Saturday, 13 November 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi Released – 1 Down, 2,202 To Go

"We will not let the world forget that you and thousands of others are in prison for standing up for democracy and the rights of workers", UNISON President Angela Lynes told 2009 National Conference as it marked Aung San Suu Kyi’s 64th Birthday under house arrest. As she is released today, the Burma Campaign turns to the thousands of other political prisoners in Burma’s jails.

It is the third time Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest. The last time she was released in 2002 it was part of a UN-led initiative to try to persuade Myanmar’s dictatorship to enter into dialogue on democracy. How long will her freedom last this time and will there be any real political change?

Those welcoming the release today across the political spectrum were slow to back and to implement sanctions in the past. It does not build confidence that they will have any real influence on a move to democracy.

As Zoya Phan, International Coordinator at Burma Campaign UK said today, "The release of Aung San Suu Kyi is about public relations, not democratic reform,"

"I am thrilled to see our democracy leader free at last, but the release is not part of any political process, instead it is designed to get positive publicity for the dictatorship after the blatant rigging of elections on 7th November. We must not forget the thousands of other political prisoners still suffering in Burma’s jails."

A view echoed by UNISON back in 2009. "We call on the United Nations to work tirelessly for your release and that of the more than 2,000 other political prisoners, many of whom are fellow trade unionists", Angela Lynes told Conference.

The fear is that the release may release pent up political frustrations, bringing the opposition on to the streets and giving a further excuse for even more military clampdown.

The widely criticised elections last week saw only a minority of opposition candidates elected. The NLD - which won the last election in 1990 but was never allowed to take power - was ordered to dissolve after refusing to take part. A quarter of seats in the two new chambers of parliament will be reserved for the military. Any constitutional change will require a majority of more than 75% - meaning that the military will retain a casting vote.

Forced labour, child labour, trafficking in prostitution and the imprisonment of political prisoners are just a few of the problems to be addressed in a country where military spending soaks up at least 40% of public sector spending. Social services in Burma, including the country's health and educational systems, have suffered under 36 years of military dictatorship.

UNISON and the campaign

As part of its campaign UNISON funded a capacity-building project to enable Federation of Trade Unions Burma to recruit members, despite the Government proscribing the organisation.

In 2005, UNISON's National Delegate Conference in Glasgow gave Aung San Suu Kyi honorary life membership of UNISON. Cities like Edinburgh gave her the Freedom of the City presented to Aung San Suu Kyi's son, Kim Aris, at a ceremony in the City Chambers, with a magnolia tree planted in her honour in Princes Street Gardens.

"This was a highly significant gesture - the placing of the scroll on an empty seat in the city chambers reminded us of Aung San Suu Kyi's call to use our freedom to win freedom for Burma", said UNISON’s branch secretary at the time.

Dr Sein Win, the Prime Minister in exile of Burma came to Edinburgh as a guest of the International Development Group, UNISON, Burma Educational Scholarship Trust and the City of Edinburgh Council for the events.

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