The Junta’s Deception
The Asian Wall Street Journal
August 8 , 2001
Exiled Burmese once welcomed news of the secret talks that began in October between Burma’s rulling State Peace and Development Council and Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy. But because nothing has been disclosed about the agenda or progress of the talks, many exiles now doubt the discyssions will lead to any ind of imminent political breakthough. Their skepticism is justified.
Unfortunately, much of the Western media, and various Asia diplomats, seem covinced that the junta is seriously pursuing a path of national reconciliation with the NLD, which won the coutry’s 1990 democratic elections by a landslide but was prevented by the military from taking power. At the recent meeting in Hanoi of the Association of Sotheast Asian Nations, for example, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer proclaimed “signs of movement” from the junta not seen during the previous year. In a joint communique, Asean foreign ministers noted “encouraging developments” in Burma and reiterated their support for the ongoing process of dialogue. This was capped by Burmese Foreign Ministar Win Aung’a declaration that the talks were “still on track” despite Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s mysterious absence at Martyr’s Day ceremonies in Rangoon July 19, the anniversary of the assassination in 1947 of her father, independence hero Aung San.
But what all this really suggests is the junta’s public relations offensive is having some success in staving off international criticism of its continuing human rights abuse. At atake for the SPDC is millions of dollars in multilateral and bilateral aid, including a $28 million aid package from Japan to repair a hydroelectric plant in Karenni state, and new economic sandtions that could further hurt key Burmese industries. The United States Senate is considering legislation that would ban Burmese garment imports due to child and forced labor practices.
Much of the misplaced praise for the junta and its so-called “compromise” has come in response to the release of some 150 political prisoners since October. They included the journlist San San Nweh, Aye Win, Ms.Aung San Suu Kyi’s cousin and former aide, the popular comedians Pa Pa Lay and Lu Zaw, known as the Moustache Brothers, and the prominent writer Maung Wun Tha.
But these are only a fraction of the estimated 1,800 political prisoners still languishing in Burma’s prison, including about 35 of the 203 elected NLD representative who were detained three years ago when the party tried to convene a parliament in accordance with its 1990 elelction victory. At least 45 NLD supporters who have served their full sentences remain in jail. The SPDC obviously hopes that by releasing a prominent few it can detract attention away from the imprisoned multitudes.
Morever, torture is commonplace in the country’s appallingly brutal prisons and detention centers, and many prisoners suffer severe illnesses from which they are denied treatment. In recent weeks, the dissident Khin Maung Myint, who was in his 30s, died while serving an aight-year sentence in Kale Prison in northwest Burma. Si Thu, a student activist sentenced in 1990 to 10 years in prison, died in Tharawaddy Hospital in central Burma. He had served his sentence in its entirety but authorities refused to release him.
For the incarcerated living, mental disorders resulting from long periods of isolation are common. For example, Rangoon University lecturer Htay Thein and Zaw Min, a physician, have both recently sufered nervous breakdowns in the notorious Mandalay Prison, according to close friends and relatives. Other political pisoners detained in Mandalay who completed their sentences have yet to be released. Thus, in her discussions with SPDC officials, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has vigorously pressed for the unconditional release of NLD supporters serving the longest prison terms from a list of 200 that included primarily the sick and elderly.
The junta’s propaganda campaign includes the assertion that released prisoners are “free” and that the NLD has been allowed to reopen as many as 18 offices around the country that were closed last year. But many former prisoners say they are harassed and kept under close surveillance by the aythorities. Khin Kyaw Han, a member of the NLD parliament who had been jailed for three years, fled to Thailand last week, saying he feared he would be rearrested. He said “reopened” NLD offices were monitored by secret police and NLD workers were not allowed to engage in political activities.
The truth is that despite the so-called talks between Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and the SPDC, the repression and outrages for which the junta has been roundly condemned continue unabated. Now is not the time for the international community to ease its political and economic pressure on Rangoon. That would send the wrong meassage to a military regime that has no intention of allowing the people of Burma to live in the freedom, peace and prosperity they so desperately desire.