Released Burma Dissident: We’re On a Leash

Two Burmese dissident journalists spotlighted during UN Watch’s September human rights summit in New York are among political prisoners just released by the Burmese government.

The plights of Sithu Zeya, 21, and Hla Hla Win, 27, featured in the We Have a Dream presentation of Dr. Thaung Htun, United Nations representative of the opposition-in-exile National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.

They were serving lengthy prison terms – 18 years for Sithu Zeya; 27 years for Hla Hla Win – for dispatching news video to the exiled Democratic Voice of Burma news service (DVB).

The freeing Friday of more than 300 political prisoners prompted the United States to pledge it would restore full diplomatic ties with Burma as U.S President Barack Obama called the move a “substantial step” towards democracy.

But Sithu Zeya said the authorities attached conditions to his release – telling him that if he commits any “crime” in the future he will be forced to serve his full 18-year term, DVB reported.

“It’s like we are being freed with leashes still attached to our necks. So I’m happy, but with a leash still on my neck,” he told DVB.

It was not clear whether the warning applied to all political prisoners being released, the DVB blogger noted.

In his September 21 UN Watch presentation, Thaung Htun described Sithu Zeya as a “colleague” as he recounted how the authorities had, just a week before, added 10 years to the video journalist’s earlier eight-year sentence.

Thaung Htun shared that Hla Hla Win was also a member of the National League for Democracy, which Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi heads. Hla Hla Win emerged from a prison in northern Burma, DVB reported.

Both journalists faced numerous charges under Burma’s panoply of repressive laws, which remain despite Friday’s prisoner release being hailed as the most significant reformist gesture yet of Burma’s nominally civilian government.

U.S. Secretary of States Hillary Clinton said the United States would “meet action with action” to encourage additional steps from  the so-called “reformist dictatorship,” which seeks an end to Western sanctions after assuming power in March from the former military junta.

But receiving less media attention were warnings that the United States and other Western powers may be re-engaging too fast.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, said in a statement she was “distressed” by talk of reinstating a U.S. ambassador in Burma.

“I call on the administration to immediately cease talks with the ruthless tyrants in Burma until the junta has been replaced with a duly elected, democratic government that respects human rights and civil liberties,” the statement says.

Ros-Lehtinen argues there is no evidence that planned elections in April will be any fairer than the 2010 ballot that ultimately led to the installation this year of Thein Sein, a former military general who served as prime minister under the military junta, as president.

“Any concession to the dictatorship would be grossly premature,” she warns. “The world needs to see that the upcoming April elections are not the same kind of sham that we saw in 2010.”

Prominent pro-democracy activist groups for Burma are likewise urging extreme caution.

“The release of political prisoners is often timed to coincide with key political developments in order to try and convince the international community reform is on the way,” says Burma Campaign UK in a briefing on motives behind earlier prisoner releases.

“In the past, these releases have never been an indicator that change is on the way. They have been used by the dictatorship to try and secure positive publicity in order to ease international pressure.”

Canadian Friends of Burma (CFOB) notes that Burma’s framework of repressive laws remains, thereby allowing for the re-arrest of everyone released – as the warning handed to Sithu Zeya suggested can happen.

“All of the political prisoners released over the past few months could be jailed again at any time as there is still not a truly democratic system in place in Burma,” the group says in a statement.

Both Ros-Lehtinen and CFOB also emphasize scant attention is being paid to ongoing Burmese army offensives against eastern and northern ethnic groups as headlines focus on a ceasefire announced Thursday with the armed ethnic Karen group in Burma’s south.

“The Burmese regime’s ongoing military assaults, mass rapes, and atrocities against minority groups prove that it is far too early to regard it as ‘a partner and friend.’” Ros-Lehtinen says.

Fighting resumed in northeastern Kachin state under the current regime, CFOB stresses.

“In June 2011 – some three months after Burma’s nominally ‘civilian’ government officially took power – Burma’s army began its offensive against the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the thousands of civilians who in live in KIO territory,” the group says.

“The Army’s decision to unilaterally end a 17 year cease fire with the KIO has brought much suffering to thousands of people in the north of country.”

CFOB says most of the world is “completely unaware” of the conflict.

“At least 60,000 Kachin refugees are thought to be currently trapped in a small strip of territory along the China-Burma border and are facing increasingly dire conditions,” it warns.

Thaung Htun also spoke Burma’s ongoing conflicts during his We Have a Dream presentation.

“There have been serious human rights violations, including attacks against civilians, massive internal displacement of people, land confiscation, recruitment of child soldiers, forced labor, and forced portering for the army,” he said.

UN Watch