New Political Prisoner Release ‘Likely’

Burmese officials could release hundreds of jailed dissidents next week.

Family members of prisoners wait for their release outside the Insein central prison in Rangoon, Oct. 12, 2011.

Burma is expected to release at least 600 political prisoners in the coming days, government and opposition sources said, less than a month after freeing several hundred as part of an amnesty program by President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government.

A top government official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the planned release, told RFA in an interview Thursday that the release would likely come next week.

“I expect the release date will be Nov. 10, which is the important Buddhist Full Moon holiday,” he said.

“[Democracy movement] student leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, and Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) leader Kun Htun Oo are on the list. The list of those to be released has been submitted to the National Defense and Security Council by the president,” the source said.

Another official, also speaking anonymously, said he believed the release would “benefit national reconciliation.”

Thein Sein’s government, which took power in March after winning historic national elections in November last year, says that only 600 political prisoners remain in jail after he granted amnesty to several hundred in early October.

The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by 66-year-old Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, claims that 700 political prisoners are yet to be freed. Suu Kyi and Burmese Labor Minister Aung Kyi have met several times to discuss the political prisoner situation.

Tin Oo, vice chairman of the NLD, told RFA that the two sides had been making significant progress in resolving their differences, indicating that releases were expected the coming week.

"The path towards discussion and resolution is opening. It is also due to involvement by the international community, especially the U.S., that we are working together to end the isolation of military," Tin Oo said Thursday.

Sanctions loom

While the Burma’s new reform-minded government and the country’s most prominent opposition group are working together closer than ever, Naypyidaw and the international community still remain fairly far apart.

Since coming to power, Thein Sein’s government has enacted a series of reforms, including calling for peace with ethnic minority groups and easing media controls.

But some Western countries remain skeptical of the extent of Burma’s reforms. The United States has said it supports Burma’s reforms but wants to see more before considering lifting sanctions on the country.

A second release of political prisoners would go a long way towards getting Washington and Naypyidaw to see eye-to-eye.

But human rights groups—including Amnesty International and Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma)—insist there are still close to 2,000 political prisoners in jail.

U.S. special envoy to Burma Derek Mitchell is visiting the country for the third time since September and told reporters in Rangoon on Friday that Washington has viewed Thein Sein’s reforms favorably.

However, he said, the U.S. believes reforms must include the release of political prisoners and the inclusion of the NLD into the political system.

“We are thinking very actively about how we can support reform by our actions as we see the government taking those concrete steps,” he said.

Mitchell said the Washington “would love to respond in kind” and was in close contact with Naypyidaw.

Obstacles remain

The envoy’s visit comes amidst reports that fifteen political prisoners on a hunger strike in Burma's Insein Prison have been denied drinking water for a week while some have been placed in six meter square "dog cells" as punishment.

The treatment “could result in prison authorities being responsible for the rapid deaths of the hunger strikers due to dehydration," Amnesty International said in a statement issued Friday.

The 15 prisoners started their hunger strike on Oct. 26 to protest the lack of reductions in their sentences, after reductions were granted to common criminals in last month’s amnesty.

On November 1, two of the hunger strikers were reportedly hospitalized.

Meanwhile, President Thein Sein signed a revised law on political parties on Friday in an apparent bid to encourage the NLD to accept the political system and reregister as a party.

If Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD reregisters as a legal party, it could join upcoming but still unscheduled by-elections which would be the first electoral test of its popularity in more than two decades.

Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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