Burma's Offer of Amnesty Met With Cautious Optimism

By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 14, 2009; 12:02 PM

BANGKOK, Thailand, July 14 -- Political analysts cautiously welcomed the Burmese government's promise of amnesty for prisoners but warned that proof of the authorities' sincerity will be measured in how many political detainees are freed.

"It is too early to say for sure exactly what it means. We don't know how many will be released or how many political prisoners will be among them," said Thant Myint-U, an analyst and author of a book about Burma's history titled "River of Lost Footsteps."

On Monday, the Burmese said they were preparing an amnesty offer at the request of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who visited Burma two weeks ago.

"They are looking for ways they can respond positively to the secretary general's visit without being seen to be caving in to foreign pressure," said Thant, grandson of former U.N. Secretary General U Thant.

But Thant said he does not believe that the country's most prominent prisoner, opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose current trial for breaching the terms of her house arrest has sparked international outrage, is likely to be among those freed.

"It is still possible that she will be released, but I think it is a long shot," he said.

Rights groups estimate that Burmese authorities are holding about 2,100 political prisoners, many of whom were detained after the bloody suppression of pro-democracy rallies in 2007.

Aung Zaw, the editor of the respected magazine Irrawaddy and a prominent voice in the country's exile community, said he has seen such moves before.

Last September, 9,002 prisoners were released -- again at a time when the government was under severe international pressure -- but only a dozen or so were considered political prisoners.

"I would be very careful until we see with our eyes political prisoners are released," he said.

But some diplomats are hoping this time might be different because of a subtle shift in the position of China, one of the Burmese government's few remaining allies.

China gave its unequivocal support to the Burmese government at Monday's Security Council meeting, but diplomats say that behind the scenes, Beijing is putting considerable pressure on Burma's generals to find a way out of the embarrassment caused by Suu Kyi's trial.

But Thant warned that the release of even substantial numbers of political prisoners would only be small step on a long road.

"The most important thing here is whether there is any appetite for new political dialogue," he said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company