Myanmar shows Vietnam the way

Myanmar shows Vietnam the way

On Friday, the Myanmar government released 651 detainees, most of them political prisoners.

Days earlier, Vietnam dumped yet another political activist, Bui Thi Minh Hang, in a labour camp for two years, without trial.

Western countries praised Myanmar, and the United States announced that it would restore full diplomatic ties with Naypyidaw.

Little was said about Vietnam. Indeed, it is hard to know what to say.

Week after week, lawyers, academics and journalists who advocate political reform are thrown in the slammer.

Whether there are now as many political detainees in Vietnam as in Myanmar is a moot point, but there are a hell of a lot.

Last November, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally summoned enough bottle to decry Hanoi’s brutally repressive policies.

Said Clinton: “We have made it clear that if we are to develop a strategic partnership, as both nations desire, Vietnam must do more to respect and protect its citizens’ rights.”

Don’t hold your breathe. As noted Vietnam analyst Carl Thayer said: “How many stern warnings over human rights abuses does the US have to issue before it applies some real pressure on Hanoi?”

Actually, there is something that might be more effective and that is the way Myanmar is releasing political activists almost as fast as Vietnam is arresting them.

And freeing pretty significant figures. Last week’s list included former prime minister Khin Nyunt and Hkun Htun Oo, the foremost Shan leader, both of whom were serving long jail terms.

Khin Nyunt was regarded as the former junta’s “liberal”, but when I last interviewed him a decade ago, he seemed, if anything, more hardline than his fellow generals.

As head of military intelligence, he was often referred to as the “prince of darkness”. Yet personal impressions of him varied widely.

A Western ambassador in Yangon once gushed to me that Khin Nyunt was “charming and perfectly courteous”.

The opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told me: “You can call Khin Nyunt all sorts of things, but expressions like the ‘prince of darkness’ are rather too dramatic.”

But really the key figure released was Hkun Htun Oo – I use the Shan name he prefers, not the bastardised version, Khun Tun Oo, given in many news reports. “We are Shan, not Burmese,” he told me.

As head of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, he won Shan State’s Hsipaw constituency in the 1990 general election, but was never allowed to take his seat.

When I first met him in April 2000, in his tiny office near the law courts in Yangon, he was, as now, a rather podgy, bespectacled man, whose physical presence did not inspire confidence.

But when he spoke, he was forthright. “The country has gone to the dogs,” he said. “The economy is hopeless and the education system is a shambles.” It was the kind of comment that landed him in jail.

He became chairman of the United Nationalities Alliance, a coalition of all the pro-democracy ethnic parties, and if he can actively resume that post now, there will be a chance for Myanmar to really take off.

In doing so, it will be able to show Hanoi that releasing political reformists is far more productive than jailing them.

Last year, more than 60 activists were added to the hundreds already in Vietnam’s Gulag, which still includes famous figures like Thich Quang Do and Cu Huy Ha Vu.

Indeed, if Hkun Htun Oo or any of Myanmar’s Generation-88 leaders had been Vietnamese, they would still be inside, if not dead.

The anti-corruption campaigner Nguyen Huu Cau, for instance, has spent 34 years in prison, and last month Ms Ho Thi Bich Khuong received five years for remarks to overseas media deemed as “opposing the State”.

There are scores more democracy activists incarcerated under terrible conditions in Vietnam, so please bear them in mind when calling for Myanmar to release every political detainee.

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