The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Burma’s Much-Awaited News Finally Arrives
Friday, January 13, 2012

The Burmese government freed many prominent political prisoners today, including 88 Generation Students group leaders Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Htay Kywe and Min Zeya, as well as ethnic Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo and dissident monk U Gambira.
This is great news, which the prisoners and people of Burma have been waiting years to receive, and it is hoped that the prisoner release will herald a new era of openness in Burma and lead to much-needed national reconciliation.

Because President Thein Sein was a former general and a leading member of the previous junta, and because his current quasi-civilian government came to power through the rigged 2010 election, many skeptics have been doubtful about his commitment to true reform.

But Thein Sein is reported by Aung San Suu Kyi and others to be honest and sincere, and his decision to release political prisoners today is the most significant demonstration thus far that he is willing to walk his talk when it comes to reforms.

This is especially true given the fact that there are powerful hard-line elements in the government who want to slow the pace of change in Burma. The reality of these conservative forces was apparent just two weeks ago, when the government released only a handful of political prisoners on Independence Day, when a larger release was widely expected.

A senior official from Thein Sein’s office said that conflict within the ruling National Defense Security Council, the 11-member body that has the ultimate say on most national issues, was what blocked the Independence Day release.

However, the official also said that Thein Sein remained committed to a more significant release—a fact that the president stated openly in meetings with foreign officials—and today the president, the prisoners and the people of Burma have prevailed.

This is not the first bold move that Thein Sein has made in the direction of reform. Since taking office last March, he has suspended the Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam project, released two other rounds of political prisoners, met with Aung San Suu Kyi in the presidential palace, reached out to ethnic armed groups and relaxed media restrictions.

Ko Ko Hlaing, who served under Thein Sein in the military and is now the president’s chief political advisor, told us recently that “Despite a tender appearance on the outside, Thein Sein is usually a man of determination. After full consideration, he keeps his decisions steadfastly.”

Thein Sein took much flak for promising but failing to release a significant number of political prisoners on past occasions, but he persevered and ultimately succeeded in his desire to do so today.

In fact, Thein Sein has faced substantial internal hurdles with respect to each major decision he has made this year, but took the personal and professional risks anyways. He therefore deserves kudos and recognition both at home and abroad.
It is time for Burma to move forward and it appears that for the first time in decades the people have a government leader that they can work with and who is willing to work with them.

The next major step towards national reconciliation is developing a lasting peace between the government and Burma’s ethnic minority groups. On Thursday, Thein Sein’s administration moved in that direction when it reached a ceasefire agreement with the Karen National Union.

Now the government and ethnic armed groups must continue to communicate and advance towards a nation-wide ceasefire and cessation of human rights abuses in ethnic regions. Afterwards, the work of finding a permanent political solution to the ethnic conflicts will begin, and both sides will need to demonstrate the political will to engage in meaningful dialogue at a national level and find a solution that brings about a lasting peace.

There will be a continuing role for the international community to play in Burma’s reform and reconciliation process as well. Now is not the time to wait and see, but rather to actively engage and encourage the president and his officials to do even more to move the country forward and ensure that reforms are irreversible.

The US and members of the European Union have stated openly that the release of political prisoners and cessation of hostilities in ethnic areas were two of the primary considerations in deciding whether to reduce or eliminate sanctions. The events this week will legitimately increase the calls for sanctions to be eased, especially if fighting in Kachin State ceases and the April 1 by-election goes smoothly.

It is also time for the US to consider upgrading its diplomatic relations with Burma.

Many people and organizations deserve thanks and congratulations for the role they played in gaining the release of the prisoners, including Burmese activists who unrelentingly called for their colleagues to be freed, members of the international community who pressured the government, and as we have said, Thein Sein and the other government reformists who granted the release.

But the real heroes today are the men and women who spent years in prison, sometimes in solitary confinement, but were strong and resilient enough to unfalteringly engage in a non-violent struggle to overturn a brutally violent regime.

Suu Kyi recently said that Burma is on the “verge of a breakthrough” in democracy. Today’s prisoner release could be that breakthrough, but for that to happen we must keep in mind that we are at the beginning, not the end, of Burma’s long road to democracy and human rights. Suu Kyi acknowledged this when she went on to say that the path “might be full of difficulties.”

Maybe Burma did not realize a “Mandela moment” immediately after Suu Kyi’s released, but since the time that Thein Sein took office, she and the president have jointly led the way to an unexpectedly amazing year in Burma.

Hopefully, 2012 will see even more momentum for change and produce even deeper reforms and progress towards democracy and the rule of law. It must be remembered that the detention of political prisoners, as well as the fighting and human rights abuses in ethnic areas, are things that should never have occurred in the first place. So the release of all prisoners and cessation of conflicts and abuses simply puts the country at square one.

At least this time, however, certain members of the Burmese government will apparently be standing on square one together with the people.

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