Many of Burma’s most prominent political prisoners were said to be fascinated or impressed by President Thein Sein’s inaugural speech, but doubtful that the new government will bring about any real democratic changes in the country, according to family members.
In his speech on March 30 to parliament, Thein Sein spoke about the importance of creating good governance and clean government.
Excerpts from the speech were carried in Burma’s state-run newspapers, which are generally available in Burmese prisons. Detained activists, including Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, were said to be “impressed’ with the speech, but were doubtful that Thein Sein could or would translate his words into practical actions, family members who visited them recently said.
Min Ko Naing, the second most prominent opposition leader after Aung San Suu Kyi, was quoted by his elder sister, Kyi Kyi Nyunt, as saying: “It was quite a good speech. But there is no hope of any reality coming from it.”
Min Ko Naing’s fellow jailed activist, Ko Ko Gyi, echoed his view, and remarked that although Thein Sein pledged justice and the rule of law, the imprisonment of political opponents, such as themselves, was tantamount to lawlessness.
“If this lawlessness continues, Ko Ko Gyi said, he will remain behind bars until the year 2074,” said a family member of Ko Ko Gyi who did not wished to be named.
According to his relative, Ko Ko Gyi also said that since Burma has been unaccustomed to the practice of parliamentary democracy since the first military coup in 1962, the new civilian government will be incapable of implementing its professed values. The student leader reportedly added that the recent nomination of a special US envoy to Burma showed the US government’s greater interest in Burmese affairs.
88 Generation Students group leaders Ko Ko Gyi and Min Ko Naing, now in their late 40s, are serving 65-year sentences in different prisons in Shan State after being arrested for their involvement in peaceful anti-government protests in 2007 that paved the way for the Buddhist monk-led Saffron Revolution later that same year.
Family members said both detainees had refused the authorities’ offer to “sign a 401,” which would effectively suspend their sentences and allow for their release. Section 401 of the Burma’s Criminal Procedure Code is a mechanism used by the Burmese authorities to provide suspended sentences to jailed political activists.
“Ko Ko Gyi doesn’t wish to sign 401 because he does not wish to recognize these unjust laws,” said his family member. “This does not mean he does not wish to reconcile with the government or has a grudge against it.”
Other high-profile political prisoners, including comedian Zarganar, who is being held in Myitkyina prison, have reportedly stated to visitors that the new government is the most responsible party in the country’s national reconciliation, and needs to create conditions where other stakeholders can participate in such a process.
The release of the more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma has been a major demand of Western governments as a condition before lifting their economic sanctions imposed against the government.
Currently, it is still in question if the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will permit Burma, one of its members, to take the regional bloc’s chairmanship in 2014 if the new government in Naypyidaw does not release political prisoners.
Last month, opposition activists inside Burma launched a signature campaign calling for the release of political prisoners. The activists claim that they now have more than 20,000 signatures, including that of pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi, and that the first batch of signatures has been submitted to President Thein Sein by post.