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Myanmar has released numerous political prisoners from its jails today (13 January) in an amnesty that marks a further step forward in the semi-civilian government's political reform drive.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
While the exact number of prisoners of conscience among the total of 651 freed prisoners was not immediately clear, the release is significant as it includes a number of high-profile political dissidents, journalists, and former politicians; the release is likely to have a positive effect on domestic public sentiment.
The release of all political prisoners has been made a key demand by both the United States and the EU before they consider changes to their sanctions regimes. However, neither know for sure how many political prisoners remain behind bars in Myanmar, while President Thein Sein's administration refuses to acknowledge even the existence of prisoners of conscience.
Although any releases, such as today's, are intended to satisfy the West's demands and undoubtedly constitute some progress, the uncertainty about the numbers will make it difficult for the West to make an informed decision on the sanctions front.
Among the political prisoners released from Myanmar's jails today (13 January) is former prime minister and intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, who was jailed on corruption charges in 2004 after the then-military junta under Than Shwe feared his growing power base and the growing threat to the implementation of hardline policies; this also included the dismantling of the entire intelligence service that was led by Khin Nyunt. Significantly, the release also concerns prominent leaders of the "88 Generation Students" group, including Min Ko Naing, who was at the forefront of several suppressed anti-government demonstrations held since 1988. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a Norway-based news service led by political exiles, has confirmed that some of its journalists have also been freed.
The pardon is one of many amnesties that have been announced by the current semi-civilian government under President Thein Sein. Indeed, it is not a new phenomenon as successive military regimes have time and again released batches of political prisoners. The arbitrariness with which amnesties were announced and implemented by former military governments is aptly demonstrated by the case of student leader Min Ko Naing. He was arrested in March 1989 and sentenced to 20 years in prison under Section 5(j) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act for his role in the August 1988 uprising. Although the then military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), commuted his sentence to 10 years in an amnesty, which was announced in January 1993, he was held beyond the end of this amended term and only released from prison in November 2004. He was then re-arrested in September 2006 as the military government, by then renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), sought to prevent unrest ahead of the holding of the 2006 national convention, to discuss the military's so-called seven-step road map to democracy. Having been held without charge, he was then released in yet another amnesty in January 2007. His latest arrest came in August 2007 after he organised a raft or rallies; in total, Min Ko Naing was sentenced to 65 years in prison.
The ad hoc nature of amnesties for political prisoners, and the frequent re-arrests have cautioned the more critical observers of Myanmar's reform process, which began with the handover of government duties to the Thein Sein administration in March 2011, following the controversial general election in November 2010. Some political dissidents point to the continued strong and constitutionally protected role of the military in national politics, with many of the military personnel who were at the heart of controversial political decisions over the past decades now in senior government roles, either in a civilian capacity, or in accordance with the 25% quota for military personnel in both houses of parliament. It is usually these sources that also seek to highlight power struggles within the government, which allegedly take place between current and former members of the military, and hardliners and moderates in both civilian and military capacities. Accordingly, hardliners continue to dominate the country's politics and are only granting moderates within the government a window of opportunity in order to test to what extent political concessions such as the release of political prisoners are able to force concessions from the international community, with a particular focus being on Western states to lift or at least relax their comprehensive sanctions regimes. As such, critics fear that a reversal of the recent flurry of reform moves is still possible, either because hardliners perceive political concessions from the West as not forthcoming fast enough, or in the case of a "premature" lifting of sanctions, because they believe that enough concessions have been made.
Given that Myanmar is only just emerging from nearly five decades of military dictatorships, which followed a period of pronounced instability as an independent country (1948-62) and more than a century of British colonial rule (1824-1948), it is clear that the country's democratic institutions are still inherently weak. Given the military's dominance in the country's political affairs, this provides for a significant degree of uncertainty as there are numerous inherent risks to the stability of the nascent system that relate to perceptions of national security, influenced by the country's history of colonialism and ethnic strife. As such, the 2008 constitution would in theory provide the military with the power to declare a state of emergency and exercise de facto rule.
Such a stark reversal looks increasingly unlikely, however, given the pace of recent reform moves and the country's accelerating engagement with the international community. Such impressions are underscored by repeated assertions from government officials that the moves towards democratic governance are "irreversible", while the government's rhetoric has become significantly more moderate. As such, it is encouraging to note the only recently re-registered main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which is not represented in parliament, to identify the release of political prisoners as a further "positive sign".
Outlook and Implications
Western businesses whose investment activities in Myanmar have been constrained or curtailed by prevailing sanctions regimes are increasingly looking towards their countries' governments to lift restrictive measures. This has increased pressure on governments to react to the recent changes in Myanmar, which in large part explains the increasing pace of landmark diplomatic and fact-finding visits to the country since late 2011. The decision, however, in particular on the part of the United States and the European Union, to lift or ease their sanctions regimes is a complex topic, which suffers from ambiguous benchmarking, while any decision on this front will be, as explained above, highly political.
The release of all political prisoners has been made a key demand by both the US and the EU before they consider changes to their sanctions regimes. Neither know for sure, however, how many political prisoners remain behind bars in Myanmar, while the Thein Sein administration refuses to acknowledge even the existence of prisoners of conscience. While any releases, such as today's, are intended to satisfy the West's demands and undoubtedly constitute some progress, the uncertainty about the numbers will make it difficult for the West to make an informed decision on this front. Similar difficulties arise on other fronts, in particular with regard to demands for a halt to human rights' abuses and the establishment of peace in ethnic minority areas. Again, the government's establishment of "peace committees" and the striking of ceasefires with numerous groups since last August, which includes an agreement struck with the Karen National Union (KNU) yesterday (12 January), have been identified as positive steps; ceasefire agreements have also been struck between the country's intelligence agencies and numerous armed ethnic minority groups between 1989 and 1995, however, and the fact that most of these have broken down between 2009 and 2011 suggests it will be difficult for the West to reward ceasefire agreements with concessions without the security of a political agreement in place. IHS Global Insight argued yesterday that the current political environment is significantly more conducive for all sides to reach such agreements, but that negotiations are likely to be prolonged in light of thorny political issues that will need to be addressed, and that it is these issues that could eventually foster resentment within the military (see Myanmar: 12 January 2012: Myanmar Signs Ceasefire with Karen Insurgent Group). This could be the case as the resultant breakdown of war economies, which have served to secure the support of many mid-level commanders of the armed forces in the border areas, could force the military to take steps to thwart such moves unless measures are taken to offset monetary losses for influential individuals. Such processes are likely to take some time, but if the West was to be consequential in its demands, it would have to wait for such pacts to be struck. Thus, if such considerations are taken into account, significant changes to sanctions regimes look unlikely in the short term.
There are also reasons to believe, however, that benchmarks for the easing or removal of sanctions could be lowered and the process accelerated if the West perceives that it is doing too little to reward reforms, and as a result, this could propel the role of hardliners within the government to the extent that reform moves could slow down and external relations revert back to mainly China, which has continued to be Myanmar's largest source of direct foreign investment and diplomatic support. Even in this scenario, it is unlikely that all sanctions will be removed—with arms embargoes, in particular, likely to stay in place for the time being. First moves are likely to be in relation to travel restrictions and asset freezes (on this front some concessions have already been made by the EU, as well as Australia).