Myanmar: Prisoner Release a Good Move


Myanmar, an Asian country surrounded by Thailand (southeast), Laos (east), China (northeast), India (northwest), and Bangladesh (west), witnessed the release of political prisoners yesterday, in what appears to be a thawing in the brutal regime that has gripped the country for past several decades.

Historically, Myanmar was known as Burma. British-India captured Burmese coastal areas in 1826, and expanded into Rangoon and Lower Burma in 1853. After Britain annexed the rest of the country in 1886, they administered it from India. Burma became a separate colony, when it was severed from India in 1937. In WWII, the Japanese occupied Burma (1942-45).

As Burma gained total independence from Britain in 1948, they slipped into civil war (1948-51), which was not settled until the Karens Tribe was awarded a separate area (1954). The country then lost their grip on democracy in 1962, as 50 years of military rule began. Under the first military junta, one ruler presided for the next 26 years (1962-88), 750,000 Indians were returned to India in 1965, when their businesses were nationalized. By 1970, 50,000 guerillas were fighting the government from Thai bases.

The second tragic episode in Burmese history commenced when another military junta deposed the first in 1988, causing things to go from bad to worse. Burma renamed itself Myanmar in 1989, as a hard-liner became Head of State and imposed Martial Law. Opposition leaders were put under House Arrest. When the junta lost the 1990 election in a landslide, they refused to step down, prompting 200,000 to demonstrate for democracy, and the regime to torture and kill pro-democracy activists. 160,000 were moved into resettlement areas in 1990, as many others fled to Thailand.

The West finally stepped up pressure against the brutal government in the past decade, as sanctions were imposed by the U.S. in 2003. Following the suppression of protests by Buddhist monks in 2007, the Red Cross accused Myanmar of abuse, prompting the EU to impose sanctions. Despite these measures, relief was delivered in 2008, after a cyclone had killed 80,000.

Although elections were held in 2010 for the first time in two decades, they were labeled fraudulent by the West, because a key opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was not released from House Arrest, until one week after the balloting. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party won 80% of the seats, and in March 2011, their leader, Thein Sein, who had retired from the military in 2010, became the first civilian President in 50 years.

Perhaps Myanmar is now finally moving in the right direction with civilian leadership, and the release yesterday of political prisoners. The world can only wait and see if they are now on track towards serious political change, or if the past practices of the repressive regime will continue.

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