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Myanmar frees rebels as peace talks begin

Amnesty prior to ceasefire talks and Brunei summit

John Zaw, Mandalay
Myanmar

October 8, 2013

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Myanmar’s president today pardoned 56 political prisoners in a move considered to be linked to looming peace talks with ethnic armies, although critics say many still remain behind bars.

The majority of those released from prisons across the country are members of Shan and Kachin rebel groups who were charged under the Unlawful Association Act. The government is beginning another round of talks with the Kachin Independence Army on Tuesday in an effort to negotiate a ceasefire after two years of conflict.

President Thein Sein has vowed that no political prisoners will remain incarcerated beyond the turn of the year, but the pledge has drawn skepticism.

“We welcome the release of more political prisoners but doubt the president’s pledge of zero political prisoners in Myanmar, as new arrests are happening and some political prisoners are charged with criminal charges but they are not acknowledged by the government as political prisoners,” said Thet Oo from the Former Political Prisoners Association in Yangon.

Around 130 political prisoners remain behind bars in Myanmar, he added.

Yaung Yo Chun, 70, was among those released today from Mawlamyine prison in southern Myanmar. He was accused of playing a role in a bombing in 2003 and was sentenced to 30 years in jail.

“I thank the president for his release but I’m sorry for my fellow six political prisoners who are yet to be released,” he told ucanews.com. “And I feel that my verdict was unfair as I was jailed with a lengthy sentence despite not committing a crime.”

Thein Sein ordered the release on Tuesday, just ahead of a forum in Brunei to be attended by leaders from across Southeast Asia and the Pacific where Myanmar is also expected to face questions about ongoing anti-Muslim violence in the country.

The prisoner release follows a pattern of amnesties prior to high profile international summits. Rights groups claim political prisoners are being treated as bargaining chips by the government, which has released hundreds of prisoners since Thein Sein came to power in March 2011.

In February the government appointed a 16-member committee to review all cases of individuals classified by the opposition and advocacy groups as political prisoners.

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