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BURMA: National Reconciliation Through Hostage Taking

By Asian Human Rights Commission  •  October 17, 2011

Among the many analyses of the release of a couple of hundred political prisoners in a total of over 6000 detainees let out of Burma’s prisons last week, the most precise and succinct came from a famous comedian, Zarganar. Imprisoned for criticising the relief effort in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Zarganar spoke to the BBC Burmese Service shortly after his release. Asked about the claims of the country’s president, former general Thein Sein, that his government is working towards national reconciliation, and Zarganar laughingly likened this form of national reconciliation to putting makeup on a paralyzed elderly woman and taking her out on the town. He also said that he and other political detainees were like hostages, being released at a trickle in exchange for deals being struck with various parties at home and abroad.

Zarganar is correct that national reconciliation through hostage taking is a fraud. The reason that he is correct is that national reconciliation through hostage taking rests implicitly on the notion that the victim, the hostage, is expected to be grateful to the perpetrator, the hostage-taker, for letting him go. It is premised upon the notion that the government in Burma, as a perpetrator of crimes, ought to be congratulated for acts of apparent generosity towards persons whom it has persecuted relentlessly.

Over the last few years, prisoner releases in which political detainees have also featured have been a regular event in Burma. Each release is an opportunity for the political leadership to temporarily pay the role of benefactor, and enjoy some praise for whatever largesse it has managed to generate through the freeing from detention of persons who should have never been detained in the first place, persons whose “crimes” constituted acts that in most other countries are taken for granted. It is for this reason that such releases of detainees are indicative not of a system operating according to rational law, but one operating according to feudal principles, in which a regal figure earns the gratitude of his subjects for the merciful exercise of arbitrary power.

But the method only works well when those released show the required deference to the powers that have released them. When, as in the case of Zarganar, they continue to show defiance and scorn, national reconciliation through hostage taking is, rather than being an effective political device, exposed as a fraud.

For this reason, the authorities in Burma are afraid to release many of the remaining political detainees there, including the leadership of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy and the 88 Generation Students group, on both of whom the Asian Human Rights Commission has previously issued appeals, since to do so would threaten the method’s effectiveness. Similarly, they have on this occasion not released most other persons on whose behalf the AHRC has campaigned for some years, including the founder of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters, U Myint Aye; persons accused of having links with exiled opposition groups and media, including Sithu Zeya and his father U Zeya; National League for Democracy member Aye Min Naing and colleagues; and, people falsely accused of involvement in bombings around the country, including Htun Oo and others in Pegu, and Phyo Wai Aung, whose trial is continuing in Rangoon.

Since the method of national reconciliation through hostage taking requires the existence of a pool of hostages that can be drawn upon if and when the authorities see fit, the only way for this method to be brought to an end is through the release of all persons who constitute he pool of hostages. And, since the method of national reconciliation through hostage taking is a fraudulent form of reconciliation, the only way for the government of Burma to initiate genuine national reconciliation is to dispense with its fraudulent counterpart. Therefore, all political detainees can and must be released from Burma’s jails before genuine national reconciliation can begin.

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This post is in: Press Release

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