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July 03, 2012

Burma Frees 20 Political Prisoners in General Amnesty

by Michael Lipin, William Gallo

Burma has freed more than 20 political prisoners as part of a general amnesty the government says is aimed at promoting national reconciliation.

Burmese rights activists said the dissidents were among a group of 46 prisoners granted amnesties by President Thein Sein on Tuesday. State media said the government freed an additional 34 foreign prisoners and deported them.

One prominent Burmese dissident included in Tuesday's release is Than Zaw, a former youth member of the opposition National League for Democracy who had been in prison since 1989. Authorities also freed former student protester Koe Aye Aung, who was arrested in 1998 and sentenced to 59 years in jail for distributing pamphlets and participating in a pro-democracy uprising.

Burma has released hundreds of political prisoners since last year, when a civilian government with close ties to the military came to power, ending decades of harsh military rule.

The Burmese government said it agreed to the latest amnesty "with a view to ensuring the stability of the state and making eternal peace and national reconciliation."

A Kayen rebel who was among those freed told VOA that his group helped to achieve his release.

"I think this is because of the pressure from the political organizations and mainly due to the demands by the armed groups," said Hikun Kawriyo.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said Tuesday her National League for Democracy party believes at least 330 political prisoners remain in detention. Speaking at a news conference in Rangoon, she called on the government to release all of them.

Some rights groups say the number of remaining prisoners of conscience in Burma is much higher. Khin Ohmar, the coordinator of Burma Partnership, told VOA she is worried that many less-prominent activists may be forgotten.

"Those more than 400 political prisoners still behind bars, because they are not prominent, that's why they need more attention from the international community, including the United States and the rest of the world and international governments," said Ohmar. "They must all work together and keep calling on this regime and pressuring them to release these remaining political prisoners without further delay, unconditionally."

Many Western governments have begun relaxing sanctions against Burma in response to its political and economic reforms. But, they continue to demand the unconditional release of all remaining dissidents in return for establishing full ties with the once-isolated nation.

The Burmese government has said it is considering amnesties for more prisoners but wants to make sure that those guilty of violent crimes are not released.

In addition to freeing political prisoners, Burma's government also has relaxed media censorship, sought cease-fires with armed rebel groups, and permitted the once-imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi to successfully run for parliament.