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News from India Newspaper (r)
"Burma prisoner release PR for EU-Asean summit"
By Aung Zaw
Inter Press Service
"The Asian Age" Newspaper
Date February 25, 1999.
Chiang Mai (Thailand), Feb. 24: Burma's release of two political
prisoners this month surprised many, but sceptics say it is little more
than a public relations gambit ahead of the March summit between
European and Southeast Asian nations.
Ma Thida, a 34-years-old political prisoner and known storywriter, was
released from Insein prison on February 11. Four days after her release,
another writer, Nyi Pu Lay was freed.
Dissidents and Burma watchers suggested they were freed as a part of
the junta's campaign to lobby the European Union in its objections to
Rangoon's participation in the EU-Asean summit in Berlin next month.
EU members had earlier asked Burma to make human rights "gesture"
before Burma could attend the March 29-30 summit. European governments
had said they would not sit down with Burmese foreign minister Win Aung
because of the country's poor human rights record.
Mr. Win Aung recently traveled to four Asean countries?Malaysia,
Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore?to lobby for Burma's participation in
the Berlin summit.
In Singapore, he said: "The rest (Asean) will not go without me. Do you
think they will go there without me participating in that meeting? I
don't think so."
But one Burma-based diplomat said the EU is not merely asking Burma to
free political prisoners, but wants the Rangoon generals to have a
meaningful political meeting with Opposition groups led by Nobel Peace
Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Clearly, however, Ma's release "is an
important gesture to EU showing Burma's seriousness to attend the Berlin
summit," the diplomat said.
Sceptics however said that the release of the two generals does not
signify a change of heart by the junta, given its continued crackdown on
activists and the Opposition National League for Democracy.
"No one is fooled by this. We know that Ma Thida is just a bargaining
chip for Win Aung's trip (to Berlin)." said a Burmese activist based in
Burma's participation in Asean's meetings with Europen government has
been a ticklish issue since Rangoon became a member in 1997. In fact,
Burma has replaced East Timor as the most troublesome human rights issue
that ties up relations between Asean and European governments.
Complicated negotiations took place between Asean and European officials
ahead of the Asia-Europe meeting in January, with the European diplomats
misting that the Burmese could attend but not speak.
Last week, the Burmese state media called the EU members
"neo-colonialists" for opposing its participation in the Berlin meeting.
For their part, the Asean members are caught between a realization of
the deadweight that Rangoon is in ties with Europe, and the belief that
the EU cannot dictate who should or should not be a part of the meeting,
as Burma is already an Asean member.
Like many of Burma's prominent artists and writers, Ma Thida joined Ms.
Suu Kyi's NLD in 1988. A friends of Ms. Suu Kyi's, she organized on
behalf of the party and gave speeches.
She was arrested in 1990, released, then re-arrested in 1993 for
distributing leaflets urging people to boycott the junta-called National
Convention. At the time of her arrest, she was working as surgeon at the
Muslim Free Hospital.
Ma Thida's short stories, often about her poor patients and Burma's one
party, have been banned from publication since she was put in prison.
Nyi Pu Lay is also short storywriter whose articles began appearing in
Burmese magazines in the early 1980s.
Independent human rights groups estimate that some 2,000 prisoners
remain in Burma's prisons, and activists say that there are more than
200 women political prisoners.
Famous writer San San Nweh and her daughter are both in Insein prison.
Daw Kyi Kyi, a political prisoner now almost 80 years old, remains in
detention. Ma Sanda, a former political prisoner and now a member of the
All Burma Federation of Student Unions (Foreign Affairs' Committee) in
exile said: "What I know now is that the female prisoners' health
situation is getting worse".