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Last Updated: Monday, 29 November 2004, 09:39 GMT
Burmese moves fail to convince
By Tony Cheng
BBC, Bangkok

Min Ko Naing
Dissident Min Ko Naing has been freed after 15 years in jail

As Asian leaders meet for a summit of regional body Asean, political developments in Burma have prompted speculation about change in the country's repressive junta.

A new prime minister has taken power, the old one placed under house arrest pending corruption charges. And in an unexpected move, the authorities announced the release of more than 9,000 prisoners from jails across the country.

Among those released was one of Burma's most celebrated dissidents, Min Ko Naing.

But exiled supporters of the National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, are measured in their optimism.

"We're very happy that Min Ko Naing is free," said Nyo Myint, the foreign affairs spokesman for the NLDLA (NLD Liberated Areas).

"But when you look at the fact that amongst those 9,000 prisoners, only 38 political detainees were included, it doesn't really look like the regime is moving towards a positive change," he said.

Given the profile of the PM, and others around him, I'm not optimistic that things are moving in the right direction
Soe Aung, NCUB

The vast majority of those released in the past week were petty criminals, and more than 1,300 political prisoners remain in Burma's prisons.

Despite claims from the foreign minister's entourage that the latest group to be freed would include another veteran campaigner, Win Tin, he remains in jail.

Win Tin was one of the brains behind the NLD's inception, and a close confident of Aung San Suu Kyi. But at 74 years of age, and reportedly in very poor health, it is a measure of the government's sensitivity that he is still seen as too much of a threat to be freed.

And there has been no suggestion that the figurehead of Burmese democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, would be released from the government's custody, nor her deputy Tin Oo.

An NLD spokesman said on Monday that Aung San Suu Kyi had been told at the weekend that her house arrest had recently been extended.

The Nobel Laureate has been under arrest since May 2003, when a convoy of her supporters were attacked at Depayin in northern Burma.

Dark history

That attack, and Aung San Suu Kyi's arrest, is believed to have been orchestrated by General Soe Win, the man who has just been appointed to replaced Khin Nyunt as Burma's new prime minister.

"Given the profile of the PM, and others around him, I'm not optimistic that things are moving in the right direction," said Soe Aung, of the NCUB (National Council of the Union of Burma), an opposition group that represents 30 Burmese ethnic groups.

"Soe Win is not going to negotiate with the opposition - that's why he was appointed. There is no prospect of real political engagement with either the political or ethnic groups, so I can't see anything promising," he said.

Critics say the prisoner releases may be another attempt to win good publicity ahead of the Asean summit, which got underway in Laos on Monday.

Burma's ruling generals are keen to enjoy the economic benefits that their membership of the grouping, without unwanted interference in the country's internal affairs.

Burma's Prime Minister Soe Win sits at the start of the Asean summit in Vientiane Laos Monday, Nov. 29, 2004
Burma wants to present a positive image to Asean

The prisoner releases have also been well received within Burma. They give the regime an opportunity to blame mishandling in the past on the ousted Khin Nyunt.

But Zaw Oo of the Burma Fund, a Washington-based pro-democracy group, said that the recent good news was little more than spin.

"The international media has been quick to pick up on the positive developments, but no-one has really noticed several statements recently from the SPDC (Burma's ruling military junta) that their time-frame for the exchange of power could be as long as 15 years," he said.

He thinks that recent events are little more than window dressing.

"We have seen all of this before. When the powerful elements in the military [are involved], things always get a bit mixed up, but then it settles down and nothing changes," he said.

The prisoner releases may have given the "new" government in Rangoon some room to argue at Asean that the junta remains genuinely committed to democratic reform.

But until a substantial political dialogue is begun with the opposition, and one particular political release is made, few will really consider that real change is coming to Burma.

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