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Myanmar Dissident’s Release Spurs Questions

Originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

February 16, 2010

The release of a leading dissident in Myanmar over the weekend has intensified questions about whether the military regime will keep its promise to hold free and fair elections this year, and about what form the opposition will take.

The concerns deepened on Tuesday, amid reports that the government sentenced four women activists to prison terms with hard labor and the release of an Amnesty International study detailing cases of torture and other abuses against activists in recent years. These developments cast a shadow over a visit by United Nations envoy Tomás Ojea Quintana, who is touring Myanmar to study the country’s progress on human rights. Advocacy groups have long accused Myanmar’s regime of abuses including the incarceration of more than 2,000 dissidents, notably famed Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The regime has tried to appear more conciliatory recently. On Saturday, it released a prominent dissident, Tin Oo, from house arrest, ending a period of detention that began in 2003. Mr. Tin Oo helped found the country’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, along with Ms. Suu Kyi in 1988. The NLD easily won elections two years later, but the government ignored the results and eventually imprisoned many senior NLD leaders, including Ms. Suu Kyi and Mr. Tin Oo, the organization’s vice chairman.

Ahead of the planned first national election since that 1990 one the NLD won, the regime has also allowed Ms. Suu Kyi to meet with top officials of her party. Analysts say the military wants to hold the vote to enhance its legitimacy and needs some measure of opposition participation to lend credibility to the process.

Although dissidents and exiles welcomed Mr. Tin Oo’s release, they questioned whether it represented significant progress, given that the government hasn’t released Ms. Suu Kyi from house arrest. Leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere say Ms. Suu Kyi’s release is a precondition to holding a free and fair election.

Some dissidents said they suspect military officials released Mr. Tin Oo because they may consider him to be too old, at age 82, to stir up serious trouble.

“It is expected that the junta will launch such a charm offensive to improve its image before the elections,” said Soe Aung, a spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a Thailand-based dissident group. Still, “the junta will make sure at all costs that the opposition will be weakened if not paralyzed before the elections,” he said.

Attempts to reach the Myanmar government, which rarely talks to foreign journalists, were unsuccessful. Than Shwe, the country’s reclusive senior military leader, has in the past said the election will be “free and fair.” The regime said the vote will take place this year, but hasn’t announced a date.

It remained unclear what, if any, progress the U.N. special envoy can achieve during his visit. He is expected to meet with government officials but it remained uncertain whether he would be allowed to meet Ms. Suu Kyi. He met with opposition leaders Monday and traveled to northwestern Rakhine state Tuesday, where he was expected to visit a prison.

The Associated Press, citing an opposition spokesman, said that the four women who were sentenced to two years of prison and hard labor on Monday were arrested in October 2009 after being accused of offering to Buddhist monks alms that included religious literature. The women used to hold prayer services at Yangon’s Shwedagon pagoda for Ms. Suu Kyi’s release, the AP said.

The Amnesty International report, which covered two years ending in August 2009, alleged that authorities targeted ethnic minority activists and in some cases tortured or executed them. It called on the government to release political prisoners, among other steps.

The government has denied accusations of human rights abuses in the past.

Rebuilding the opposition in the face of persecution from state authorities remains a critical issue for Myanmar, a resource-rich country whose troubles have long unnerved neighbors in the region. Despite widespread concerns about the legitimacy of this year’s vote, some analysts are hopeful it will at least open the door to more open political discourse, especially if more political prisoners are released in the months ahead.

Over the past 15 years, the junta has dismantled the NLD’s network of regional offices across the country and subjected leaders who aren’t in prison to constant surveillance, according to human-rights groups. It has also prohibited the NLD from holding major summits, though it allowed the group to keep a headquarters in Yangon. Many senior opposition figures no longer live in Myanmar, and most of the top ones who remain involved now are in their 70s and 80s.

The NLD party has looked to regroup over the past year. It has expanded its central leadership committee to bring in new blood.

But party members are still deeply divided over whether to participate in the election. Some believe nothing short of a full boycott is acceptable unless the junta frees Ms. Suu Kyi and takes other steps such as revising the country’s constitution, which reserves many government posts and 25% of parliamentary seats for military officers. Younger opposition members—including some in their 40s and 50s—are more willing to participate, according to dissidents. These members are said to believe that even if the vote is rigged, they could at least gain some positions of influence, and that sitting out would only marginalize the group further.

Mr. Tin Oo told followers that he planned to resume his political activities as deputy leader of the NLD despite warnings to desist, Reuters reported.

Details of his plans remained scant. A former army general who fell out with military leaders, Mr. Tin Oo spent numerous years in prison in recent decades. Authorities last detained him—along with Ms. Suu Kyi—in 2003 after a pro-government mob attacked their convoy during a tour of northern Myanmar in which several people were killed. Government officials argued the two represented a threat to national security.

Since then, the regime had extended Mr. Tin Oo’s detention annually. His latest term of detention expired on Saturday.

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