News / Asia

Burma Releases Political Prisoners

Burmese political prisoners who were released from Insein prison walk away from the facility, May 17, 2013 in Rangoon.
Burmese political prisoners who were released from Insein prison walk away from the facility, May 17, 2013 in Rangoon.
VOA News
Burma has freed at least 21 political prisoners in the country's latest amnesty that comes just days before President Thein Sein makes a landmark visit to the United States.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma told VOA about the prisoner release, which was confirmed by government officials later Friday.

"We are confirming that 23 prisoners were released, but [we have] not received the complete information yet. Around 21 were political prisoners," Aung Myo Thein, the chief of the AAPP's Bangkok office, told reporters. He said details are still emerging about who exactly was freed.

A reporter for VOA's Burmese Service witnessed the release of 10 political prisoners from the notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon. The exact number of those released remains unclear.

On Monday, President Thein Sein will become the first Burmese head-of-state to visit the U.S. in nearly 47 years. The visit comes after President Barack Obama in November became the first-ever sitting U.S. president to the visit Burma.

Washington has been re-engaging the government in Burma, which is emerging from nearly five decades of harsh military rule. The policy has upset some rights groups who say despite the changes, the country still has glaring human rights flaws.

Opposition activists cautiously welcomed the latest prisoner release. But some question the timing and sincerity of such amnesties, which for the past year often have coincided with important diplomatic events.

Soe Aung, an exiled Burmese activist living in Thailand, said it appears to be part of a "charm offensive" meant to gain more concessions from the White House.

"Why is the [prisoner] release happening now? Why is it coinciding with President Thein Sein's visit?" Soe Aung asked. "Because they want the United States to remove the remaining sanctions [against Burma] once and for all. And they are using this as their PR stunt."

Soe Aung said the U.S. and other governments that have been relaxing sanctions against Burma are "overly optimistic" about the country's progress.

Since a nominally civilian government took power in 2011, Burma has undergone major changes, including the prisoner releases, a relaxation of media restrictions and other economic reforms. In response, the U.S. government has expanded its engagement with the military-dominated government, in the hopes that it will encourage more reforms.

The latest example came this week, when the White House broke with nearly 25 years of U.S. diplomatic protocol in referring to the country as Myanmar, rather than Burma, as it is officially referred to in Washington.

A U.S. national security official said the reference, which was made in a White House statement announcing the visit of Thein Sein, was a "diplomatic courtesy," but denied it represents a change in U.S. policy.

President Obama also surprised many when he referred to the country as Myanmar during his November trip to the country.

Burmese activist Soe Aung said many with the opposition take issue with such references.

"Without the changes we would like to see, especially the legislative and institutional changes, the governments in the U.S. and the EU should not be rewarding the government with even small diplomatic awards, such as changing or calling the name from Burma to Myanmar, which is opposite the wishes of the people, especially in the democratic movement, both inside and outside Burma," the activist said.

Burma is the name preferred by democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her democracy movement. Since 1989, the military authorities in Burma have promoted the name "Myanmar" as the conventional name for their state.

Earlier this year, the Burmese government said it was offended that the U.S. still calls the country Burma, and requested that Washington change the policy in response to its recent reforms.

But many question whether that should happen, saying the U.S. should be hesitant to be delivering too many diplomatic courtesies to a government that, despite recent amnesties, is still thought to be holding around 200 prisoners of conscience behind bars.

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