Burma’s Mass Prisoner Release: Has the Regime Truly Turned a Corner?

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Former Myanmar prime minister General Khin Nyunt, who was placed in detention after his ouster in a 2004 power struggle, stands with relatives following his release from detention in Yangon on January 13, 2012.

One by one, they emerged. On Jan. 13, 651 inmates were granted amnesty in Burma, many of them prominent political prisoners, the latest reform in a country whose leaders have surprised even skeptics with their rapid pace of change. Burma’s opposition, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has said repeatedly that it will not support the lifting of international sanctions on members of the country’s political and military elite until all prisoners of conscience are released. However this month, Australia announced that it would begin easing some of its targeted financial restrictions on certain Burmese, and the European Union, Japan and other nations are beginning discussions on whether they want to do the same. And today, the U.S. restored full formal diplomatic ties with a state that seemingly months ago still appeared a pariah.

Under the leadership of President Thein Sein—a retired general who took office last year after orchestrated elections in late 2010 replaced a long-ruling military junta with a quasi-civilian regime—several rounds of political prisoners have been released. But this latest amnesty is by far the most extensive—and one opposition spokesman told exile media he believes that all (or nearly all) of those considered political prisoners by his party are now free. Although Thein Sein stated publicly last year that there were no such things as prisoners of conscience in Burma, only inmates who have “broken the law,” presidential advisor Nay Zin Latt told me late last year that “whatever term you use, political or whatever, these people, they will be released.”

Friday’s prisoner amnesty caps a transformative week in the recent political history of Burma, or Myanmar, as it is officially known. First, Suu Kyi announced formally that she would be running for a parliamentary seat in April’s by-elections, representing her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Given that the veteran opposition leader was released from house arrest only in late 2010 and that the NLD was technically a banned organization until earlier this year, Suu Kyi’s candidacy is a watershed moment. (The NLD won elections in 1990, which the then ruling junta ignored, choosing instead to hold their own flawed polls two decades later that ushered in Thein Sein’s regime.) Then on Jan. 12, the Burmese government signed a ceasefire with ethnic Karen rebels who have been battling the central authority for more than six decades, making their campaign for autonomy one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies.

Among the prisoners of conscience freed on Friday was Min Ko Naing, a student activist who spent nearly two decades in Burma’s notorious jails after helping to lead the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations that were Burma’s version of Tiananmen, complete with a bloody army crackdown. Other ’88 generation leaders were also released today, as were monks who participated in the crushed 2007 protest movement, a few journalists and representatives from the Karen and Shan ethnic groups.

But perhaps the most surprising release was that of Khin Nyunt, Burma’s former military intelligence chief and Prime Minister who oversaw a brief period of reform early this century only to find himself placed under house arrest in 2004 on corruption charges. (Burma-watchers interpreted his forced confinement eight years ago as being the result of a power struggle with former junta leader Than Shwe.) The afternoon of his release, Khin Nyunt said he welcomed Suu Kyi’s political aspirations, according to exile online media organization The Irrawaddy, which also reported that “more than 100 other former intelligence officials were reportedly released today, eight years after they were imprisoned as part of a purge of Khin Nyunt’s Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence.”

During Burma’s last period of openness, Khin Nyunt famously met with Suu Kyi, something junta chief Than Shwe refused to do in his last years in power. But Thein Sein has broken with the retired junta honcho’s stance. Last summer, he convened with Suu Kyi, even posing for pictures with her. For those watching the remarkable reforms unfolding in Burma, it can only be hoped that Thein Sein won’t meet the same fate as the once disgraced spy chief.