These are heady days for those long hoping for change in Myanmar. The government, which was installed on the back of a sham election that saw the ruling junta ditch their military uniforms for civilian garb, has set out an ambitious reform agenda and seems to be trying to stick to it. After 20 years without a parliament and democratic process, its new leaders are now showing a surprising impatience with the status quo and are changing the way this country is ruled. Western policymakers should sit up and take notice of these reforms -- and, most importantly, respond.
The new government's apparent decision this week to shift its stance toward the prisoners of conscience in Myanmar's jails is an important sign of its efforts to promote internal reconciliation in the divided country. On Oct. 12, it released more than 6,359 detainees as part of a general amnesty, first hinted at in a landmark parliamentary motion urging the president to consider such a move. While the exact number of political prisoners among those released is yet to be confirmed, Amnesty International has said that the government released at least 120 of some 2,000 incarcerated political detainees.
Although the actual figure may be debated, it is the quality as much as the quantity that is significant. While less well-known than Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a number of leading dissidents appear to be among those released, such as Ashin Gambira from the All Burma Monks' Alliance, who led street protests in 2007; comedian and social activist Zarganar, who criticized the government's response to the devastating Cyclone Nargis; and a prominent ethnic figure, Hso Ten, who headed the Shan State Army-North armed group.
The fact that the release was channeled through the new institutions of the presidency, parliament, and the country's fledging human rights commission lends it an unprecedented institutional basis that makes it harder to reverse. The vote in favor of the parliamentary resolution on the amnesty included the military's faction, indicating the move is openly backed by the armed forces in a way that previous releases have not been. Opposition figures in Myanmar believe that this is the first stage of a phased release of political prisoners, possibly with two more tranches in coming weeks.
The release should not be interpreted as a stand-alone event. In recent months, President Thein Sein has reached out to prominent critics, including Aung San Suu Kyi. He has made overtures to armed ethnic groups, signing preliminary peace agreements with the Wa and Mongla, which like others are still fighting a 60-year civil war. Controls on freedom of expression and the right to organize have been loosened. Myanmar has set its sights on chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014, which will require even more dramatic steps to alter the old mindset and become more integrated with its neighbors.