Burmese President Thein Sein indicated to his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama in landmark talks on Monday that he will push ahead with democratic reforms he initiated after taking over the country’s helm following decades of military dictatorship.
In a move that coincided with Obama’s trip to the once-pariah state, the first by a sitting U.S. president, Burma released scores of political prisoners in a government amnesty that followed calls from the U.S. for their freedom.
In talks at a regional parliament building in Rangoon during Obama’s trip, Thein Sein and Obama had discussed further political reforms in Burma and how they would improve relations between their two countries, Thein Sein said.
“We reached agreement for the development of democracy in Myanmar [Burma] and for promotion of human rights to be aligned with international standards,” he said at a press conference after their talks.
“We will continue to move forward,” he said.
He added that although there had been “some disappointments and obstacles” in the past in ties between Burma and the U.S., now their relations are “progressing.”
“I would like to indicate our commitment to strengthening bilateral relations in the years to come,” he said.
Obama, whose visit was touted by the White House as an opportunity to press Burma on issues such as freeing political prisoners and ending ethnic conflict, praised Thein Sein for embracing political reforms, saying the steps he has taken will help the country progress.
Thein Sein, a former military general, has spearheaded the country’s political and economic reforms since taking office in March 2011 after landmark elections the year before, including releasing political prisoners and improving dialogue with ethnic minority groups.
“The steps that he has already taken for democratization, elections, the release of prisoners of conscience, [and] a commitment to work with us on a human rights dialogue all can unleash the incredible potential of this beautiful country,” Obama said.
“The process of reform that he is taking is one that will move this country forward.”
As Obama made his six-hour tour of the country, which also included talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma released scores of political prisoners, many of whom had been detained under the rule of the former military junta.
At least 52 political prisoners, including several prominent human rights activists, were among the 66 released, according to the Rangoon-based Former Political Prisoners’ Network.
Among those released from Loikaw prison was prominent activist Myint Aye, lawyer and founder of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters group.
The activist, who had been sentenced to life in prison on charges of assisting in a bombing plot, said he thought the amnesty had been timed to the Burmese government’s convenience.
"We political prisoners have been given as a present to President Obama. We have been used from time to time the way they [the government] wants,” he told RFA’s Burmese service.
Let Yar Htun, who had been sentenced to life in prison for his work with the students’ resistance group All Burma Students Democratic Front, urged the government to release remaining prisoners in order to show a true commitment to reforms.
"If the government wants to have a good relation with the U.S., all political prisoners should be released. There are many still in jails,” he told RFA.
One prisoner, Teik Yin, who was released from Tharyawaddy prison, said he was not sure who to thank for his release.
"I am confused now as to who released me—President Obama or President Thein Sein?"
Some of those released told RFA that they had been were informed of their releases early Monday morning.
The prisoner amnesty brings to 518 the total number of detainees released since last week, following a previous batch on Thursday that rights groups said included no political prisoners.
Including those freed Monday, Burma has released over 800 political prisoners since Thein Sein took office, but more are believed to remain behind bars.
Last week the Former Political Prisoners’ Network said over 200 political prisoners remained imprisoned.
The government maintains that all prisoners are criminals and has released no official information on who is a political prisoner, where they are detained, or how many remain jailed.
Rights groups have accused Thein Sein’s government of using dissidents still behind bars as leverage in international relations.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Win Naing. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.