A token release from a growing gulag

The Economist, UK
February 19, 2010

Tin Oo gives thanks where it is due
he generals who rule Burma do not care much for outside scrutiny. So the country is hardly fertile ground for Tomas Ojea Quintana, a United Nations envoy for human rights, who arrived on February 15th for a five-day visit to check on political prisoners and their beleaguered colleagues on the outside.

On the eve of his trip the junta freed one prominent detainee after seven years of house arrest. Tin Oo, a former army chief and co-founder of the opposition National League for Democracy, now aged 82, was detained in 2003 along with the League’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, after a pro-junta mob attacked their convoy, ending a political thaw.

Might Miss Suu Kyi’s release be next? Much hinges on the timing and scope of Burma’s long-awaited election, the first since an annulled 1990 vote won by the League. The junta has promised to hold polls in 2010 and return the country to semi-civilian rule. But there is still no election date and no rules laid down for political parties who want to contest. Some observers are predicting polls by October, one month before Miss Suu Kyi’s current term of house arrest ends. Her party is divided over whether to compete in the election.

As quickly as it empties, Burma’s gulag fills. On February 10th Kyaw Zaw Lwin, a naturalised American citizen, was sentenced to three years in jail for fraud, a ruling that the State Department criticised as politically motivated. Indeed, the gulag may be larger than had been previously thought. Exiled activists have identified over 2,100 political prisoners in Burma’s jails, a number commonly cited by international agencies. But Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher for Amnesty International, a human-rights watchdog, reckons that the number is probably much higher. Ethnic minorities locked up in remote areas often go uncounted.

In a new report Amnesty found that activists in minority areas face predictably harsh retaliation from the authorities, including torture, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings. These violations are in addition to those meted out to civilians accused of sympathies to ethnic armed groups, such as the Karen National Union, fighting along the Thai-Burmese border.

By focusing on the war of attrition between Miss Suu Kyi and the junta, it is easy to overlook the role of ethnic minorities in opposition politics, says Mr Zawacki. Some pay a heavy price for their activism. Amnesty found cases of minorities punished merely for talking to exiled journalists. During his visit, Mr Quintana travelled to Rakhine state in western Burma to investigate alleged abuses, including of Rohingya Muslims. It was there, in the town of Sittwe, that 300 Buddhist monks marched in August 2007 in protest over fuel prices. It was the first act of defiance in what became the failed Saffron Revolution.

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