(Editorial) – Burma is on the path to peaceful development but there will be more challenges ahead, in spite of a joyous day in which most of the prominent political prisoners were released.
The scenes of joy over the unexpected release of political prisoners today indicates real change. Those released included well-known 88 Generation Student leader Min Ko Naing, the Shan ethnic nationalities leader Hkun Htun Oo and one of the Saffron Revolution leaders, Ashin Gambia. Even the formerly powerful ex-prime minister and Military Intelligence Chief Khin Nyunt was sprung from incarceration. This is an indication it is not business as usual in Burma. Today’s release of political prisoners was preceded by concrete reformist actions by the new government, notably the decision to halt the Myitsone Dam project financed by China and the cancellation of the 400-megawatt coal-fired power plant in the Dawei Project of Italian-Thai company.
Opening the gates of the prisons today for these people indicates the government has confidence in national reconciliation and is moving towards a more democratic society. But more challenges lie ahead. Burma needs judiciary system, reform of the suffocating bureaucratic system and serious attention to infrastructure and the struggling health and education systems.
That there was a delay in seeing this release was an indication of the struggle behind the scenes between the reformists and the old guard.
Talk of release has been on people’s lips for months. Political leaders like 88-Generation students, the Shan ethnic leaders Khun Htun Oo and former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt are important figures in politics and they have the potential to disturb the tranquillity of the streets and the government's seven-point Road Map to full democracy. However, after the historic move of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to jump into the electoral process, things have truly changed. With the acknowledgement by Western governments and the support of opposition forces – bar a radical minority communist group – Thein Sein’s government appears to have gained the confidence to move forward pursing the electoral process.
Nobody would have believed this if they had been told about it a year ago. President Thein Sein understands that national reconciliation includes the release of political prisoners. This process has been accelerated by today’s action.
There appears to be a tacit understanding for the opposition to stay off the streets. No demonstrations are in the offing. But a lot will depend on whether changes seep through to the grassroots. Certainly the atmosphere on the streets of Rangoon this week was one of more openness with discussion of politics no longer a taboo. Important changes are needed in the country’s budget in sectors like health and education, meaningful change to bureaucratic mechanisms, local administrations, and the judiciary. If this happens in a relatively short period of time, the popularity of the Thein Sein government’s moves will remain and a sense of forgiveness of the previous regime may be realized. If this fails to happen, there may be mass protests with the focus on the environment, land confiscation, corruption, and possibly over the continued armed confrontation in ethnic areas, if tension still exists.
Might there be a backlash from hardliners? Unlikely. The interesting point here is that the military’s Commander in Chief General Min Aung Hlaing was visiting Thailand when the amnesty was announced. Min Aung Hlaing is a member of the 11-member National Security Council, which has the final say on matter like amnesty of prisoners. This indicates little or no concern that things will fall apart should he depart Burma’s shores.