Myanmar freed 3,073 political prisoners Tuesday as part of a presidential amnesty, but rights groups criticized the move, which left out the bulk of the country’s remaining political prisoners.
One rights group said the amnesty “smacked of political opportunism” ahead of a summit meeting of world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, in the capital Naypyidaw next month.
The prisoners were granted amnesty for the sake of “peace and stability” and on “humanitarian grounds,” the official New Global Light of Myanmar newspaper reported, citing the Ministry of Information.
“[President Thein Sein] pardoned the prisoners so that they can serve in the interests of their respective regions and country in cooperation with the people, understanding the goodwill of the State,” it said.
The report made no mention of whether any political prisoners were included in the amnesty but initial reports indicate up to a dozen of the 75 political prisoners may have been among those released.
Thein Sein had vowed to release all remaining political prisoners by the end of last year.
Prisoner watchdog the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP-B) joint-secretary Bo Kyi told RFA’s Myanmar Service that his group was aware of only one prisoner of conscience that had been freed Tuesday.
But the Associated Press quoted the official Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee as saying that at least 13 of those pardoned nationwide were jailed on political offenses and at least eight were former senior military intelligence officers detained after the 2004 ouster of former intelligence chief and Prime Minister Khin Nyunt.
But Bo Kyi said, “As far as we know, there was only one political prisoner named Mala from Myitkyina Prison who was released.”
“He had been arrested and sentenced to five years in jail for his connections to the [rebel Kachin Independence Army] in 2013,” he said.
Win Naing Linn, deputy director of the department of correctional services in Kachin state, said that “one prisoner who was sentenced under a weapons charge was released today from Myitkyina Prison,” adding that 121 inmates had been released from the region in total.
He did not say whether any of those freed were considered political prisoners.
Win Myint, the secretary of parliament’s Rule of Law Committee, told RFA that “more political prisoners who work for the people should be released.”
London-based rights group Amnesty International slammed news of the pardon, which it called “essentially an empty political gesture as scores of peaceful activists are believed to remain behind bars,” adding that “none of the country’s prisoners of conscience … appears to be included in the release.”
“This is nothing but an empty gesture on the authorities’ part. The timing, so close to the [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] ASEAN summit in Myanmar in early November, smacks of political opportunism,” said Richard Bennett, Amnesty’s Asia Pacific Director.
The ASEAN summit will precede the annual East Asia Summit comprising the 10 Southeast Asian nations and the United States, China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
“If the Myanmar authorities were genuine about improving respect for human rights, they would follow through on the long-standing promise to clear the country’s jails of the dozens of peaceful activists still behind bars,” Bennett said.
Amnesty said Myanmar’s authorities continue to employ repressive laws to silence dissent in the country, adding that it is still receiving reports of human rights defenders, land rights activists, journalists, political activists and others being imprisoned simply for expressing their opinions.
“As long as these detentions continue, amnesties like the one today do nothing to improve Myanmar’s human rights situation,” it said.
According to the New Global Light of Myanmar report, 58 foreign nationals were among the prisoners pardoned Tuesday, while “138 men, 39 women and one foreigner” were set free from the notorious Insein Prison in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon. It did not indicate where the foreigners were from.
Other prisons which freed inmates as part of the amnesty included Mandalay’s Obo Prison; Kachin state’s Taungu, Myitkyina, Bhamo and Putao prisons; and Shwebo Prison in Sagaing region.
The release was the latest in a string of around a dozen pardons by Thein Sein, whose quasi-civilian administration took power from Myanmar’s former military regime in 2011.
Reported by Kyaw Thu and Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.