prisoners might be released only after their respective ethnic groups reach a formal peace agreement with the government.

In addition to keeping a close watch on whether the by-election is free and fair and the government takes steps towards solving the ethnic conflicts, we must continue to look at other democratic benchmarks, such as whether the government further relaxes press freedom and takes strong steps towards establishing the rule of law.

The first step towards establishing the rule of law will be allowing Suu Kyi and other pro-democracy candidates to contest in a free and fair election. Once they are in Parliament, they can push from within to enact important laws and change certain undemocratic principles embedded in the Constitution.

With the release of many political prisoners, Burma is off to a good start in 2012. Hopefully this fast start will lead to more concrete steps towards a democratic Burma, including the conduct of a free, fair and credible by-election, the development of a full-grown peace process with ethnic groups and the establishment of the rule of law throughout the country.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |