Myanmar’s generals have long demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to remember everything, and to learn nothing. Sometimes this serves them well. Much of the world, when it thinks of Myanmar at all, neither remembers nor learns.
So on Tuesday we see an announcement by Myanmar’s ruling junta that it is to reduce the prison sentences of some key officials of the democratic government it overthrew in February 2021. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of the government elected in a landslide in November 2020, had six years shaved off her 33-year sentence. Myanmar’s deposed President, U Win Myint, saw his sentence reduced by four years. Reductions in the sentences of other political prisoners are also likely in the offing.
The sentence reductions come one day after the military junta extended the state of emergency under which it claims to rule, by a further six months. This was the fourth such extension, and in breach of its own constitution that limits such extensions to two.
Cynics, the ignorant, the gullible, and various vested interests in military rule in Myanmar will loudly exclaim this news as a positive development signifying real change. It is not. Neither Daw Suu, President Win Myint, nor any of the other political prisoners being ill-treated in Myanmar’s awful jails should be there at all. The charges they were convicted on are absurd, the judicial processes under which they were reached a travesty.
This is all out of an old playbook in Myanmar. The junta is weakened by its inability to surmount the opposition to its rule, and even the extreme brutality it has resorted to has done little to consolidate control. Beyond Russia and (sometimes) China, the junta is without friends. Running out of foreign exchange, of troops to sacrifice, and of ideas beyond base instincts, the junta is attempting an old public relations game and hoping an exhausted and distracted world might fall for it.
The past two-and-a-half-years of military rule in Myanmar has brought about unprecedented destruction, the death of thousands and the displacement of three million. Neighbouring countries once more host desperate refugees from Myanmar. Myanmar’s economy is in a state of collapse, with most people (in rural areas especially) reduced to little more than subsistence. The country has become a base for criminality – partly via the dramatic reinvigoration of the country as a producer of narcotics, partly via new cyber-crime hubs that constitute surely the one and only area of innovation in the country.
Myanmar’s problems will not be solved by reducing the prison sentences on people who should never have been sentenced in the first place. Real change is possible in Myanmar, but it will not come from applauding meaningless gestures, as attractive as they might be as “click-bait”. As with such online temptations broadly, best not to hit the like button until there is truly something to be happy about.