Myanmar: reduction of sentences but no amnesty, high by-election prospects for NLD

Updated On: Jan 03, 2012

President Thein Sein’s government has declared it will reduce the sentences of political prisoners that are currently imprisoned by the Myanmar government. The announcement falls short of expectations that amnesty will be granted to the prisoners, and suggests that Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD may net even greater support in the newly announced by-elections which will take place this April.

Myanmar’s reforms and recent visits by dignitaries to the country have significantly stepped up interest in investment in the area, but it may be premature to hold high hopes for Myanmar, as repression and military brutality continues unabated in some parts of the country.

Reduction of sentences an “unsatisfactory” alternative to amnesty

Myanmar’s state television and radio communicated on Monday that the government was commuting death sentences to life imprisonment, and reducing sentences longer than 30 years to just 30 years. 20-30 year sentences were reduced to 20 year, whilst sentences less than 20 years were reduced by a fourth. It is not clear if the decision applies to all political prisoners or just some of them. The announcement comes a week after the government-appointed National Human Rights Commission appealed to President Thein Sein to issue a general amnesty.

Many are disappointed by the announcement, as it falls short of the amnesty that many sought and hoped for.

“It is not satisfactory,” said NLD party spokesman Han Thar Myint. According to the NLD, about 600 people are still being imprisoned by the government. The Myanmar government claims the number is only about 200, while human rights organisations have placed the number around 1,500 people.

Releasing political prisoners is an important step forward in Myanmar’s reforms in the eyes of the United States and other nations. Thein Sein’s government’s reluctance to do so suggests that some figures in Naypyidaw may be reluctant to continue with the radical reforms that have swept the country.

April 1 by-elections: easy win for the NLD?

Along with the disappointing decision to refuse amnesty for its political prisoners, the Myanmar government also raised fuel prices by a third on Monday. The price of a gallon of petrol has risen from 2,500 kyat (S$499.23) to 3,350 kyat (S$668.97) at a time when the Myanmar people are suffering from a steep rise in the price of electricity. In 2007, a similar rise in prices resulted in widespread protests that only ended after a violent crackdown.

Although the new price hikes may not result in such a violent outcome, at the very least it may strengthen support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, as it looks forward to the by-elections, which will be held April 1, according to a state radio announcement on Friday.

The by-elections are being held to fill 48 seats in the lower and upper houses and regional assemblies. However, even winning all of the contested seats will not threaten the current majority, which consists of former military men. A quarter of the parliament’s seats are taken up by the Myanmar army.

Too early to tell?

President Thein Sein’s government has released a number of political prisoners, suspended work on a Chinese-backed mega dam, and has been holding peace talks with the country’s main armed ethnic groups, presumably in an attempt to secure better international standing.

According to the Financial Times, interest in investment in Myanmar has been increasing significantly since US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the country, which has been seen as a symbolic go-ahead to resume aid and relations with the long-secluded nation. Even so, the burgeoning interest has been held back by poor infrastructure and lack of facilities across the country, although Burma is rich with natural resources and has potential for tourism, which is likely to attract investors despite the difficulties.

Lack of telecommunications and functioning banking, however, is not the most serious obstacle. Away from the capital of Naypyidaw, in its jungles, the Myanmar military is active and aggressive in its fight against ethnic groups. While groups like the Kachin Independence Army have done their share of violations, government soldiers have been reported brutally interrogating men, using chemical agents in a village, and pillaging homes.

The two sides of Myanmar’s coin is likely to keep more cautious investors out of the area, and the attention of political experts engaged, as the situation continues to develop in the country.

Report: Myanmar reduces sentences for many prisoners, stops short of amnesty[Washington Post, 2 Jan 2012]

Report: Western investors target Burma [Financial Times, 2 Jan 2012]

Report: Burma to reduce sentences of some prisoners [Voice of America, 2 Jan 2012]

Report: Burma raises fuel prices by a third [BBC UK, 2 Jan 2012]

Report: Myanmar sets by-election date [AFP, 30 Dec 2011]

Report: Despite thaw, Burmese still dying in warzone [Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Dec 2011]

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