Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi said Thursday that releasing political prisoners and detained students is an urgent priority for the new government in her first statement since her appointment to the new cabinet role that gives her considerable influence over state affairs.
“I am going to try … for the immediate release of political prisoners, political activists and students facing trials related to politics,” she said in a statement posted on the Facebook page of the office of President Htin Kyaw, but did not give any indication of a release date. The President’s Office issued the announcement after the government’s first cabinet meeting.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s plan lays out the laws under which the prisoners could be released, the Associated Press reported.
“We have known that new government has been trying for the release of student activists and political prisoners since state power was transferred to it,” said Ko Jimmy, one of the leaders of the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students group and a former political prisoner.
“We also understand of the difficulties of doing it, especially since Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi has released the statement soon after she became the state counselor,” he said.
About 100 political prisoners are in jail in Myanmar, and more than 400 activists face trials on political charges, according to the country’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. They include students charged with participating in protests last year against educational policy changes by the previous government.
Amnesty for Thingyan
Protesters in the commercial capital Yangon on Thursday demanded that the new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party grant amnesty to political prisoners and jailed farmers and students before the Thingyan New Year festival, which begins on April 11, Eleven Myanmar media group reported.
Authorities detained six activists who led the rally for violating Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which forbids demonstrations without an official permit, Eleven Myanmar said.
Dissidents and student protestors were routinely imprisoned by the former military junta that ruled the country for a half-century, prompting international criticism from rights groups.
The quasi-civilian government under former president Thein Sein, which held power from 2011 to last week when the NLD took over the administration, freed thousands of prisoners, but ordered the jailing of farmers and students involved in protests over land grabs and controversial state education reforms.
Dozens of students and their supporters remain behind bars in Tharrawaddy prison, Bago region, charged with various offenses for participating in a protest last March against education reforms in the central Myanmar town of Letpadan.
The demonstration had turned violent with beatings by police and resulted in the arrests of nearly 130 students and their supporters.
About 30 others are currently standing trial and face sentences of up to nine and a half years on various charges.
Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest, and several current lawmakers from the NLD, which she chairs, have served time behind bars.
Though she cannot become president because of a constitutional provision barring anyone with foreign-born relatives from holding the nation’s top office, Aung San Suu Kyi has vowed to rule Myanmar from a position above the president.
Foreign minister role
Aung San Suu Kyi is also minister of foreign affairs and the President’s Office under the current administration of her long-time aide and proxy President Htin Kyaw.
In her role as foreign minister, Aung San Suu Kyi met with her counterparts from China, Italy and Canada earlier this week.
Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion on Thursday offered to help with efforts to end ongoing civil wars between armed ethnic groups and the Myanmar military in the country’s northern, northeastern and western regions, the Associated Press reported.
The rebel groups are seeking autonomy under a federal union and control of natural resources in their respective states.
Aung San Suu Kyi has made lasting peace and reconciliation one of the new government’s goals.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.