For Burmese democracy activists last week was another piece of history that will never be forgotten.
As the pace of reform gathered momentum, President Thein Sein’s government signed a landmark ceasefire with the Karen National Union (KNU), Burma’s oldest ethnic resistance group. This move –and the photos the accompanied the signing ceremony – would have been unimaginable even a year ago. The Karen have long been targeted by the Burmese government in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, involving Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes; yet the powers-that-be in Naypiydaw are seemingly replacing the massacres, torture, extra-judicial executions and village burnings, with dialogue – by making peace with very group that has so bravely resisted them for decades.
Then, whilst the world extended a cautious welcome, another momentous announcement broke: the release of hundreds of political prisoners including 88 Generation Students Group leader Min Ko Naing, Shan leader Hkun Htoon Oo, blogger Nay Phone Latt, and U Gambira- one of the monks instrumental in the 2007 Saffron Revolution. Amid cheering crowds many of the dissidents expressed their intention to re-engage in politics now that they are free – with several praising the pace of reforms.
Pledging to “meet action with action”, the US responded by moving to upgrade diplomatic ties. At the same time, Denmark –which recently assumed presidency of the EU- continued the coordinated international pressure for further liberalisation; with Minister for Development Cooperation Christian Friis Bach, following in the steps of Hilary Clinton and William Hague by making a diplomatic visit.
Still, amidst the optimism, anxiety is rife. Although the official ceasefire with the KNU and the associated exchange of liaison offices is unprecedented, informal truces have broken down before. And a despite a ceasefire in Kachin state last year, government attacks continued.
Similarly many of those released from prison have tasted freedom before, only to be rearrested. None of their sentences have been overturned – leaving them in danger of being returned to the cells at any time. And up to six hundred dissidents are still behind bars. For all the progress of previous months, the government retains the power to undo it in a instant.
All eyes now will turn to the Spring- specifically 1 April when the National League for Democracy (NLD) will contest all forty-eight seats in the parliamentary by-elections. Aung San Suu Kyi will be amongst the candidates, quite possibly alongside some of the newly released prisoners, whose successful election to the Pyithu Hluttaw could potentially begin a permanent re-shaping of the political landscape.
There will be big question marks over whether the government will allow a fair vote, and perhaps more importantly whether any elected NLD members will be allowed to exercise any real influence in a parliament dominated by the military and its proxies. Yet with the speed of reforms unfolding, and the opportunity of formal political representation for democrats on the horizon, those who have campaigned for decades without change are hoping that the Burmese Spring may be just around the corner.