Last week’s prisoner amnesty in Burma was the latest in a series of superficial changes that have done nothing to move the country away from authoritarian military rule. Branded a ‘sick joke’ by Human Rights Watch and widely rejected as a publicity stunt by other NGOs and governments throughout the world – it involved the release of some 14,600 detainees…only 34 of whom were political prisoners. This leaves over 2100 members of the democracy movement still languishing in Burma’s notorious jail cells – subject to daily abuse and torture as a result of their part in the struggle for freedom and human rights.
Of course, the releases that have taken place should be welcomed, along with the decision to overturn several death sentences, however the almost purely aesthetic nature of these moves cannot be ignored. The military junta has long shunned formal executions anyway (preferring the extra-judicial variety during crackdowns on protests or raids on ethnic villages) and inevitably manipulates any political releases to ensure its continued control. The high-profile release of Aung San Suu Kyi last November for example, was followed by calculated moves such as the forced closure of an HIV/AIDS hospital immediately after she visited, placing her in the almost impossible position of being unable to act without generating retribution against her own people. The few activists who walked free last week alongside thousands of petty criminals, can expect the same sort of treatment –if not worse.
None of this should come as any surprise- after all despite the ‘changes’ of the past six months, the old guard is still well and truly in power. A sham election characterised by ballot box stuffing, intimidation of voters and insurmountable restrictions on opposition groups put the junta’s militia-turned-proxy-party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), in control of both chambers of the new parliament – reinforced by directly appointed military members and a military veto on legislation. The new President Thein Sein, sworn in two months ago along with the parliamentarians, was previously the junta’s fourth in command and was heavily involved in crushing the 2007 Saffron Revolution. His vice-presidents are Tin Aung Myint Oo –another military thug, and Sai Mauk Kham- a Shan member of the USDP whose appointment was widely seen as an attempt to distract the world from the junta’s persecution of ethnic minorities.
This faux-democratic front for military rule was never going to produce anything other than further sham reforms to give the impression of change and democratisation, whilst allowing the powers-that-be in Naypyidaw to continue their ruthless pursuits.
Right now this is coming to fruition in Burma’s ethnic minority regions where crimes against humanity- if not acts of genocide- are gathering pace. Since breaking its longstanding ceasefire with the Shan State Army rebel group in March, the junta has been deliberately targeting Shan civilians – shelling villages, gang-raping women and looting livestock, food and medicine. Similarly, villagers in the Karen region have been attacked and driven across the Thai-border as government troops attempt to crush the recently-strengthened ethnic resistance there. Kachin state is also facing a ‘four cuts’ campaign –designed to cut off rebel access to food, funds, information and recruitment by intense attacks against population centres.
The one glimmer of hope in this horrendous situation, lies in the fact that none of the junta’s ruses or ploys – from their sham parliament to their hollow prisoner amnesty – have fooled the international community. However, especially in light of the increased attacks on ethnic minorities, the criticism and rejection coming from across the world must now transform into action. Continued sanctions, referrals to the International Criminal Court and pressure on the junta’s allies and apologists – particularly China and India, are essential for the protection of civilians and the weakening of one of the worlds most brutal and violent dictatorships. For all the fake reforms nothing has changed in Burma – and without renewed support for the democracy movement from the rest of the world – nothing ever will.