Fred Hiatt
Editorial page editor November 6, 2011

Life in the new Burma:

Fifteen political prisoners who embarked on a hunger strike to protest their confinement have been denied water as punishment. Eight of them, according to Amnesty International, have been sent to cells built for dogs, which have no light, no mats or bedding, and insufficient space for humans to stand.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

In the past year, more than 100,000 ethnic minorities have been forced to leave their homes by brutal army tactics, including gang-rapes.

U Gambira, a Buddhist monk serving 63 years in prison for his role in a peaceful 2007 movement for democracy, is rapidly deteriorating, according to Amnesty International, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) and his elder sister, Ma Khin Thu Htay. The monk, 32, apparently has never recovered from being tortured in 2009 and is being given narcotic injections to silence him rather than appropriate medical care.

None of this would have been surprising in the past, because Burma, a nation of 50 million or so in Southeast Asia, has long been ruled by one of the world’s most brutal regimes (which calls its country Myanmar). But in recent months, there have been signs of change and, along with those, arguments in the West about how to respond.

Longtime opponents of pro-democracy sanctions have urged a rapid easing of those. The International Crisis Group, for example, in September proclaimed a “major reform underway”: “President Thein Sein has moved rapidly to begin implementing an ambitious reform agenda . . . strong signs of heralding a new kind of political leadership in Myanmar . . . a completely different tone for governance.”

Among the changes: Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma’s foremost pro-democracy political party, has been freed from house arrest and allowed to meet with diplomats and Burmese leaders. Her photograph has emerged in many Rangoon homes from its hiding place beneath mattresses or between book pages. Her party, now banned, may be permitted to re-register.

Domestic media remain strictly controlled, but Internet access has been eased. A dam construction project, which would have displaced thousands, has been suspended.

That decision not only cheered Burma’s beleaguered environmentalists but also angered neighboring China, which was helping to finance the project and would have received almost all of the electricity generated. That, in turn, suggests that Burma’s leaders, like those of other countries in the region, are chafing under China’s increasingly peremptory attitude toward its near-abroad. Chinese businessmen in Burma buy property, claim natural resources and export young girls to become forced brides in Chinese villages.

Indeed, a leading argument against sanctions has been the opening they would give China to a strategically located, resource-rich country. Now it seems the sanctions — and Burma’s desire for someone to play a counterbalancing role — may be one factor swaying the regime toward the pro-reform steps it knows the West will insist on.

If that’s the case, the logical response is assurance that true reform will lead to Western engagement — but no premature removal of the incentives for change.

How to define premature? There is no single yardstick. But one basic requirement would be freedom for all political prisoners (1,700 or so), including the 120 suffering from severe health problems — among them U Gambira.

Four years ago, while he was on the run inside his country, the monk published an op-ed on this page in which he “welcomed the strong actions of the United States to impose financial and travel restrictions on the regime and its enablers.”

“Burma’s Saffron Revolution is just beginning,” U Gambira bravely wrote. “The regime’s use of mass arrests, murder, torture and imprisonment has failed to extinguish our desire for the freedom that was stolen from us so many years ago. We have taken their best punch.”

Sadly, the regime set out to prove him wrong. According to his sister, he was beaten on the head with a stick “every 15 minutes for the entire month of April 2009.”

“He was beaten in this manner for requesting permission to walk for his health,” she wrote in a recent letter to Burma’s president. “While he was being beaten, his hands were placed behind his back and handcuffed, and he was forced to wear iron shackles. In addition, he was hooded with a black cloth bag and pieces of cloth were forcefully put in his mouth . . . he was fed meals with a spoon by prison guards . . . and [had to] urinate or defecate on the chair.”

By the time he was transferred to another prison in May, he was, according to a prison official, “a crazy guy.”

The new Burma regime is, perhaps, not responsible for the crimes of May 2009. But one would think that a “completely different tone for governance” will include freedom for the dictatorship’s most damaged victims, and an end to its most appalling crimes.

fredhiatt@washpost.com