Burma freed hundreds of prisoners Thursday in a gesture of “goodwill” ahead of an historic visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, but the amnesty drew criticism from rights groups and dissidents who feared no political prisoners were among those released.
The official newspaper New Light of Myanmar announced that the government would release 452 prisoners with the "intent to help promote goodwill and the bilateral relationship."
But according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), none of the prisoners granted freedom, including 10 foreigners, had been sentenced for their political views.
"So far, we have seen no political prisoners on the list. That gives us no hope at all,” Tate Naing, AAPP secretary, told RFA’s Burmese service.
“Most on the list were criminals or former military personnel who were jailed for violations of military conduct.”
But a Home Ministry official, cited by Reuters news agency, said “prisoners of conscience” would be among those set free. No details were given.
Burma has released around 800 political prisoners as part of rapid democratic reforms implemented since President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took power from the former military junta in March last year, but more are believed to remain behind bars.
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.
The AAPP has said that 178 political prisoners remain in Burmese jails, though some estimates put the number at more than 230.
Thursday’s amnesty also drew criticism from former political prisoners who said they were unimpressed by the government’s empty "talk.”
Ne Win, a former jailed dissident who monitored the release outside of Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison, said the government had misled the public with its announcement.
"I was jailed for five years in this prison,” he said.
“The president has said change in Burma would be ‘all inclusive,’ but that is not true because no political prisoners were released [today].”
Htun Kyi, with the Former Political Prisoners' Association in Rangoon, said that “not a single person [released] was charged with a political act.”
“We don't give credit to just talk the talk. We only recognize practical action.”
The prisoner release comes ahead of a visit to Burma by Obama—the first by a sitting U.S. president—on Monday, when he will meet with his counterpart Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Burma will mark the end of Obama’s four-day tour of Southeast Asia, which will also include Thailand and Cambodia. He will attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh from Nov. 18-20.
Rights groups have cautioned that Obama’s visit, and Washington’s easing of sanctions against the once-pariah nation earlier this year, may have come too soon with political prisoners still behind bars and the government unable to quell ethnic violence between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhines in western Rakhine state.
Human Rights Watch claimed that the Rohingya bore the brunt of the violence which has made tens of thousands of them homeless.
“When political prisoners are still in custody and when abuses against ethnic minority Rohingyas are continuing, the president may be sending the wrong message to the Burmese leaders by visiting the country without any assurances that such abuses will end,” said T. Kumar, international advocacy director at Amnesty International.
“In fact, his visit may strengthen Burmese leaders in their resolve to continue abusing human rights,” Kumar said.
Speaking in Washington on Thursday, U.S. national security adviser Tom Donilon said that Obama would press for actions including the unconditional release of political prisoners, as well as other democratic reforms, during his trip to Burma.
"We think this is a moment where the president really can attempt to lock in the progress that's been made and really give a tremendous boost ... to the reform movement and the democratization movement in Burma," Agence France-Presse quoted the White House official as saying.
"It's also important for the government of Burma, frankly, that has taken these steps, to see the president responding positively and reinforcing them.”
Aung San Suu Kyi helped convince the U.S. to begin rolling back sanctions against Burma during her visit to Washington last month as a reward for rapid political and economic changes in the country.
Thein Sein’s government has implemented sweeping reforms since taking power, including allowing Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party to run for parliament, signing cease-fire agreements with ethnic rebels, and lifting media censorship.
Burma released more than 80 political detainees among more than 500 prisoners in September 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 this year and in May 2011.
But 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 Joshua Lipes.