Myanmar Frees Dozens of Political Prisoners

Myanmar freed 41 political prisoners on Wednesday as President Thein Sein’s reformist government strives to meet its goal of releasing all prisoners of conscience by the end of the year.

The release, announced by the director of the president's office Zaw Htay on his Facebook page, came as the country hosted the Southeast Asian Games for the first time in more than four decades.

Zaw Htay said that the 41 prisoners, released from 12 jails across the country, were among names submitted by the official Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee.

He said three detained child soldiers were also released Wednesday. He did not provide details such as why they were held or whether they had worked for government troops or the militaries of armed ethnic groups.

The government recently moved to stop the use of child soldiers within its own ranks.

Ye Aung, a member of the Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the majority of the political prisoners released had been sentenced on charges related to a peaceful assembly law which carries a maximum of one year in jail for protesting without official permission.

“These 41 people released today were from our list,” he said, adding that 11 of the prisoners had been freed from Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison, 10 from Tha Hton Prison in Mon state, and two from Pathein Prison in Irrawaddy division.

The remaining prisoners were from Myitkyina prison in Kachin state; Hpa-an prison in Karen state; Pegu, Okkan, Tharyarwady and Taungoo prisons in Pegu division; Taunggyi prison in Shan state; Mandalay prison; and Buthitaung prison in Arakan state, he said.

According to a list compiled by the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), known as the AAPP (B), an additional 41 political prisoners remain jailed in Myanmar, while more than 200 people are facing political charges that could lead to jail time.

More than 1,000 political prisoners have been released under Thein Sein’s government, which took over the country in 2011 after five decades of military misrule.

The president has vowed to free all remaining political prisoners by the end of 2013, in part to address concerns by the U.S. and other western nations about his commitment to reform.

Thein Nyunt, a parliamentarian and member of the Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee, told RFA he would have preferred that all remaining political prisoners had been freed Wednesday.

“It would have been better if every political prisoner was released today. We have to work on providing freedom to the remaining political prisoners,” he said.

“I hope more political prisoners will be released soon as President Thein Sein promised to release all of them by [the end of] December … We can say that 2013 is ending full of political meaning.”

SEA Games

Myanmar is currently hosting the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, which run from Dec. 1-22, to show off the country’s rapid transition from a pariah military dictatorship to a reform-minded democracy that has rejoined the international stage.

Taik Naing, secretary of the AAPP, said the release had been carefully timed to coordinate with the tournament.

“We discussed the release of these people during these days,” he said, adding that the amnesty was “in recognition of the SEA Games.”

But he said that the release was only in part a show for the international audience.

“Even if there were no SEA Games, some political prisoners would have to be released as we are working for the freedom of all of them by the end of December,” Taik Naing said.

“More political prisoners will be released in the very near future.”

Di Nyein Linn, a leading member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) who was among those released Wednesday, said it is not enough to free political prisoners without examining the laws under which they were incarcerated.

“We still have inappropriate laws in the country, such as [the article under which they were sentenced]. The authorities use this article however they want to,” he said.

“It is obvious that there are some people who are above the law in our country. We have to do something to achieve real rule of law in our country.”

Di Nyein Lin was jailed last week for leading a protest in the commercial capital, Yangon, against the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in the north of the country.

Reported by Khin Pyay Sone and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.