Burma Receives High-Level Visitors, but Reforms Slow

Burma’s government is getting a lot of attention for being a so-called “reformist dictatorship,” but activists are warning there is a disconnect between what is being promised, and what is happening on the ground.

An order to cut jail terms and release some prisoners has been slammed as focusing too much on “common criminals.”

The League for Democracy Party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, highlighted that only about a dozen of up to 1,700 political detainees were among 900 prisoners the nominally civilian, but military-sanctioned government released Tuesday as it seeks an end to decades of economic sanctions.

Suu Kyi – herself released from house arrest in November 2010 – told the BBC she thought there would be a “full democratic election” in her lifetime. But she also warned in an interview with the Associated Press that the reforms were not “unstoppable.”

Despite her caution, British Foreign Secretary William Hague emerged from a meeting Thursday with his Burmese counterpart, U Wunna Maung Lwin, and cited the foreign minister’s contention the reforms were “irreversible.”

“The foreign minister has reaffirmed commitments that have been made to release political prisoners,” Hague told reporters.

Hague is visiting Burma on the heel’s of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month.

Hague also met  with Burmese President Thein Sein, who is a former military general, as well as Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, and other leaders, said a British government press release, which contained prepared remarks by the foreign minister.

“I made clear that the British government expects to see the release of all political prisoners, credible by-elections in April, and a genuine alleviation of the suffering in ethnic areas, including through humanitarian access and peace talks,” Hague said, according to the release.

It also emerged Thursday that financier George Soros and family members visited Burma from Dec. 26 to Jan. 3.

Soros agreed to establish an official base in the country for his democracy-building efforts there – even though he acknowledged that “there is a big gap between the goodwill at the top and conditions on the ground,” according to a statement from his Open Society Foundations group.

Soros said his trip was “in his capacity as a philanthropist and supporter of open society around the world.”

At UN Watch’s “We Have a Dream” global human rights summit in New York in September, prominent Burmese dissident Dr. Thaung Htun warned that the reform process may be fragile.

“Even though there are structural changes to institutions, the government and parliament, the ‘reform’ can be likened to putting old wine in a new glass,” said Thaung Htun, UN representative of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.

“Rulers of the old regime may have shed their uniforms, but they have again taken positions in the government.”

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