After watching as Burma released a mere handful of political prisoners—between 11 and 30, according to various reports, all of whom had very little time left on their sentences—Burmese comedian and former political prisoner Zarganar wrote, “I once likened the situation of my friends in jail as being in the hands of Somali pirates. I now withdraw this comment. The Somali pirates keep their promise.” Indeed, his comments are laden with disappointment, reflecting the sentiments of Burma watchers worldwide.
In years past, few would blink at such news, but since mid-2011, the Burmese government has maintained that it is undertaking genuine, irreversible reform. While none can argue that important changes have occurred in Burma, it is not yet clear whether the several actions—such as changes in labor and election laws and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s participation in upcoming by-elections for parliament—constitute systemic reform or tactical maneuvering. This latest reneging on its promise of national clemency is reason for skepticism. It should remind the world to temper its expectations and keep reforms in perspective.
A full prisoner release would have been an opportunity for Burma to further demonstrate its commitment to reform, especially since British Foreign Secretary William Hague is currently in Burma, the first such visit from a U.K. Foreign Secretary since 1955. The spotlight was on Burma to release all political prisoners when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited in December, and now that Hague’s visit has catalyzed only a minor release, the question remains—how much longer can Naypyidaw pass the buck on the issue? And how far can the U.S., U.K., and others go in reconciling with the regime without this critical demonstration of sincerity and change? Judging by the response from the State Department and Hague, not very far.
Comments from Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwi were not encouraging. In an interview with BBC after his meeting with Hague, he did not acknowledge that Burma incarcerated political prisoners, simply labeling all prisoners as “criminals.”
The bottom line is that, as with all authoritarian regimes, reforms will almost certainly be met with resistance. The military junta that ran Burma for decades, despite being replaced by a quasi-civilian government, institutionalized a behemoth of a system that will not disappear because of a little engagement from the West.
That is not to discredit the reforms already undertaken. Indeed, allowing Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party to participate in upcoming by-elections—which should be closely monitored—is a noteworthy step, and reforms should be matched with corresponding rewards from the U.S. However, a results-oriented Washington should temper its expectations and take the time to get this right.
As Senator Mitch McConnell (R–KY) heads to Burma this month to meet with government and civilian leaders, observers are right to hope that his visit provides the impetus for an even larger political prisoner release and an increased commitment to reform. Yet this latest disappointment from the Burmese government should certainly pour a little cold water on the oftentimes rampant optimism regarding Burma’s future.