By Larry Jagan
BANGKOK, Sep 23 (IPS) -
Having released more than 7,000 prisoners in the last few days as part of the preparations for next year’s planned polls, Burma’s military rulers are up to their old tricks, according to Burmese activists and human rights groups.
Most of those released are petty criminals, although around 200 political prisoners are among the freed. Many analysts believe these releases are intended to increase the credibility of next year’s multi-party elections – the first in 20 years.
But activists accuse the junta of releasing political prisoners to deflect international pressure, especially at the United Nations, where the annual general assembly got underway this week. Burma usually comes under intense scrutiny during this meeting.
"Every one of these prisoners is a person, and it is unacceptable that the junta uses them as chips to bargain with and play the international community," said Thailand-based David Scott Mathieson, the Burma researcher for the Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based independent organisation.
At least 127 political prisoners have been freed, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners - Burma (AAPPB) in Thailand, which closely monitors the situation inside the junta-ruled South-east Asian state.
So far more than 40 members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, have been freed, three of whom were elected as members of parliament in 1990. Six members of the 88 Generation Students group, who were sentenced to more than 60 years in jail for their alleged part in organising the Buddhist monk-led mass protests two years ago against rising food prices, were also among those released from jail.
Four monks arrested after the Saffron Revolt in 2007, four journalists, 13 students and a lawyer were also freed, according to the AAPPB. "These releases are a showcase to ease international pressure," Bo Kyi, the head of the AAPPB, told Inter Press Service. "We expect more than 200 to be released within the next few days."
The government’s announcement last week that exactly 7,114 prisoners were to be released on compassionate grounds came on the eve of the anniversary of the current military rulers ceasing power in a bloody coup on Sep. 18, 1988, and the start of the U.N. annual meeting, to be attended by the Burmese prime minister, General Thein Sein – the highest junta leader to attend the U.N. session in more than 15 years.
It is usually the foreign minister and a large team of diplomats who defend the regime during these U.N. proceedings. "The choice of 7,114 prisoners clearly smacks of the influence of astrologers," said Bertil Lintner, a writer and Burma specialist based in Thailand. The regime’s leaders are known to consult astrologers to establish the most auspicious dates and times for key events, and number like this. Many analysts and activists believe this amnesty is intended to deflect criticism of Burma’s human rights’ record at the U.N. meeting and to show the international community that the military regime is cooperating with the U.N.
Some of the political prisoners that have been freed were on the U.N.’s priority list submitted to the junta’s leaders by the U.N. secretary general’s special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, earlier this year, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also raised this issue with the top general Than Shwe during his failed mission to Burma in July, when the U.N. official was refused permission to meet detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
At the time, Ban was promised that a substantial number of political prisoners would be released before the elections in 2010. "Clearly, this is a gesture in response to Ban Ki-moon’s request, made on behalf of the international community during his visit to Myanmar earlier this year," the Burma researcher for the Britain-based human rights group Amnesty International, Benjamin Zawacki, told IPS.
"And as such it is disingenuous and insultingly insufficient." "These prisoner releases are simply too little, too late" he added. "Too little, because releasing around 120 political prisoners represents less than 5 percent of the more than 2,200 political prisoners who are still languishing in Myanmar’s jails."
"And too late, because at the current rate of release -- every 6 to 12 months -- it will be literally decades before the last of the political prisoners are released. By then, of course, the 2010 elections will have long since passed and many of the prisoners will have served their terms." Diplomats in Rangoon – Burma’s former capital – believe more political prisoners will be released in the coming months, but that these will be freed in drips and drabs.
The junta’s seven-stage roadmap to democracy includes a mass amnesty for political prisoners. This was agreed more than five years ago between the former prime minister, General Khin Nyunt – now under house arrest -- and the U.N. envoy at the time, Dato Razali Ismail, according to the former U.N. human rights rapporteur for Burma, Paulo Pinheiro. Few believe that the regime will honour this promise, though a few more political prisoners may see the light of day. "Technically, there is still time before the elections for this (recent) mass release to be only the first step -- with many more to follow in quick succession – but all the signs and signals suggest this will not be the case," said Zawacki.
"If the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council, as the military regime is officially called) was serious about making the elections free and fair, they would release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi," said Zin Linn, a spokesman for the National Coalition Government for the Union of Burma, the democratically elected Burmese government currently in exile in Thailand.
"They may free other activists, but the key opposition leaders will certainly be kept behind bars until after the election." There is no doubt that the elections are dominating everything in Burma at the moment – even though the polling date is yet to be announced – according to diplomats and sources within the business community in Rangoon.
The mass release of prisoners may also be in preparation for a possible crackdown on the opposition during the elections. "The junta cannot afford to allow the campaign to be free and fair," said Lintner. "They are emptying the jails now to fill them up later – that’s what also happened in 1988, ahead of the mass pro-democracy protests, when thousands and thousands of activists were later locked up," he said.
"The SPDC is still playing games — cracking down and easing pressure when it suits them, and then re-asserting their power when they need to," said Zin Linn. It is all part of the military rulers strategy to keep control and prevent social unrest, according to activists and human rights groups.
"Even if a handful of political activists have been free, others are still being arrested," said Mathieson. "
The message is clear: any threat to the 2010 elections will be dealt with harshly."