Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday demanded more reforms on the first anniversary of her release from years of house arrest, saying the release of all political prisoners and an end to armed ethnic conflict should be given top priority.
"Looking back at the past year, I think I can say that it has been eventful, energizing, and to a certain extent encouraging," Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters at a rare press conference on Monday which marked the one-year anniversary of her release.
The Nobel laureate pointed to her recent meetings with Burmese President Thein Sein and labor minister Aung Kyi as examples of how the new government, elected in historic polls held November last year, had worked to facilitate political dialogue with opposition groups.
Since taking power from Burma’s former military junta, Thein Sein’s government has enacted a series of reforms, including easing media controls, legalizing labor unions, and suspending a controversial dam project backed by China.
But Aung San Suu Kyi cautioned that more reform was needed, including the release of political prisoners and reconciliation with the country’s armed ethnic minorities, as well as the establishment of an independent judiciary in Burma.
"An issue of great importance to all of us who are working for democracy in Burma is that of political prisoners. Some had been released over the last year, but there are still many who remain in prison," she said.
Burma’s army-backed government delayed an expected release of a second group of political prisoners on Monday after it was thought the authorities would hold an amnesty before President Thein Sein attends a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc later this week on the Indonesian island of Bali.
Officials said the move was put off at short notice on Monday by the high-powered National Defense and Security Council, Agence France-Presse reported.
About a month ago, over 6,300 prisoners, including more than 200 political detainees, were released under a government amnesty program although key dissidents remain locked up, drawing criticism from international observers and opposition parties.
Western nations see a release as critical to the removal of economic sanctions imposed on the Burmese government and Aung San Suu Kyi has asked that the sanctions remain in place until reforms are introduced that directly benefit the country’s citizens.
Aung San Suu Kyi said Monday that she had nothing to report about the expected prisoner release, which some believe will come ahead of an ASEAN summit in Indonesia later this week. Burma hopes to chair the regional body in 2014.
"We do not have any specific information on who has been released if anybody has been released at all," she said.
The state-backed National Human Rights Commission called on Thein Sein Sunday to release the country’s remaining political prisoners or transfer them to jails closer to their families, sparking speculation that another amnesty was likely.
Burma is estimated to hold as many as 2,000 political prisoners, according to international rights groups and nongovernment organizations.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) cited much fewer numbers on Monday, issuing a list which documents 591 political prisoners it says are still in detention—about 200 more than the figure presented by the government.
NLD spokesperson Ohn Kyaing told RFA on Monday that the list had been compiled based on three sources.
"One is political prisoners who have asked for legal help from us, and so we know they are in prison," Ohn Kyaing said.
"Then we have an NLD social support group that helps families of political prisoners negotiate prison visits. And lastly we have determined others through looking into discrepancies with the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) list."
According to the Thailand-based AAPP, 1,668 political prisoners remain in Burma’s prisons. The NLD distributed information on AAPP statistics along with its own list of political prisoners during Aung San Suu Kyi’s press conference on Monday.
“We have asked township NLD organizers to compile lists of political prisoners in their area. In some areas we received complete information, though some lists are still incomplete. Up until Nov. 7, our list includes 591 people in total."
The former junta denied for decades holding any politicians or activists in its jails.
Aung San Suu Kyi also highlighted ongoing concerns over conflicts between the Burmese military and armed ethnic groups seeking independence in the country’s outlying border areas, particularly in Kachin State bordering China.
She said she was willing to play a part in any peace process, having urged Thein Sein and the rebel groups to agree on a ceasefire.
"What everybody is worried about at present is the lack of peace in the country, especially the fighting going on in Kachin State, which is a cause of concern and sorrow for us," she said.
"I am always ready to do my bit to bring about peace in the country."
Aung San Suu Kyi has said that national reconciliation in Burma is impossible as long as fighting continues.
In October, a group of legislators from ASEAN member states requested that any decision to designate Burma as chair of the regional grouping in 2014 be put off until the government makes concrete efforts at reconciliation with the country’s ethnic groups.
Separately on Monday, local sources said at least 10 people were killed and 27 wounded in a bomb blast in Kachin's capital, Myitkyinar, a day earlier.
The Kachin Independent Army (KIA) and the Burmese military ended a 17-year ceasefire arrangement on June 9, with each side accusing the other of instigating the fighting.
The KIA says it will not lay down arms until Burma’s newly elected government agrees to provide the group with full political power and other rights.
Rights groups have accused the Burmese military of carrying out a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in ethnic minority areas involving the rape, torture, and murder of villagers.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.