BANGKOK // Security was tight in Myanmar's main city of Yangon yesterday after a small bomb wounded six people on the eve of an anniversary marking the army's brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests a year ago.
The explosion happened outside City Hall, one of the focal points of last year's protests, which, at their height, drew an estimated 100,000 people, led by saffron-robed monks and nuns. "There was a loud bang and almost immediately the security forces moved in and blocked off the area," said a western diplomat who works close to the municipal offices but declined to be identified. Lorries full of soldiers were seen patrolling the streets around City Hall and the Sule pagoda.
"Security in the city is unusually tight, with armed police and troops patrolling the streets and setting up vehicle checkpoints at many of the main interjections," said a Yangon-based diplomat. A year ago, after weeks of protests that grew in size and veracity each day, the junta ordered its soldiers to open fire on the demonstrators, killing possibly hundreds. Thousands of people were arrested, beaten and allegedly tortured, and several hundred still remain detained, according to human rights groups.
"We must never forget what happened 12 months ago," said a young Buddhist monk, who participated in the protests, but has since escaped to Thailand. "What happened then has changed Myanmar for ever - the screams of the monks being beaten is indelibly marked in the hearts of all true Burmese," he said, refusing to give his name, fearing for his safety. Amid tight security and widespread anger among the people of Myanmar, the military regime seems intent on pressing ahead with its "road map to democracy". The first signs of this came earlier this week with the release of more than 9,000 prisoners, including several key political activists.
The mass amnesty - mostly for petty criminals - possibly signals the start of a new political era, as the regime prepares for planned elections in 2010. More importantly, the generals appear to be taking a more conciliatory approach to Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader who remains under house arrest in her Yangon residence, where she has spent more than 13 of the last 19 years. Diplomats in Yangon believe the release of Win Tin, her former colleague and co-founder of the National League for Democracy, and Win Htain, her former personal assistant who was arrested 12 years ago, is a significant gesture towards the NLD leader.
"The release of these political activists, particularly those who were very close to Aung San Suu Kyi, must be seen as an olive branch from the regime to the pro-democracy leader," said a Yangon-based Asian diplomat. A western diplomat agreed: "That [the releases] and the fact that she is being allowed access to her lawyer must be seen as positive steps. "It certainly cannot be seen as an offer of dialogue, but it may represent a softening of the regime's hardened position towards the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi."
All this suggests that Myanmar maybe on the cusp of some major political changes, according to analysts. "The regime never does anything that is not part of a bigger game plan," said Win Min, an independent academic based in Chiang Mai. "The release of these political prisoners probably signals the start of a process of preparations for the elections planned in two years time. The regime knows it must begin to build public support for its people," he said.
The elections, which are part of the country's road map to "disciplined democracy", are scheduled to be held in the early part of 2010, according to military sources. As yet, there is no concrete information as to which parties will be allowed to field candidates, and it is unclear whether the NLD will be allowed to field candidates. "The military will not make the same mistake it did last time [in May 1990]," said Win Min, referring to the landslide victory the NLD won against the junta, but which was ignored by the regime.
"They will restrict the number of parties allowed to register so as to be able to more effectively control them." Gen Than Shwe, Myanmar's top leader, told Ibrahim Gambari, the UN envoy, that Ms Suu Kyi's party would be allowed to run candidates, when they met in the Myanmar capital, Naypidaw in Nov 2006, according to UN officials who were at the meeting. The generals are planning to form three pro-military parties, each led by a trusted member of the cabinet, according to senior military sources. They will be given support from a community organisation set by Gen Than Shwe some 15 years ago, known as the Union Solidarity Development Association.
"The top generals know that if the USDA became a political party, it would not enjoy electoral support - as it is one of the most hated organisations in the country because of its complicity in the crackdown on the monks a year ago," said Win Min. In the weeks to come, as the junta sets the groundwork for the elections, there are likely to be many changes in Myanmar's political scene. Most are likely to be cosmetic.
The regime now describes itself as a transitional authority, but at the same time, Brig Gen Kyaw Hsan, the information minister, told Mr Gambari last month the transitional government would "oppose and wipe out those who attempt to jeopardise or harm the Constitution". This can only suggest that military authorities are going to continue to ruthlessly suppress dissent. And there is little likelihood of the forthcoming elections being free and fair.
"While there may be positive signs coming from the regime at the moment, it would be foolish to see them as anything more than a gesture on the regime part," a western diplomat said. "If the regime is serious about democracy they would release Aung San Suu Kyi immediately." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org