Dozens of political prisoners freed in Myanmar

Several dozen political prisoners have been freed in Myanmar, opposition groups said Tuesday, deepening a reform drive as democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi starts her first US trip in two decades.
The amnesty came as Nobel laureate Suu Kyi entered the second day of a keenly anticipated US tour which will coincide with a separate visit next week to New York by President Thein Sein.
Analysts said the amnesty, freeing a total of 514 inmates, was carefully timed ahead of Thein Sein’s trip to the US — which links the further rollback of sanctions to the release of dissidents jailed under the authoritarian former junta.
“We have confirmation that 87 political prisoners have been released,” Nine Nine, of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy told AFP.
The figure was confirmed by Ant Bwe Kyaw, a leader of the 88 Generation student movement that was brutally suppressed by the junta.
“Although many political prisoners were among those released… we cannot accept the government releasing political prisoners step by step,” he said, demanding their immediate freedom.
Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which collates information on imprisoned dissidents in Myanmar, put the figure at 88, counting two dozen monks among those released.
Myanmar has already granted amnesty to hundreds of political prisoners as part of reforms responsible for a dramatic thaw in relations between the West and the long-isolated nation formerly called Burma.
State television Monday said the pardons were geared at bolstering the “stability of the state and eternal peace, by respecting humanitarian grounds… and also to have friendship and goodwill in relations with neighbouring countries”.
A prisons department official in the capital Naypyidaw told AFP that a total of 514 detainees had been freed, the majority of them foreigners from China, India, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh.
Thailand’s foreign ministry said 83 of its nationals who were arrested in July after illegally crossing into Myanmar were among them.
Rights groups welcomed the amnesty but said steps towards greater democracy are undercut by the ongoing detention of dissidents.
The move was timed so Thein Sein “will have good news to deliver” to the US, according to Phil Robertson deputy director for Human Rights Watch Asia.
“Leaving one to wonder how many more foreign trips the president will have to take before all the remaining political prisoners are released.”
Estimates of the exact number of political detainees still locked up vary but opposition groups have said around 300 activists languished in jails around the country until this week.
The discrepancy over numbers is in part because of a failure to differentiate between criminals and political prisoners, according to Aung Naing Oo, of the Vahu Development Institute, with some ethnic rebels and activists jailed over crimes such as bomb plots.
“It is just a matter of time before they release most of the prisoners if they are found not to be connected with criminal issues,” he said.
Calling Tuesday’s amnesty a “tactical move” before Thein Sein’s visit to New York, where he will attend a UN general assembly, he said the timing of the move had nothing to do with Suu Kyi’s current sojourn.
Myanmar was for decades ruled by an iron-fisted junta, but a reformist government under ex-general President Thein Sein has ushered in sweeping changes, including welcoming Suu Kyi’s party back into mainstream politics.
Suu Kyi used her long-awaited acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway in June to call for the release of political prisoners, warning of the risk that “the unknown ones will be forgotten”.

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