More than 80 political detainees were among hundreds of prisoners ordered freed Monday in the latest amnesty by Burma's President Thein Sein ahead of his trip to the United States next week.
State Television announced that an amnesty was granted to 514 prisoners, citing a government bulletin, but the authorities did not make clear if any of those affected were political inmates.
Ba Myo Thein, an official with the Political Prisoners Network in Rangoon, said his organization had identified 87 political prisoners included in the release so far.
He said they included 47 from Mandalay Prison, 26 from Taungoo Prison, eight from Insein Prison, three from Thayawaddy Prison, two from Taunggyi Prison, and one from Bago Prison.
Of the 47 released from Mandalay, he said, 22 were monks.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a group that collects information on prisoners, said that before the announcement Monday, it had a list of 397 confirmed political prisoners whose whereabouts were verified.
Naing Naing, an official of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said he hoped many political prisoners would be freed.
“I expect that many political prisoners will be in this round of amnesty because [the government] said that more than 500 prisoners will be released. However, my expectations may be wrong because only 40 or so out of 80 political prisoners in Mandalay prison have been released.”
“We've been supporting all political prisoners and their families, and as far as we know there are under 300 political prisoners remaining in prison,” said Naing Naing, who himself is a former political prisoner.
The Burmese government does not acknowledge that it has imprisoned political dissidents.
The prisoner release Monday came as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi made her first visit to the U.S. in decades and ahead of Burma’s reformist President Thein Sein’s visit to New York next week to attend the U.N. General Assembly.
The prisoner release could be a bid by Thein Sein to pave the way for the U.S. to further ease sanctions ahead of his trip to attend the U.N. meeting, some rights groups say. Thein Sein has released around 700 political prisoners through amnesties in May 2011 and July this year.
The Obama administration is believed to be considering easing a ban on imports from Burma into the U.S., one of the main remaining sanctions imposed on the country. The U.S. Congress last month renewed the ban for another year.
The import ban was slapped years ago against the former military regime for abuses of human rights.
Washington has eased various sanctions this year to match the progress toward reforms in the country by Thein Sein's nominally civilian government after decades of brutal military rule.
Call for transparency
Phil Robertson, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, welcomed the amnesty, but called on Burma to show more “transparency” about the number of political dissidents still in the country’s jails.
“While another prisoner amnesty is welcome in principle, like everyone else we’re left waiting to see the list before we assess how many political prisoners are included, what it means and how significant it is,” he said.
“The problem is there is a lack of transparency from the Burma government about who is a political prisoner, where they are, and how many are left—and to date, our recommendation that the Burma government work with the international community to devise a clear and transparent process to access, assess, and immediately release political prisoners has fallen on deaf ears.”
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Win Naing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.