Myanmar Releases Scores of Political Prisoners

2013-07-23
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A man looks on near the gates of Insein Prison in Yangon, July 23, 2013.
AFP

Myanmar President Thein Sein ordered the release Tuesday of more than 70 jailed political prisoners following a pledge made last week in London that there would be “no prisoners of conscience” left in the formerly military-ruled country by the end of year.

“We have been informed by the Department of Prisons that they released 73 political prisoners on Thein Sein’s orders,” presidential adviser Hla Maung Shwe told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“There are now less than 100 remaining political prisoners in Myanmar for the first time in many years.”

Aung Min, a minister in Thein Sein’s office who negotiated a tenuous peace deal between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in May after two years of hostilities, said that more than two dozen of the prisoners released were from Kachin state.

“The president released about 70 prisoners including 26 from Kachin state,” he said from the regional capital Myitkyina.

Aung Min personally escorted well-known Kachin political prisoner Brang Shawng, who was sentenced to two years in prison last week under the Unlawful Association Act for his alleged role in the KIA, back to his home Tuesday from Myitkyina Prison.

Tin Maung Oo, of the Former Political Prisoner Organization in Yangon, welcomed the move but urged a release of all dissidents still held in prison and voiced alarm over continuing arrests.

“Even if they release political prisoners, they are still detaining people for political reasons,” he said.

“This means there will continue to be political prisoners in Myanmar.”

Presidential pledge

Thein Sein last week pledged to release all of Myanmar’s remaining political prisoners by the end of 2013, while visiting Britain for the first time.

The reformist president, whose military-backed government took power from the former junta in 2011 promised the amnesty as part of “a transition from half a century of military rule and authoritarianism to democracy,” in London, shortly after meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The president said that thousands of prisoners had already been released from Myanmar’s jails and that a committee was working through the cases of those still locked up. Rights groups say hundreds of those released since Thein Sein took over were political prisoners.

Last month, during a radio address, Thein Sein said that any prisoners serving jail time for holding, expressing or acting in accord with political beliefs would be set free “soon,” without providing a timetable.

“I don’t want anyone who is imprisoned with particular political beliefs in any jail,” he said at the time, adding that a government investigation into cases that had been “confused with criminal” acts was ongoing and had “taken some time.”

Thein Sein did not reveal the number of prisoners the government considers to be jailed for their political beliefs.

The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), which collects data on imprisoned activists, said around 80 convicted dissidents remain behind bars, according to AAPP estimates, with a further 70 people awaiting trial, Agence France-Presse reported.

The government, embassies, and other groups have different figures for the number of political detainees.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Soe. Written by Joshua Lipes.