For many years Yangon has been a city of hushed, heavy silences, but in recent months these weighted and worried daily interactions have given way to new sentiments.
Some old hands, who are well acquainted with the silencing methods of the past, have recently been allowed to take part in this new mood. Meanwhile, the Burmese military has looked to combine tried and tested methods of political repression with electoral tactics in an effort to adapt to this newly liberalised political atmosphere.
The government released 651 prisoners of conscience on 13 January 2012, adding to the approximately 120 already released in October last year. It is unlikely that freeing these political prisoners is just another effort to barter with international players, because many of those released in January have big reputations. The 2012 amnesty has benefitted a number of high-profile and potentially threatening political figures who will no doubt resume their role as long-standing critics of Burma’s regime.
Of the 651 prisoners released this January, three in particular — Min Ko Naing, Maung Thura (aka Zarganar) and Khin Nyunt — are certain to pose a significant challenge to the ruling regime.
The figure of popular resistance
A former student activist, Min Ko Naing has been involved in organised forms of popular resistance and dissent for the last three decades. He played a central role in the 1988 student uprising, founding the All Burma Federation of Student Unions.
The federation subsequently called for the now infamous 8-8-88 protests and general strike. In 1989 he was arrested and imprisoned for 20 years under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act for instigating ‘disturbances to the detriment of law and order, peace and tranquillity’. He was freed after serving 15 years but was arrested again prior to the 2006 National Convention and released several months later, with no official explanation. In 2007 he was arrested yet again for organising peaceful protests and sentenced to 65 years’ imprisonment.
His recidivist history suggests he will not transition back into society quietly — and recent events confirm it. Since his release he has held press conferences and met with Aung San Suu Kyi, declaring: ‘We don’t want to be prisoners of the past or prisoners of doubt. We want to look forward to a beautiful future’. There is little doubt that his future will include a political role challenging the military’s involvement in national affairs.
The artist with political punch
Political comedian, actor and film director Maung Thura (aka Zarganar) is expected to use his role as an artist to deliver a few political punches. His arrests have been numerous: following the 1988 uprising he was sentenced to one year in Insein prison for inciting unrest; during the 1990 elections he was sentenced to four years for giving political speeches; and, finally, in September 2007 he was sentenced to 59 years for his involvement in the Saffron Revolution.
Since his release in January 2012 he has visited US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, following a meeting with her in Yangon in December 2011.
Zarganar has also started cultivating the political arts back in Burma, and organised a film festival in January — which was won by a satire on the government censorship board. His defence of the freedom of speech is unflinching, as warranted by his history behind bars. Speaking about recent events in Burma, he said: ‘This is free expression. This is a step in the right direction. And we are not afraid. We are never afraid’.
The old hand fallen into disfavour
Following the 1988 uprising, Khin Nyunt was appointed first secretary and head of military intelligence. He gained favour with many Burmese insurgent groups who had kept their distance from previous military factions; this support enabled Khin Nyunt to negotiate various ceasefire agreements with insurgent armies. In August 2003 he was appointed prime minister and announced the seven-step roadmap to democracy.
Internationally, he cultivated relations with diplomats and officials from Asia and the West. But his future is now perhaps the most uncertain of all, given Khin Nyunt’s tenure as prime minister is understood to have ended after a power struggle with Senior General Than Shwe.
The recent amnesty offers important insights into the military’s mindset and the danger of latent military interference. One must keep a level head among the considerable optimism currently pervading Burma, and keep in mind the political landscape that put these figures behind bars in the first place. President Thein Sein’s ignored orders to cease fighting with the Kachin Independence Organisation indicate he does not have the full support of the military when it comes to such matters. And as a strongly nationalistic institution, the military will not sit idly by if it senses serious threats to Burma’s stable future or its own role in that future — a role these freed political prisoners look set to challenge.
By Jacqueline Menager PhD candidate at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University. East Asia Forum