Aung San Suu Kyi was due to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later today
Myanmar released at least 89 political prisoners yesterday evening just hours before opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi started a landmark tour of the US.
Broadcast on state television, yesterday's announcement said President Thein Sein had granted an amnesty to 514 prisoners on “humanitarian” grounds - most of them reportedly foreigners - ahead of a state visit to China starting today.
Thein Sein will follow Suu Kyi to the US later this month where he is due to speak to the UN General Assembly as part of a trip tipped to include further concessions for his reformist government, possibly the easing of a US ban on Myanmar imports.
State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland declined to tell a daily press briefing in Washington DC yesterday whether the US would further ease sanctions on Myanmar in the coming weeks as it waited to confirm who had been released from prisons across the country.
“We will continue to work closely with the Burmese to verify exactly who we’re talking about,” she said.
US sanctions specifically refer to the release of political prisoners as a precondition for their removal.
With the names of those released still being updated today, Bo Bo Oo of the Former Political Prisoners Network said 89 had been counted by early afternoon.
“But we are still expecting the release of more political prisoners today,” he said.
Among the most prominent detainees freed yesterday was Laphai Zaw Sai, a Kachin rebel commando who assassinated the Myanmar Army regional commander in the north of the country in 1985. He had been detained ever since.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma,) based on the Thai-Myanmar border in Mae Sot also named Shwe Htoo, a former teacher who had served more than 14 years of a 42-year sentence on treason charges, among those freed.
“We are happy that my father is now actually released,” said his son, Shwe Thwe. “But we are sorry for those political prisoners who are still in jail.”
Estimates of just how many prisoners of conscience still remain behind bars in Myanmar is unclear, with estimates ranging from as low as about 160 following yesterday’s amnesty up to as many as 600 or more.
The US and other foreign governments have worked behind the scenes with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to push the government to establish a transparent process to identify and release remaining political detainees. Meanwhile, Thein Sein has issued a series of amnesties since taking office in March last year.
“The problem is there is a lack of transparency from the Burma government about who is a political prisoner, where they are, and how many are left,” Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Tun Myint Aung, a member of the 88 Generation Students group which includes a number of previous political detainees, said concerns remained regarding sporadic new arrests in ethnic areas such as Kachin state where fighting has continued despite ceasefires in other areas.
“If the government is willing to build a democratic society, there should be no more ethnic and political conflict,” he said.
Suu Kyi kicks off US tour
Government releases political prisoners