The Waiting is Over. Now The Games Can Commence.
Finding myself on a European timezone was not ideal with the long expected prisoner amnesty about to unfold. The first phone call of the day was at 4:00am and a long day ensued. It’s hard enough getting verified information out of Burma at the best of times, but in times like these it can become chaotic almost instantaneously as thousands turn to Twitter and other social networks, making announcements and forwarding third hand information that creates hysteria one minute and heartbreak the next. With reporters stationed at most of the key prisons across Burma, the exiled media and underground reporters, as well as citizen journalists, played their role in breaking the news live and with DVB’s rolling live updates for once it felt Burma was not a million miles away. An unexpected call from CNN in Hong Kong woke me from my early morning slumber as Zarganar was walking through the gates of Mytikyina prison and a request to be interviewed and show our work on the main network news at 08:00 Eastern USA time. Topping the headline news makes a welcome change for Burma and one we could relish as well with our work on display to millions across the world enjoying their breakfast in America, afternoon tea in the UK or evening noodles in Asia. The early morning call from Hong Kong lead to a crazy day dashing across London as slowly, one by one, political prisoners were being released. Being stuck in Europe on this of all days was not ideal considering the time difference and logistical difficulties trying to get updates using Skype and G-talk whilst constantly on the move, but whilst I found myself at Getty Images I managed to find a quiet room to do the voice over that took more attempts at trying to get a clear line than it does when trying to call into Burma.
The Guardian centrefold had got round the world quickly and brought with it more requests to show the photographs and give analysis and opinion as hopes of real reform in Burma started to fade once more. From Hong Kong to Bush House in 10 minutes flat and we just made the BBC World Service in time, but as the Norwegian Foreign Minister was starting to exaggerate the change underway the presenters cut short what was about to turn into a fully heated debate.
This time expectations were higher than before, but caution was key, as before too long it became clear that this would be just another game of smoke and mirrors, once more played out to make a mockery of the watching world. Zarganar was freed early on as was expected, soon followed by a host of political prisoners who had suffered illness or had been jailed for many years – Nyi Nyi Oo would finally taste freedom after 23 years jailed for being framed for a bombing incident that the KNU would later admit to. U Than Lwin and U Kyaw Khin, two former NLD MPs elected in 1990, walked free but left behind 10 more who are still incarcerated. Rumours from Reuters soon had the world believing Ashin Gambira was free, but alas it would be the closest we would come to seeing any of the more prominent dissidents and opponents to this tyrannic regime be released from their dark cells. I expected 400 to be released, as had been widely touted by many. I hoped that the 88 Generation Students would be among them, but only hoped with no real expectation. My friend Andrew Buncombe, South-East Asia correspondent for The Independent was texting me from Bodh Gya in India, where Thein Sein was seeking enlightenment and doing his best to dodge Andrew’s questions.
Montage of Burma’s political prisoners taken from the forthcoming book ‘Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness’
This prisoner amnesty has been expected for some time and now that it has been and gone and the dust starts to settle. it’s time to take stock, a step back and wonder what cards the Generals and the democracy movement will play next. Rightly so, Burma’s so-called civilian government must face worldwide condemnation for this farcical amnesty and in no way must any form of concessions be given away in regards to sanctions or deals of any other kind from the IMF and World Bank. But I do not believe this is the last that we will see. I think that this could be the first part of Thein Sein’s plans as he tests the water to see just how much he has to give away to get what he wants. I strongly believe that, as in 2004, we will see further releases of political prisoners over the coming months and hopefully culminating with the release of the 88 Generation Students and other key protaganists who must be free to shape Burma’s future including ethnic leaders and more than 250 members of the NLD who still remain behind bars. Despite the joy that must be acknowledged in seeing 220 political prisoners walk free, I am deeply dissatisfied with the 24 hours that have passed. But I retain hope and the belief that there is more to come.