In its latest gesture of amnesties, the military-backed regime of Thein Sein in Myanmar has released many political prisoners. Those freed included veterans of the 1988 student protest movement, monks involved in the 2007 demonstrations and ethnic-minority activists like U Kyaw Min (a member of the Committee Representing the People's Parliament led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi). Truly, the names of those released read like a who's who of Burma's most prominent political detainees. In a statement broadcast on the TV, President Thein Sein said those released were people who could "play a constructive role in the political process".
The releases came a day after the government had signed a landmark ceasefire with the rebel Karen National Union in Hpa-an, capital of eastern Karen state. The release of all political prisoners has been a long-standing demand of the international community. As a human rights activist who for years has demanded reform inside Burma, I warmly welcome these releases.
My hope is that the new regime is serious about a transformational change that would allow the released politicians and former prisoners of conscience to play a positive role to unite the otherwise fragmented country of many nations, races, ethnicities and religions under a federal formula. For too long, the former military regimes and their ultra-racist supporters have used one community against another, and created an atmosphere where bigotry, racism, xenophobia and hatred ruled supreme. Of special mention is the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law which ensured such state policies of exclusions that would rob millions of Rohingya and other religious and ethnic minorities of their citizenship rights. Forgotten there was the time honored realization that narrow ethno-centric nationalism in a country of diverse races and ethnicities is suicidal.
With the release of ethnic minority leaders like U Kyaw Min of Arakan (alias) Shamsul Anwarul Haque, my hope is that President Thein Sein and his new regime is serious about a genuine reform. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has welcomed the move as a "positive sign" and so did many international leaders.
When Thein Sein's Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a military-backed civilian government, came to power in November 2010, after the country's first elections in 20 years [in which Daw Suu Kyi's The National League for Democracy (NLD) did not participate], no one was sure which direction the new regime would follow. Many considered the regime change as a sham -- the same old stuff: serving new wine in an old bottle. But soon after coming to power, Thein Sein took reform steps that were meant to show the world that he was serious about a transformational change. He opened dialogue with Suu Kyi and her NLD. He released her from house arrest within a week of coming to power. Last May, the government released some 1500 prisoners, which did not, however, include any prominent politician. Last September, Thein Sein suspended construction of controversial Chinese-funded Myitsone hydroelectric dam, a move which was seen as showing greater openness to public opinion. Then in October, he freed more than 200 political prisoners as part of a general amnesty, and passed new labor laws allowing unions to function.
All such reforms were not lost in the minds of ASEAN leaders who met last November agreeing that Myanmar would chair the grouping in 2014. The award was meant to show that Burma was moving in the right direction with the steps taken thus far and also as a sign of encouragement to keep it up. The pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi soon announced that she would stand for election to parliament, as her party rejoined the political process.
There has been such an unmistakable aura of change in Myanmar that the U.S. President Barack Obama called such the "flickers of progress." Before sending his top diplomat to Myanmar, Obama said, "We want to seize what could be a historic opportunity for progress, and to make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America."
The U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country in December and also met with Suu Kyi. This year the British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited the country in which he expressed his strong concern saying, "Minorities like the Rohingya in many cases lack basic civil and political rights." These and other western leaders hinted that they would help to ease sanctions against the regime if it releases its political prisoners and is serious about reform that would resolve ethnic conflicts around the border regions.
Last month President Thein Sein signed a law allowing peaceful demonstrations for the first time. The NLD re-registered as a political party in advance of by-elections for parliament due to be held early in 2012. In recent weeks, the government has agreed a truce deal with rebels of Shan ethnic group and ordered the military to stop operations against ethnic Kachin rebels.
Now with the release of high ranking political prisoners there is little doubt that Thein Sein is serious about genuine reform in his country. Suu Kyi described the past 12 months as "eventful, energizing and to a certain extent encouraging". And she is right. Myanmar is seemingly taking irreversible baby steps for a viable democracy.
Never before in the last 50 years did we ever see such a ray of hope gleaming in the country that was once Burma. We can pray and hope that Thein Sein is no charlatan change agent but is as genuine as it comes. Sure, there are several steps that need to be taken before Myanmar becomes a country with a functioning democracy where its people would enjoy political and economic freedom like many other citizens of our planet -- the release of all remaining political prisoners; repealing the racist and xenophobic Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 which has resulted in unfathomed discrimination, violations of human rights and forced exodus of millions of its inhabitants to settle for a life of unwanted refugees in neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Thailand; addressing the rights of Burma's ethnic and religious minorities (especially, the Rohingya, Karen and Shan peoples) and ensuring the fair and independent application of the rule of law for all its inhabitants.
Objective and unbiased researches have amply shown that the Rohingya people are an indigenous group whose ancestry and root to the soil of Arakan state of today's Myanmar predates the British colonial era. [See, e.g., this author's book - Muslim Identity and Demography in the Arakan State of Burma, available in the Amazon.com] Accordingly, they had exercised the right of franchise in all elections in the pre- and post-colonial periods, including the SPDC's 2010 election. And yet, this unfortunate people have been denied citizenship and rendered stateless for a xenophobic law that violates every principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The sad plight of the Rohingya people was duly observed by Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. Special Rapporteur, who said, "Despite being in this region for generations, this population is stateless. This population is not recognized by the Government as one of the ethnic groups of the Union of Myanmar and is subject to discrimination.... However the Government allowed them to participate in the referendum on the adoption of the new Constitution.... What is more significant than the possibility to vote for the Constitution of a nation to show that one belongs to the nation? If this population was considered apt to give its views on the adoption of the Constitution, then it should be granted all other privileges, including the citizenship, which recognized ethnic groups, citizens of Myanmar do enjoy in the Union."
As Thien Sein reforms and changes the old orders yielding place to the new, I wish he is mindful of the views and concerns expressed by dignitaries like Tomas Quintana, and stops discriminatory practices against the Rohingya and other vulnerable minorities, plus restores dialogue with each of the ethnic and religious groups on the principle of unity in diversity.
Only the coming months will show how serious is the new government in Myanmar about its commitment to reform. Let's hope that Thein Sein will not be like any of his hateful predecessors and will do all that is required to ensure human rights for all and bring glory to Myanmar.
Dr Habib Siddiqui has authored 10 books. His latest book - Devotional Stories - is now available from A.S. Noordeen, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.