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With Burma, the Devil is in the Details

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Unread 10.12.11, 11:35 AM
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With Burma, the Devil is in the Details

On 10.12.11 09:45 AM posted by Robert Warshaw

Tomorrow, The Heritage Foundation will host a panel of experts for a very timely discussion on recent events in Burma and the proper responses to them.

The distinguished panel will include Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch; Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma; Jared Genser, founder and president of Freedom Now; and Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. For more information and details on how to RSVP, please click here.

A flurry of activity has surrounded the reclusive southeast Asian nation of Burma in recent weeks. The quasi-civilian government in Naypyidaw has sent shockwaves throughout the international community by suspending a heavily opposed $3.6 billion Chinese megadam project and releasing 6359 prisoners, including perhaps as many as 180 political prisoners.

The international community should certainly welcome the release of political prisoners. However, with Burma, the devil is oftentimes in the details, and so these measures—especially the releasing of prisoners—should be closely scrutinized.

The mass amnesties of 7,000 prisoners in 2009 and 15,000 in May 2011 included only a handful of political prisoners, but the amnesty that occurred today has freed around 180 out of some 2,000 prisoners of conscience believed to be incarcerated. In a very welcome development, Zarganar, a popular comedian and dissident who was arrested for distributing aid following the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, was freed.

However, none of the leaders of the 1988 student-led, pro-democracy movement have yet been released. These individuals have languished in prison for 23 years, and their release is long overdue. In addition, the monk Shin Gambira, a leader of the peaceful 2007 Saffron Revolution, was also denied release, despite early rumors that he would be granted amnesty. Hundreds of journalists, peaceful demonstrators, and political dissidents still remain behind bars.

Moreover, the real test of the Burmese government’s pro-reform agenda will be how the former prisoners are treated by the government. Like Aung San Suu Kyi, they will likely enjoy only a modicum of freedom, and observers must remain vigilant in monitoring their condition.

The Burmese government must also go beyond this token gesture if it wants the international community to believe that its reforms are sustainable. The remaining prisoners of conscience should be released immediately. This is a position from which the U.S. must not back down.

Nor should the world forget that this isn’t the first time Burma embarked on a series of ambitious reforms, freeing political prisoners and allowing limited dissent before harshly cracking down and reasserting the central government’s authority.

One needs only remember that Aung San Suu Kyi was released from a five-year house arrest in 1995 and given relative freedom until being re-arrested in 2000, then subsequently released in 2002 and re-arrested following a failed assassination attempt in 2003. Her release from house arrest in late 2010 by no means guarantees her continued freedom.

The same can be said of Burma’s reform process in general. While the government in Naypyidaw is nominally different than dictator Than Shwe’s military regime, the jury is still out on whether the oft-heralded reforms genuinely signify long-term, sustainable change in Burma or are merely window-dressing ahead of the coveted 2014 ASEAN chairmanship selection.

The Obama Administration is contemplating changes in U.S.–Burma policy in response to its reforms, shifting U.S. policy toward more engagement and less pressure, and even hosting the Burmese foreign minister at the State Department. Indeed, Kurt Campbell has recently stated that “the United States is prepared to match the steps that have been taken” from Burma by possibly easing pressure on the World Bank, the IMF, and other multilateral institutions regarding their Burma policy and even supporting Burma’s 2014 ASEAN chairmanship bid.

Yet the Administration should tread carefully. Policymakers should maintain extremely cautious optimism combined with a hefty dose of skepticism regarding the reforms. They should not undertake any actions that would ease U.S. pressure on Burma without substantial progress on several other key issues: releasing all political prisoners, ending ethnic violence, and severing its ties with North Korea. President Obama should not prematurely compromise the U.S. position in his quest for a foreign policy victory.

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