Wednesday, 24 September 2008

An Evil Game: Token Release of Political Prisoners

The Irrawaddy News-Blog

The release of Win Tin, a renowned 79-year-old journalist, and other political prisoners is very good news. But wait. Their amnesty is further proof that the junta is playing its usual evil games.

Win Tin was released on Tuesday after serving more than 19 years in the notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon. Other well-known politicians and political activists were also released, but the exact number can’t be confirmed.

The military regime announced an amnesty for 9,002 prisoners for good behavior, saying the amnesty was granted to help build a new nation ahead of the 2010 general election.

Observers believe that only a small number of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners were among those freed.

Of course, political activists are happy that Win Tin, the former editor of the respected newspaper, Hanthawaddy, and a key adviser to pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is free. He was the longest serving political prisoner in Burma and perhaps all of Southeast Asia. He is famous for his unwavering political spirit.

Apart from Win Tin, at least seven other senior members of the main opposition National League for Democracy were released from Insein and other prisons.

Their release should not be viewed as a policy change by the regime. The junta, as always, carefully calibrated its move based on external events.

The amnesty follows the opening of the 63rd United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York, where the United States will again raise the Burma issue. US President George W Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will make it a point to seek more cooperation from the international community to help restore democracy in Burma and protect human rights.

US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalizad said, “We’ll continue efforts to increase pressure on Burma, to make progress on the political track. There has been no progress on that.” Two other permanent members of the Security Council, Britain and France, are expected to join the US in taking a strong stand on Burma.

So, it was time for the regime to do something to counter criticism in the UN assembly. The international community will welcome the release of political prisoners, and the junta can say it has complied with part of the UN’s demands.

Actually, it’s an old game—political prisoners have always been pawns for the junta. In other words, they are hostages to be released whenever the regime wants to ease mounting international pressure.

Since the regime took power in 1988, the number of political prisoners has always remained above 1,000. The junta, according to Amnesty International, now has 2,000 political prisoners. If the junta really wanted to change its policy, it would release all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, prominent student leader Min Ko Naing and ethnic leaders such as Hkun Htun Oo. (JEG's: U Gambira, Nilar and all the other monks doing hard-labour by now)

This latest release will undoubtedly draw praise from some members of the international community. But we shouldn’t be fooled. The release of all 2,000 political prisoners would be the first step of genuine political reform.

Anything less means political prisoners are just pawns in an evil game.

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