The move to cut all sentences by one year freed thousands of common criminals but left the majority of political prisoners languishing in jail.
When Burma’s new government announced a prisoner amnesty last month, Than Kyaw was among a few dozen of the country’s more than 2 000 political detainees to be set free.
“I had a bitter experience in the prisons,” the 56-year-old said, showing a large scar on his hip—a reminder of the hundreds of beatings he endured behind bars for offences as slight as not catching flies when ordered to by the guards.
With only three days left to serve of his 25-year sentence for high treason when he was released, the former member of the anti-junta Communist Party in western Rakhine state could hardly be described as lucky.
The move to cut all sentences by one year freed tens of thousands of common criminals but, despite persistent calls from the international community, left the overwhelming majority of political prisoners languishing in jail.
The March handover of power from the junta to a nominally civilian government and the release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi after the first election in 20 years sparked cautious hopes of gradual reform in Burma ruled by the military for nearly half a century.
But the so-called amnesty was “a measure of how fragile the changes are”, according to David Mathieson, a Burma specialist at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
He said the fact so few political prisoners were released meant the country’s leaders still perceived them as a challenge.
“Even though they have said some positive things in the past few months, it’s got to be demonstrated in action,” he said.
November’s election was dogged by allegations of cheating and intimidation, and the appointment of ex-generals to key government posts heightened fears that Burma’s top brass were simply re-dressing ongoing military rule.
During a visit to Rangoon on Friday, US Senator John McCain warned the country could face a Middle East-style revolution if the new government failed to implement democratic reform and improve human rights.
Washington has voiced disappointment with Burma’s progress and refused to ease economic sanctions, which are also still enforced by the European Union.
Some say there is evidence within the new system that gives cause for optimism, but patience is needed.
“We cannot change everything immediately,” said Khin Maung Swe, leader of the National Democratic Force, an opposition party that has several seats in a Parliament dominated by the military and its political proxies.
Aung Naing Oo, a Thailand-based analyst, agreed progress was likely to be slow and there was still confusion in the capital Naypyidaw over who should do what under the new Constitution.
“It’s a mixture of good and bad going on and I don’t think we can make a judgment in two or three months,” he said.
“They [the regime] have been used to doing their own thing for the past 50 years. They are grappling with new ideas, the rules of the game.”
One of the strongest signals that change might be in the air was the appointment in April of economist U Myint—a friend of Suu Kyi—as an adviser to President Thein Sein.
Although he said he would not become a “mediator” in talks between Suu Kyi and the government, U Myint has vowed to aid “cooperation” between them.
“He’s very well known and well respected,” said Aung Naing Oo, describing the appointment as “one of the biggest pluses” among steps taken by the government so far.
Less positive has been the lack of dialogue between Suu Kyi and the country’s political and military leaders, despite her calls for talks.
Although she was excluded from the vote and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party disbanded, she recently expressed hope of conducting a nationwide political tour that would be a key test of her freedom.
Aung Naing Oo said he feared there could be a confrontation if she goes ahead.
“Everything that’s been gained in the past few months will likely be lost if there’s a political setback. Burma is accustomed to violence,” he said.
While travelling in 2003, Suu Kyi’s convoy was attacked in an ambush apparently organised by a regime frightened by her popularity, and she was arrested and placed under house arrest.
Conflict between ethnic minority insurgents and the state army also continues to plague certain border areas, such as eastern Karen state, scene of one of the world’s longest-running civil wars that stretches back six decades.
Renaud Egreteau, a Burma expert at the University of Hong Kong, said the new regime would want to see potential interlocutors, including ethnic groups and the outside world, pledge goodwill and change their perceptions.
“It is the eternal problem of Burma: who makes the first move?” he said. - AFP