January 13, 2012

BEFORE THE GREEN Revolution in Iran, before Tunisia and Tahrir Square, there was the Saffron Revolution in Burma: a peaceful uprising for democracy, led by Buddhist monks, that was brutally suppressed by the ruling generals.

One leader of the Saffron Revolution was U Gambira, a young monk who managed after the crackdown to smuggle out an op-ed that we published before authorities found him, arrested him and sentenced him to 67 years in prison.

“It matters little if my life or the lives of colleagues should be sacrificed on this journey,” he wrote. “Others will fill our sandals, and more will join and follow.”

On Friday, along with hundreds of other political prisoners, U Gambira was set free. We may not know for some time how well he has come through the brutal torture and confinement he reportedly endured. But the mass release Friday, following the regime’s decision to permit Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy back into politics, keeps Burma’s fragile and remarkable progress toward freedom on track.

For more than a half a century, Burma, also known as Myanmar, has been misruled by one of the world’s most repressive military regimes. This mattered not only to Burma’s 50 million people, who watched a relatively prosperous and ­well-educated nation decline into poverty. At a juncture between India, China and Southeast Asia, Burma has strategic significance. And the dignified defiance of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the past two decades under house arrest, long ago captured the world’s admiration.

Over the past year, Burma’s president, Thein Sein, a former general, has promised political reform and an easing of repression, and so far he has made good on the promise. The Obama administration has responded with an appropriate combination of restraint and encouragement. When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Burma last month, a release of political prisoners was one of the conditions she set for further cooperation. Ms. Clinton responded to Friday’s release by promising to send an ambassador, upgrading diplomatic relations.

But that and other steps, she said, will “depend on continuing progress and reform.” Her caution is well placed. As Aung San Suu Kyi has said, establishing a rule of law matters more than prisoner release, because otherwise anyone can be locked up again at the rulers’ whim. Burma’s constitution gives the military huge powers, even over the president, and reportedly not everyone in the army supports reform. Thein Sein’s ability to end the army’s wars against ethnic minorities remains in question, though a cease-fire in one conflict announced Thursday is another hopeful sign. The United States and its allies must continue to demonstrate that reforms will be met in kind while remembering that the ultimate goal of democracy — of the interrupted Saffron Revolution — remains far from achieved.

Sithu Zeya, 21, a reporter for the Democrative Voice of Burma (DVB), was among those released Friday, in his case from an 18-year sentence.

“As for the president, I think he’s pretty decent as he is [enacting reforms] under a lot of pressure,” he said upon release, the DVB reported. “But also it depends a lot on the men behind him — just one decent person won’t make the change happen. We need all-inclusive cooperation from both sides to build a democratic system.”