Aung San Suu Kyi's visit is part of Burma's next task
OPINION:Bringing change to Burma, where power still rests with the military government, will require active international support, writes COLM O'GORMAN
IN MANY ways it is remarkable how iconic a figure Aung San Suu Kyi is to so many people the world over. Between 1989 and 2010 she spent 15 years under house arrest. Interviews and photographs of her are comparatively rare for a world figure and this is her first visit to Europe in nearly 25 years.
But during the more than two decades she has been fighting for change in Burma/ Myanmar she has become a symbol of hope, courage and implacable determination in the defence of human rights, not only to Burma’s people but to millions around the world.
The changes that have taken place in Burma recently are due largely to her efforts and the way she has ensured the international community was never allowed to forget what was happening to the Burmese people.
An Amnesty International mission to Burma last month, the first allowed since 2003, found substantial improvements. People were freer to express themselves, to speak out, to debate and to organise. Access to independent media has improved.
In a major step forward, between May 2011 and January 2012, the Burmese government released more than 650 political prisoners and reduced the sentences of many others. Many of these former prisoners have told Amnesty they have been relatively free to resume their political activity without harassment or intimidation.
For the first time it is possible to hope the cycle of imprisonment, release and re-arrest has come to an end. Hundreds more remain in prison, however, often in appalling conditions.
Khun Kawrio is a member of the Kayan ethnic group in Burma and was a leading member of Kayan New Generation Youth (KNGY). In 2008, KNGY activists campaigned against a new constitution which had been drafted by the government without properly consulting Burma’s large ethnic minority.
Khun Kawrio organised dissidents to release balloons, launch paper boats and spray-paint walls with their peaceful political messages. They were subsequently arrested, tortured and sentenced by the military, without trial, judge or defence. Although two of his colleagues have been released, Khun Kawrio remains in prison, one of a large number of remaining prisoners of conscience.
The prisoner releases are a welcome initiative but the international community needs to encourage the government to accelerate the process. The authorities should provide more information about who they have in detention; prison conditions need to improve; and, most urgently, prisoners of conscience should be released immediately.
There has also been some progress in the relationships between the government and a number of ethnic groups that have often been marked by serious conflict. Ceasefires have been brokered between the army and the various armed groups and where these are holding they have been important in reducing violence against civilians, though the humanitarian needs of those displaced by fighting must be addressed.