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Burma Frees 115 Political Prisoners - 2002-11-21


The Burmese government is freeing 115 political prisoners in what it calls the largest single release since reconciliation talks with pro-democracy leaders began two years ago. The development follows a visit by the U.N. special envoy to Burma last week.

The Burmese military government announced the prisoner release Thursday in a statement issued in Rangoon.

Spokesman Colonel Hla Min says in the statement that steady progress in national reconciliation allows the government to continue to release more individuals who, "will cause no harm to the community and do not threaten the stability and unity of the nation."

Wednesday, the government praised the latest visit of U.N. special envoy, Razali Ismail, the Malaysian diplomat who for two years has been mediating talks between the military authorities and the suppressed democratic opposition. The government said the visit, which included a meeting with the top three leaders of the junta, clarified issues and expanded confidence, but it urged patience from international community.

Mr. Razali has indicated disappointment that the talks have yet to go beyond confidence building measures. Western governments are urging the government to accelerate the talks and move to more substantive issues.

The Burmese government has released hundreds of political prisoners since Mr. Razali began his mediation efforts. But human rights organizations say as many as 1,000 more are still detained.

The editor of the opposition, Irrawaddy newspaper published in Thailand, Aung Zaw, says he is waiting for confirmation that those released are indeed political prisoners and are not mere criminals as has occurred before. "If they are political prisoners, it's going to be welcome news, because the number that they are going to release is quite high compared to the previous numbers," he said.

Aung Zaw says during Mr. Razali's meeting with the generals, the U.N. envoy presented a list of political prisoners and proposed their release. He says if the prisoners released Thursday are among those on the list, Mr. Razali should be pleased.

An expert on Burma at Bangkok's Chulalangkorn University, Chaiyachok Chulasiriwong, says the world community is going to have to be patient in dealing with the Burmese government for a number of reasons. "Number one, because it [the government] has stayed in power for so long, getting off the back of a tiger is very dangerous for them [the military leaders]," he said.

Professor Chaiyachok says the generals could be thinking about the fate of military leaders in other countries in the region who endured arrest and exile after they stepped down.

He says in addition, because of a delicate balance of power among the top leadership, no one leader can be seen as giving in too much to opposition demands. "If one [leader] regularly agreed to what Razali says, or showed weakness, then the other two parties would definitely take it as an advantage for them," said Chaiyachok Chulasiriwong.

As a result, the Thai professor does not foresee any acceleration in the reconciliation talks, despite growing economic hardship in the country due in part to sanctions by foreign governments seeking more rapid political reform.

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