Myanmar uses prisoners as pawns
During his visit to the White House on May 20, Myanmar President Thein Sein talked about the release of political prisoners who remain incarcerated in the country's jails despite the air of reforms sweeping over it.
The precise number of political prisoners is unclear. One frequently cited source is the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a human rights organisation based in Mae Sot, Thailand. Since its inception in 2000, the AAPP works for the release of all political prisoners and for the improvement of prison conditions inside Myanmar.
As of May 17, after the latest round of prisoners' release, the AAPP data shows that there are at least 164 political prisoners in different prisons across the country. In addition, there are more than 150 individuals facing trial under different political charges.
Their existence long denied by Myanmar's rulers, political prisoners are now central to the country's diplomatic dealings with Western powers in the era of reform. During his trip to Washington, the first by a Myanmar head of state in 47 years, Thein Sein openly acknowledged the incarceration of political prisoners.
The president's acknowledgement came weeks after the government's announcement on Feb 7 to establish a committee to review the detention of political prisoners. The committee includes government officials, members of civil society, and former prisoner groups.
These prisoners are mostly student leaders, members and sympathisers of the National League for Democracy (NLD), and political activists of ethnic minority groups who were arrested during the 1988 uprising, and through the years of repression that followed.
The much celebrated release of NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 did not immediately result in the release of these prisoners. Instead, the government seems to be carefully calibrating their release in batches in return for concessions from the West, especially from the United States.
The strategy seems to work well for the West too, as it can show human rights lobbyists at home that it has won something concrete from the Myanmar government in return for its concessions.
There is a conspicuous trend in how the issue of political prisoners has been meticulously handled.
Since Thein Sein came to power as part of a civilian government in 2011, the government has announced amnesty as many as 10 times and prisoners were released on nine occasions. These prisoners are mostly held under Article 401 (1), which gives the president the power to "remit the whole or any part of the punishment to which he has been sentenced" at any time.
Every batch of prisoners' release has coincided with political movement. For example, the amnesty on May 16, 2011 was announced at the time when Myanmar was lobbying for the 2014 chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Subsequently, the Oct 11, 2011 amnesty was announced prior to the arrival of Asean representative to study whether Myanmar government deserves Asean chair.
Then in January and February last year, on the anniversary of the country's Independence Day and Union Day, the Myanmar government released more than 600 political prisoners, including prominent student leaders of the 1988 democracy uprising and ethnic minority leaders. The release happened a few weeks after Hillary Rodham Clinton made a three-day visit to Myanmar in November 2011, the first US Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles in 1955.
In response, the US government decided to resume full diplomatic relations with Myanmar. An ambassador was posted for the first time in two decades. Subsequently, the US also suspended investment sanctions on July 11 and import bans on Sept 26 last year.
Those initiatives allowed international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to reestablish links with Myanmar.
Amnesties were also granted before the Myanmar president attended the United Nations General Assembly in September last year, and before the 22nd Asean Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam in April.
Before the visit of President Obama in November 2012, the first sitting US president to have visited the country, Thein Sein pledged to create a commission to review political prisoner cases.
Just ahead of Thein Sein's visit to Washington, the Myanmar government released 23 political prisoners on May 17. Mr Obama commended the move, saying: "We very much appreciate your efforts and leadership in leading Myanmar in a new direction."
As a sign of appreciation, Mr Obama used "Myanmar" instead of "Burma", though the US government has not officially recognised the new name.
Until diplomatic relations with the West are fully normalised, the Myanmar government is likely to continue using political prisoners as a pawn for political bargaining. Though the trend is unfortunate, it apparently serves the strategic interests of both Western democracies and the Myanmar government during its transition period.
The underlying reality is that the West cannot wait to do business with Myanmar. On April 22, the European Union lifted the sanctions it suspended a year ago. At its meeting in Luxembourg, the EU foreign ministers welcomed the changes that had taken place in the past year and decided to lift all sanctions except the arms embargo.
In response, Thein Sein announced amnesty for about 100 prisoners, including 56 considered to be political detainees. Even prior to lifting sanctions, the European Commission on March 5 had announced a package of 150 million (5.9 billion baht) to support the country's democratic reform ahead of national elections in 2015, and also pledged more EU development money and a bilateral investment agreement.
Rather than being satisfied at Myanmar's piecemeal release of prisoners for each concession it makes, the West should be insisting that the government release all political prisoners in its custody.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general-secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/Myanmar.