A president's first faltering steps to enlightenment

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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.

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