Myanmar on Friday released around 20 political prisoners, including a prominent activist who had recently been thrown back in jail after receiving a pardon, ahead of President Thein Sein’s historic visit to Washington next week.
Social campaigner Nay Myo Zin, who in the first case of its kind in the country had his previous amnesty revoked earlier this month under a controversial provision of the criminal code, left the Maubin prison in Ayeyarwady region where he had been held for 14 days.
Friday’s group amnesty did not require other prisoners to sign a document binding them to the provision, which had raised concerns among the country's thousands of ex-political prisoners over their ability to freely engage in democracy after it was used to re-imprison Nay Myo Zin.
Zaw Htay, director of the president’s office, said on his Twitter page that the amnesty signaled that Myanmar’s efforts at democratic reform would be “all-inclusive” and that the country’s dissidents were not being used as a form of leverage.
Thein Sein has granted several prisoner amnesties since his reformist government took power in 2011 following decades of military misrule in Myanmar, though many of them have occurred either just before or immediately following strategically diplomatic events.
Members of the government’s political prisoner scrutiny committee say that according to their list, around 160 dissidents remain behind bars in Myanmar, though some activists have put the number as high as 200.
Nay Myo Zin told RFA’s Myanmar Service that officials at the prison had read him the president’s order before letting him go.
“I am happy that the president is making a good move for the country by ordering the release of political prisoners without any conditions,” he said.
“I also would like to thank the president. It is obvious that he is willingly helping the country when we need reforms and when the government needs to earn the trust of the people.”
Nay Myo Zin, who had been critical of the nation's police was earlier this month ordered to serve six years of a sentence he got for a conviction in 2011 after he had been freed in January last year.
His return to prison to serve part of a 10-year sentence he was handed under the draconian Electronics Transactions Act in 2011 drew attention to Article 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which gives the president powers to free prisoners but also to "remit the whole or part of the punishment to which he has been sentenced" at any time.
Nay Myo Zaw welcomed Thein Sein’s new amnesty and said he had even been invited by the government to participate in Myanmar’s reform process.
“I have been expecting that all political prisoners would be released without any conditions and I think it is finally happening. We have been fighting against the old systems of the old era…. We are ready to collaborate for the betterment of our country,” he said.
“There are some [purged] military intelligence officers still in different prisons. I want them released as well because if we can work together for our country, this would be good. I want the government to allow everybody to collaborate in politics.”
Thein Sein is expected to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday as the first leader of Myanmar to visit Washington since 1966. A Myanmar government official told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity that Thein Sein was due to leave late on Friday and return next Thursday.
Thein Sein has embarked on substantial democratic reforms in the more than two years since his government took power, and the meeting with Obama is seen as an acknowledgement by Washington of the progress he has made in reversing the oppressive policies of Myanmar’s former junta leadership.
In addition to the release of large numbers of political prisoners, Thein Sein’s government has eased restrictions on assembly and the press, renewed attempts at dialogue with armed ethnic minority groups, and allowed Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to enter parliament.
As a result, the Obama administration has suspended most sanctions against Myanmar in an attempt to encourage further change and extend its influence in the former pariah nation.
But several of the political prisoners released Friday said reforms are not coming fast enough and called for the release of all of Myanmar’s remaining jailed dissidents.
Ye Htut Khaung, who was released after being sentenced in 2011 under Myanmar’s religion act, maintained that he and the country’s other political prisoners were innocent, adding that many others are languishing in the country’s jail for their beliefs.
“We have suffered mental anguish [while imprisoned] and I am very sad for our friends who were not released today,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We can feel what they feel.”
“We must remember the political prisoners who remain in various prisons around the country. It is not enough for the government to simply establish the political prisoner scrutiny committee.”
Kan Min Tha, a political prisoner who was released from Yangon’s notorious Insein prison—where Reuters News Agency reported 10 prisoners had been released—welcomed the amnesty without conditions.
But he said that the government must answer for the dissidents who remain behind bars.
“We were released today, but I don’t know why other political prisoners were not,” he said.
“They released us without any conditions for the first time—we didn’t need to sign anything. But we demand the release of the other political prisoners.”
Ye Aung, a member of the government's political prisoner scrutiny committee, said Thein Sein’s government needs to make assurances that future amnesties will no longer hinge on Article 401.
“As committee members, we have asked for the release of additional political prisoners as soon as possible. The committee also submitted a request to release political prisoners without requiring them to sign Article 401,” he said.
Ye Aung said Thein Sein is responsible for deciding which political prisoners must sign the document on their release and which do not.
“We have called on the president to order the release of all political prisoners without any conditions.”
In April, Burmese authorities released 93 prisoners, including nearly 60 identified by a rights group as political prisoners.
The government freed 452 prisoners in November last year in a gesture of “goodwill” ahead of an historic visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, but the amnesty drew criticism from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners which said that none of those granted freedom had been sentenced for their political views.
More than 80 political detainees were released among more than 500 prisoners in September 2012 ahead of Thein Sein’s trip to the U.S. to attend the United Nations General Assembly. Additional political prisoners were released in amnesties in July last year and in May 2011.
Reported by Kyaw Thu and Ei Ei Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.