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Compared to past prisoner amnesties in Burma, the figures at the close of play on Wednesday left little to be jubilant about: of the total released, only 3.4 percent were political prisoners; in the amnesty in May this year, it was 0.1 percent, and in July 2005, 75 percent. So it’s hardly an anomaly. Not to be put out, however, the International Crisis Group’s Jim Della-Giacoma wrote in Foreign Policy magazine yesterday that “it is the quality as much as the quantity that is significant”.
Bar a few factual mistakes that are nevertheless integral to his argument (influential monk Ashin Gambira remains behind bars), the thrust of the article is flawed. It cherry picks debatable highlights of the amnesty – for example, that parliamentary oversight of the decision “lends it an unprecedented institutional basis that makes it harder to reverse” – but leaves out major shortcomings that throw into doubt whether “key benchmarks many in the West have insisted on are being reached”, as it claims.
The “quality” of the prisoners freed on Wednesday must be questioned: the release of popular comedian Zarganar is shrewd manoeuvring by the government, which is aware of his global popularity and the widespread anger at his detention. The decision to free him, while welcome, appears to have smothered the fact that more hardline activists who are arguably better equipped at rallying Burmese, and thus a greater threat to the government, stay in jail. He himself acknowledged this.
A country remains, by definition, undemocratic until its leaders accept these “threats” to its power as fundamental components of a functioning political environment. That they were not released yesterday must ring alarm bells among those who have praised recent reforms, for these same people fail to realise the disparate roles that each faction of the pro-democracy movement plays. Zarganar is an important and articulate commentator on the malaise affecting Burma, but the medium of his work pitches him as a “softer” element of the opposition; on the other hand, Min Ko Naing, a pivotal figure in both the 1988 and 2007 uprisings, commands huge influence among those Burmese still willing to take to the streets, and thus remains a potential saboteur of proceedings in the country. The same can be said of Ashin Gambira, who was sentenced for his role in the 2007 protests and whom the regime has had trouble silencing, as well as the countless video journalists who have played a very tangible role in correcting the double-speak of the government.
While perhaps a somewhat micro-level analysis of the current situation in Burma, it provides a key reference point for the “quality” of these changes underway there, and beyond that, whether international attitudes towards the regime should soften in the wake of this week’s events. Anyone familiar with the machinations of the country’s leaders will know that they are adept at using public displays of appeasement as cover for more sinister intentions which in the past have cleverly served to shift pubic perceptions of them. Again, Min Ko Naing is a case in point: when he was released from his previous spell in prison in 2004, observers were quick to applaud the ‘good intentions’ of the government, rather than point to the fact that he was freed as part of a campaign to delegitimise the Khin Nyunt faction who had jailed him and other key dissidents, but whom fell foul of the junta. The paradox of that move, and many others like it, is that those who saw his release as a signal of changing times in Burma were duped by the very regime that a month before had eliminated arguably one of the more moderate voices in government.
The rhetoric of bodies like the International Crisis Group and others who have been quick to endorse the reformists in Naypyidaw is full of holes, and results in misguided, brash demands. Della-Giacoma says: “The skeptics in the international community need to acknowledge and support such a dramatic policy shift [as the amnesty] by immediately allowing institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to provide greater advice and by finding new ways to interact directly with the government, parliament, and nascent human rights commission.”
Yale Professor James C Scott has warned against the dangers of such groups attempting to assert their role in a “pacted transition”, whereby a deal is brokered that will allow military to stay in power, in whatever guise, providing it offers a variety of concessions, such as the release of some prisoners. “If there’s a pacted transition then it’ll preserve the centrality of the military for a long time – it’s going to reconfirm the seizure of assets and so on.”
The disappointment over the amnesty clouds what had appeared to be a slew of positive moves by the government, most recently the passing of a law allowing workers to strike and unionise. These occurred as a result of years of lobbying by exiled and in-country groups, and it may be that the government is waiting to gauge the reaction of the international community before deciding whether it needs to release more political prisoners.
But analyses that heap praise on the events of this week will do little to reinforce the fact that more needs to be done; that the “quality” of these reforms – from the releasing of hardline activists, to actually abiding by, rather than merely introducing, democratic amendments and laws – is stepped up. Clearly we’ll have to watch what happens over the coming weeks, but knee-jerk applause of the government’s paean to democracy, whilst ignoring its reluctance to implement key measures that would cement a new path in Burma, is dangerous at a time when governments are pondering future policy on the country. They would do well to take sensationalist assessments with a pinch of salt, and instead maintain a beady eye on what is not being done.