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Burma’s president must go beyond rhetoric and firmly embed the reform programme in government policy, particularly with regard to rule of law, a prominent student activist has urged.
Ko Ko Gyi’s comments came in response to a speech delivered by President Thein Sein yesterday in parliament in which he sought to “present a brief account of our government’s achievements” since coming to power one year ago on Thursday.
He touted references in international media to the “Burma Spring”, in reference to the Arab Uprisings that toppled several autocratic rulers, and said that the country’s “stable and correct transition is gaining more and more international recognition”.
But the rosy assessment of the country’s development was tempered by Ko Ko Gyi, who played a pivotal role in the 1988 and 2007 uprisings, for which he spent years in prison. He warned that “old habits” from the former military junta live on in the new administration, and that rule of law cannot be guaranteed until the government sets out to educate its citizens.
“For the rule of law to become alive there is a need for education and awareness of law among the public,” he told DVB. “Without these, rule of law will not exist beyond words. We welcome the fact that the president is saying officially that there is a need for the rule of law [but] he needs to substantiate it.”
“When talking about the law, we need to talk about the law-making process in connection with the parliament. What is the existing law being used for? Which laws are the ones blocking human rights? Which laws that protect the people and are useful for the people need to be made?
“Only when there is a law-making parliament that represents the people and is free in accordance with their will, will the law become alive.”
Thein Sein has embarked on a series of political and media reforms, and the government earlier this week agreed to grant DVB journalists visas to work legally in the country for the first time in the organisation’s 20-year history.
The issue of whether exiles, many of whom fled the threat of lengthy imprisonment for their political work, can return is being hotly debated. Thein Sein began his speech by saying that he wished “all citizens who became expatriates for certain reasons … good health and happiness”
He continued that Burma was witnessing “with pleasure the eager participation and assistance of overseas Myanmars [Burmese] from various parts of the world” and that a “new political generation” would contribute towards a “mature democracy”.
Moe Thee Zun, an exiled democracy activist and one-time leader in the armed All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, thinks the reality for those who had fled the country is not so simple.
“They say it often but in reality no one can come home,” he laments. “It doesn’t work out when they apply [for a visa]. Many dare not go back, I am told.
“We need to issue a law such as a general amnesty. Only then would the exiles be able to go home. For example, in Vietnam, Cambodia and Somalia, they welcomed exiles with this kind of law.”