A president's first faltering steps to enlightenment

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Burma's leader has freed hundreds of prisoners – but there are limits to his openness, as Andrew Buncombe found out in Bodh Gaya

Bodh Gaya

It had long turned dark by the time Thein Sein reached the Mahabodhi temple complex in north-east India, the silhouettes of his security guards mingling with those of robed Buddhist monks standing among the scented grounds as the Burmese President knelt to pray.

It would be tempting, if a little presumptuous, to assume the Burmese leader was seeking insight and wisdom as he prostrated himself yesterday evening beneath the sprawling tree where Prince Siddhartha Gautama Buddha achieved enlightenment in 623BC. But whether or not he was successful remains unclear.

The world is watching every move the 66 year-old President makes. It wants to know whether he represents a genuinely new chapter in Burma's history, a step on the path to real democracy and plurality, or whether his strategy is simply more of what has gone before, albeit packaged with slicker PR.

On the face of it, supporters of the President, appointed earlier this year after a supposedly civilian government took over the from the junta which had run the country for decades, could argue there is already sufficient evidence to suggest he represents real change.

The former general and his entourage of 69 people, including his personal chef, arrived for a three-day official visit in India on the morning it emerged that the first of what is expected to be several thousand prisoners were set free from Burma's jails. Among them were up to 200 political prisoners, including a popular comedian and activist, Zarganar, who was jailed in 2008 after criticising the government's response to the devastating Cyclone Nargis.

The comedian and actor was certainly pleased to be out of Myitkyina prison in northern Kachin state, released along with a sick and ailing rebel commander, but he did not mince his words: "I will be happy and I will thank the government only when all of my friends are freed," he told the Associated Press.

His sentiments matched those of the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who herself was released after seven years of house arrest late last year. "The freedom of each individual is invaluable, but I wish that all political prisoners would be released," she said, even as, across the country, relatives and inmates enjoyed emotional reunions outside the jails where they had been held.

While thousands of prisoners may eventually be released, it is clear that those political prisoners considered the most dangerous will not receive an amnesty from Thein Sein. Among the notable figures not released yesterday were Min Ko Naing, the "conqueror of kings", a leader of the 88 Generation Students' group who is serving a 65-year sentence, and Shin Gambira, a young monk who was among the leaders of the September 2007 Saffron Revolution, when hundreds of thousands of monks and ordinary citizens took to the streets to protest over price hikes and in support of Ms Suu Kyi's democracy campaign.

"Everybody is happy," claimed Ashin Watnawa, a monk from Burma who has lived in India for 20 years and who was visiting Mahabodhi yesterday with a colleague. "[Thein Sein] is listening to people. He is different to what went before." Asked about the brutal crackdown by the Burmese authorities in 2007 when a number of monks were among those killed and injured, he added: "You have to let some things stay in the past".

It would certainly have been insightful to hear Thein Sein's views on the prisoner releases he ordered and what they represented, as well as about his plans for the months ahead in Burma. Unfortunately, it was made clear to The Independent that neither the President, nor any of the other officials among his party, were prepared to be interviewed.

Later, as Thein Sein left Mahabodhi, strolling with his entourage past the 19 footsteps that Buddha had taken after that moment of enlightenment and now marked by a stone plinth topped with lotus flowers, his security guards stepped in to block an attempted question. "This is not the place," said one.

However – in a move that highlighted the wilier, PR-savvy side of Thein Sein – it was certainly the place for media coverage that the Burmese approved of. Among the President's entourage were three cameramen from state-controlled Myanmar International Television, as well as an Indian government photographer. They were joined last night by several Indian cameramen from private channels.

It certainly created a more positive image of the President than that given four years ago when monks in Burma turned their alms bowls upside down and "excommunicated" the military government of which he was part, just weeks before the Saffron Revolution.

Today, Thein Sein is due to return at dawn to Mahabodhi, before heading to a local Burmese-run temple where he will distribute 50 monks' robes he has brought with him from Burma. He will then leave for another Buddhist pilgrimage site, Sarnath, in Uttar Pradesh, north India, and from there he will travel to Delhi for talks with India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and other officials. Despite Burma's record on human rights, India considers its eastern neighbour increasingly important as a source of natural gas and oil and is trying to cement a relationship that matches the one Burma enjoys with China.

An Indian official said recently, ahead of this visit, that the government in Delhi believed Thein Sein was genuine in his purported desire or change. For most, the jury is still out.

Prisoners: Who they are

Zarganar One of Burma's best-loved comedians who used farce to expose daily hardships, Zarganar was serving a 35-year sentence for taking part in efforts to bring aid to the victims of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis and talking to the foreign media about the government's sluggish response. Upon his release yesterday, Zarganar said: "I will thank the government only when all of my friends are freed."

Su Su Nway The labour activist was the first person to successfully bring a prosecution against Burmese officials for forced labour, but she paid the price for her bravery, and was serving an eight and a half year sentence for treason. The Thai-based Irrawaddy website reported that she was among the political prisoners freed.

Shin Gambira The monk was one of the leaders of the Saffron Revolution of 2007, when tens of thousands of people flooded the streets to protest against economic hardship. Gambira, 28, was sentenced to 68 years in prison and despite hopes that he had been freed, an activist said yesterday that he remained behind bars.

Min Ko Naing The former student activist was sentenced to 65 years in prison in late 2008 for taking part in the pro-democracy rallies a year earlier. He is one of the so-called 88 Generation, named after a student-led uprising in 1988 which was brutally suppressed by the junta. His sister, Kyi Kyi Nyunt, said his name had not appeared on any lists of prisoners released yesterday. "We are used to these ups and downs," she said.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star