The Myanmar government’s release of up to 200 political prisoners last week has prompted both praise and caution from rights groups and the international community, as State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi works to have others freed or politically motivated charges against them dropped as soon as possible.
The Myanmar News Agency on Monday said 161 political prisoners of conscience, including political activists and students facing trials for their involvement in a protest against the National Education Law, were released from prisons across the country on Friday.
A report by Agence France-Presse, however, put the number at about 200, citing an unnamed senior police officer as the source.
Rights groups and the international community have welcomed the move but point out that scores of activists still face trial or remain in jails, many of whom were arrested under the former military junta that ruled the country for a half-century or the quasi-civilian government that was in power until late last month.
“The new NLD-led government’s release of large numbers of political prisoners has been welcomed in Burma and around the world, but there are hundreds more still in prison or facing charges,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“The NLD has correctly made releasing political prisoners a priority and should now follow through to ensure that all remaining activists are freed and that charges dropped against hundreds of others,” he said in a statement issued Monday.
Only a first step
On Friday, a court dropped charges against and freed 69 students who had been jailed for more than a year while awaiting trial for participating in a March 2015 protest against national education policy in the central Myanmar town of Letpadan in Bago region's Tharrawaddy district.
Courts in other parts of the country also released more than 100 other activists the same day, including 88 Generation Peace and Open Society members Mei Mei and Nilar Thein, and land rights activists Su Su Nway and Naw Ohn La, HRW said.
The European Union also lauded the freeing of student protesters, calling the move a signal that the new government is committed to upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms.
“We look forward to the release of all remaining political prisoners and their full rehabilitation,” the EU said in a news release.
London-based Amnesty International said the prisoner release was only a first step, and that the NLD must also reform the country’s legal framework, which has long been used to silence dissent.
“Of course, a prisoner release is only a first step – the NLD must also reform the country’s repressive legal framework, which has for too long been used to clamp down on dissent,” said Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher for London-based Amnesty International, in a statement on Friday.
“As long as these laws remain on the books, human rights defenders and activists will remain at risk of being jailed simply for expressing their opinions. Thankfully, the NLD has acknowledged the need to repeal and amend repressive laws, and we are looking forward to seeing the government following up on this.”
The country’s independent Myanmar National Human Rights Commission welcomed the news that Aung San Suu Kyi’s pledge to have political prisoners and activists released and said it will do its best to help the government’s human rights promotion and protection activities, according to a report in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar.
Last week, the government’s newly formed Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission, led by former army general and house speaker Shwe Mann, proposed the amendment or repeal of 142 laws used to prosecute political activists, HRW said.
“The NLD-led government should also use its absolute majorities in both houses of parliament to repeal or amend the many rights-abusing laws that have been used to prosecute dissidents and others during a half-century of mostly military rule,” HRW said.
The prisoner releases came just before the start of Myanmar’s New Year holiday on Monday, a period when the president has traditionally granted pardons to detainees.
In a second statement on Friday, Aung San Suu Kyi said that more political prisoners would be released some time following the holiday after their cases had been scrutinized.
Before the recent round of releases, Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners put the number of political prisoners in jail at 100, and the number of activists and students facing trials on political charges at 400.