The government in Myanmar continues to spring surprises, mostly hopeful ones.
IT WAS only the night before her release this week that they told her of her impending freedom. Just 24, she had been locked up for her part in the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007 when Buddhist monks led protests against the military junta then ruling Myanmar. She still had seven years of her sentence to serve. Now her eyes shine and her face is filled with a broad smile. The joy is not just for herself. It is surely not for her family, two of whom are still behind bars, one serving a 65-year sentence. But the smile greets a moment of uncommon optimism in Myanmar. A far-fetched dream just a few weeks ago, it is now possible to glimpse the shape of a future political settlement
For the families of most of the 2,000 or so political prisoners in the country, optimism this week proved agonisingly out of reach. For weeks it had been rumoured that political prisoners would be freed as part of the amnesty traditionally granted at the end of Buddhist Lent. A new human-rights commission had called for the release of prisoners of conscience, whose very existence the regime used to deny. And on October 11th the government announced that 6,359 people would be freed. In fact, only about 200 turned out to be political prisoners. They included well-known figures, such as the country’s most famous comedian, Zarganar, a longtime dissident jailed most recently for criticising the government’s callous and incompetent response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008. About half the prisoners of conscience were detained after the 2007 uprising. They included veterans of previous movements, such as the abortive people-power revolution of 1988. Most, though, remain in jail.
That there are political prisoners at all, Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the political opposition, told The Economist in an interview this week, means Myanmar is far from a democracy. But she expects the others to be freed in batches, as the government gauges the reaction of Western governments. The prisoners have become important as symbols of the government’s willingness to court favour in the West, and to win reconciliation with the political opposition.
Human-rights groups have naturally expressed disappointment at the numbers freed. For Amnesty International, without many more releases, this week’s expected breakthrough “will constitute a relaxation of reform efforts rather than a bold step forward”. But that in itself is testimony to the weight of expectations built up very quickly. After decades in which the political process has been frozen in repressive stasis, there has been a series of what Kurt Campbell, a senior American diplomat, this week called “dramatic developments”.
Central to these developments is the establishment of a degree of trust between Miss Suu Kyi and the government, whose hardline elements seem for now to be in retreat. Thein Sein, the former general who donned civvies to become president, met her in August, and persuaded her of the sincerity of his reformism. Since then she has been accorded respect, some coverage in the official press, access to a succession of foreign visitors and recognition of the central role she has played in Burmese politics ever since her return from exile in 1988.
The abrupt cancellation of a hydroelectric dam project being built by China suggested a regime anxious to move away from a dependence on its northern neighbour. The announcement by the country’s top censor that all censorship would stop—in a country with perhaps the most stultifying media outside North Korea—suggested a government keen to change its image. And the apparent willingness to amend electoral laws suggests one ready to legitimise Miss Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which is at present technically illegal.
Three amendments are envisaged. One would lift a political ban on former prisoners (such as most of the NLD leadership, including Miss Suu Kyi). Another would remove a requirement that parties must contest at least three seats at the general election (which the NLD boycotted). A third would demand that parties “respect” or “honour” rather than “safeguard” the constitution (adopted in a rigged referendum in 2008, and enshrining a decisive role for the army). This week Miss Suu Kyi implied that, if these amendments are passed, the NLD might contest by-elections due soon. For the first time since it won a landslide in an election in 1990 that was never honoured, the NLD would be a legal force in Burmese politics again.
That would only be a start on the way to national reconciliation which must also involve the many ethnic minorities and the armed insurgents claiming to represent them. And it could all be derailed by the government’s failure to free enough of Miss Suu Kyi’s supporters from jail. Meanwhile, the government will expect some international reward for what it has done so far. One cherished ambition is to take the chair of the Association of South-East Asian Nations in 2014. It probably will. ASEAN is not a stern taskmaster.
The art of the possible
Some Western sanctions are likely to be eased, too. These include American-inspired restrictions on assistance from international financial institutions. Myanmar has recognised that it badly needs their technical help in reforming its cumbersome multiple exchange-rate system. It is also in desperate need of foreign aid. Some of its officials may have their visa bans lifted too.
Miss Suu Kyi’s sway over international opinion is an important reason for the regime to engage her. But the real hope offered by its recent behaviour is that it also covets her sway over Myanmar’s own people. A government that wants to be popular would be a huge change for the better. Some observers even think Miss Suu Kyi could be president in 2015. She herself is characteristically cautious: “anything is possible,” she says. In Myanmar, just a few months ago, it wasn’t.